Fraser Forum

William Watson: Straight talk on job losses in Winnipeg

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Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said something very interesting and unusual this week. Asked to comment on the decision by Great-West Life Assurance Company to fire 13 per cent of its work force, including 450 employees at its headquarters in Winnipeg, Pallister said: “It's not an easy thing to do, in the short term, for anyone to experience job loss. But you have to understand this is a company that has been employing tens of thousands of [Canadians] for a long time.”

What’s interesting and unusual about the statement is that it’s more or less a non-statement. The premier didn’t rip the company for unreasonable firings. He didn’t promise to negotiate with or browbeat the company to get them undone. He didn’t establish a task force to investigate why they took place. He basically said: this kind of thing happens. Companies have to adjust to the market pressures they face. And this is a company that has provided lots of employment in the past—although, he might have added, that’s not its real job. Providing services to its customers is its real job, as it is for all companies.

In his statement about the cuts, Great-West’s CEO argued that better responding to consumers’ changing tastes in how they get served was the reason for the cuts in employment. Consumers are increasingly interested in doing things on screen rather than in person or over the phone and that means insurance and other financial services can be provided with fewer humans involved. It’s part of a trend that, more and more, sees computers displace white-collar workers as well as blue collars.

“In a market economy, stuff happens” was not a response that pleased CBC, however. Their web story on the cuts said: “The loss appears to have caught Winnipeg officials off guard. Mayor Brian Bowman's office declined to comment until the mayor speaks to Great-West. Officials with Economic Development Winnipeg declined requests for comment. Officials with the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce were not immediately available for comment.”

The implication seems to be that private companies should give government officials ample notice when announcing job cuts—even before they tell the people being cut? And government officials should have snappy, reassuring responses ready.

But what would those responses be?

Promising to undo the cuts would be disingenuous. Promising to set up new programs to help those losing their jobs might seem caring and compassionate but very likely would be completely redundant. I’m guessing there already are several programs in Manitoba designed to help displaced workers. No doubt it would sound hollow and callous for a government official to come out and say those who will lose their jobs should come on down to the EI office or the other job-search facilitators that already exist and get the help the government already provides. The government’s communications people—who, if they’re like government communications people everywhere, already have an inordinate influence on policy—doubtless would much prefer dedicated Great-West assistance programs. But it’s hard to see how that would make any sense.

I’ve only been fired once in my life. It wasn’t from my mainline job and didn’t have a big effect on my income. But it was unpleasant nevertheless. Nobody envies the Great-West workers who will lose their jobs. But a society in which firings happen and companies aren’t bound to provide employment for life is going to be much better for both the employees and the rest of us in the long run.

Bravo to Premier Pallister for at least hinting at that truth.


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