Ann Porter: Capitalism and Unemployment: Enduring Contradictions
Fifth Annual Robert S. Kenny Prize Lecture, May, 2005

I want to start by saying how honoured I am to be the recipient of the 2005 Kenny Award.  I am very pleased that my book has made a contribution to left/labour/Marxist studies in Canada.  I was also very pleased to be given a tour of the Kenny collection in the Fisher Rare Books section on Monday.  This is a fabulous collection - with documents, publications and photographs covering left activity over a 60 or 70 year period. We are all very fortunate that Robert Kenny took such meticulous care in collecting these documents and that they are now accessible to us all.  This award also honours the work that he did in that regard, and I would like to acknowledge that and express my appreciation for his enormous contribution and that there is such a rich record of this important part of Canadian history now located here at Robarts.

Unemployment, Marx pointed out, is inherent to capitalism. One of Marx's insights concerning the process of capital accumulation - that is, the process whereby capital expands and grows, is that the process of growth itself generates a "relatively redundant population of labourers".[1]  There is then, growth, expansion, and wealth, on the one hand, and unemployment, poverty and misery on the other. The continual "setting free" of already employed labourers occurs, in part, through the introduction of new machinery or technology. It is, he argued, both a necessary product of accumulation, as well as a necessary "lever of capitalistic accumulation".[2]  As new branches of production form and the market expands, Marx noted, "there must be the possibility of throwing great masses of men suddenly on the decisive points without injury to the scale of production in other spheres . the whole form of the movement of modern industry depends, therefore, upon the constant transformation of a part of the labouring population into unemployed or half-employed hands."[3] In addition to the "setting free" of labourers already employed, additional population, for example, those displaced from rural areas, can be absorbed as wage-workers.[4]

This constant process of setting free, the restless searching out and drawing in of new labouring population, the "violent fluctuations and transitory production of surplus-population",[5] that Marx referred to, is as apparent today as at any time in the past. Looking globally, (at the scale that capital now primarily operates on) the process whereby peasant households are uprooted, new groups of workers drawn on, others displaced, is readily apparent. Regionalized or localized crises throw people out of work and are a primary means by which capitalism creates, as David Harvey puts it, its 'other': that something "outside of itself" that capitalism must perpetually have in order to stabilize itself. [6]

By all reports, the East Asian crisis of 1997-98 was "catastrophic" in terms of "poverty, real wages and employment".[7] In Argentina and Brazil it has been estimated that crises and economic instability have similarly resulted in half of the population living in poverty, while the dismantling of industry and food security has developed into a national crisis.[8] What Harvey refers to as "accumulation by dispossession" is very much on-going. By this he means "accumulation based on predation, fraud and violence"[9] including the displacement of peasant populations, the formation of landless proletariat, the privatization of many formerly common property resources such as water, the "reversion of common property rights including the right to a state pension, to welfare, and to national health care to the private domain", the taking over of family farming by agribusiness and so on- these are all on-going processes within capitalism.


While the "violent fluctuations" in working population and the devastating consequences of economic crises are perhaps most apparent when looking at capitalism on a global scale and at the countries of the global south, both unemployment and the difficulty of ensuring household survival also continue as part of daily life in the advanced capitalist countries.  In the latter set of countries, official unemployment varies considerably, from, for example, a rate of  4% in the US, to 12% in France.[10]   Both the variation in unemployment rates, and the unemployment figures, themselves however, are misleading. The notion of "unemployment" is not as clear as one might think from the seemingly precise figures put out by Statistics Canada every month. Unemployment rates vary significantly depending on definitions used and questions asked. When the measuring of unemployment became an issue in the 1970s, for example, sociologists found that Statistics Canada's monthly Labour Force Survey taken in May 1971 recorded a female unemployment rate of 5.0%. The question asked to household members was "what did you do mostly last week?" and many women who actually did look for work but responded "kept house" were not counted as unemployed.[11] The 1971 Census taken at about the same time, however, and which asked "did you look for work last week?" recorded a female unemployment rate of 9%. Similarly, a 1975 change in the Labour Force Survey question to determine more precisely what efforts were made to find work resulted in a 2% increase in the female unemployment rate and a decrease in the male rate of about 1%.[12]

Beyond the issue of questions asked and definitions used, however, is an ambiguity with the concept itself of unemployment. The term suggests the condition of being without employment; that is, not engaged in wage labour. John Garraty, for example, defines unemployment as the obverse side of wage labour: '[o]nly those who work for wages or a salary, who are at liberty to quit their jobs yet who may also be deprived of them by someone else, can become unemployed.'[13] Yet it seems to me that this is quite a narrow way of viewing what is going on and that it masks as much as it explains.  What constitutes work and what constitutes unemployment has never been quite so clear a dichotomy as this suggests. In Canada, for example, east-coast fishers may not be engaged in wage-labour, yet they most certainly experience unemployment.  As feminists have pointed out, a woman at home looking after children is certainly working, she generally does not receive an income and she is generally also not considered either employed or unemployed. But what happens if she has been laid off from a paid job and there are children at home? Is she then unemployed? Should she be considered "available and looking for work", as required under the terms of the UI Act? What is the nature of her "attachment to the labour force"? As women came onto the labour market in the 1960s and 1970s state officials had to grapple with such questions and indeed, many of the struggles documented in my book involve (implicitly or explicitly) the question of what constitutes work and what constitutes "unemployment" - or at least unemployment legitimate enough to receive state benefits.

The experience of Native Canadians provides another example of how various activities might not fit the wage labour/ unemployment dichotomy. During House of Commons hearings in 1978 an Assistant Deputy Minister from Employment and Immigration Canada noted that status Indians were excluded from the Labour Force Survey.  He stated that Statistics Canada "found that the traditional measures they follow and the traditional questions they ask in the Labour Force Survey produced more or less meaningless results. they finally decided it was pointless to continue along those lines and have dropped them [status Indians on reserves] from the Labour Force Survey". [14]  He did not elaborate on why the results were "meaningless" but one could certainly imagine that a response to the question "what did you do last week?"  that included activities such as hunting,  trapping, or fishing  would not fit well within categories of wage labour narrowly defined. The significance of this was far-reaching as it meant that the registered rate of unemployment for the Northern Prairie provinces was very low - certainly not an accurate reflection of the difficulty of finding work, or the difficulty of finding the means of subsistence in those areas. Since qualifying for UI depended in part on the regional rate of unemployment being high, this made the already difficult task of qualifying for UI benefits all the more arduous. The practice of excluding on-reserve Status Indians has continued to skew unemployment figures, as a report of the Manitoba government indicated when it pointed to the questionable results of a July 2000 Labour Force Survey showing Canada-wide unemployment rates falling steadily and that Manitoba, at 5.1% had the lowest rate of unemployment of any province.[15]

What I am trying to show, then, is that notions of unemployment or "attachment to the labour force" are not simply objective market phenomenon, but are also socially constructed and act to include some and exclude others.  Certainly they have proved ill- suited to capture women's experience, the experience of the many people who supplement their wage-labour through subsistence-type activities, or those who are engaged in activities that may be classified as "self-employment", but which nevertheless, can be quite marginal.  The notion of unemployment does not, then, adequately capture either the difficulty that individuals or households might have in finding the means of survival, or the extent of transformations that are underway.


Coming back to the case of East Asia, Argentina and Brazil, the issue isn't just an increase in unemployment, or the loss of wage-labour, but rather, the collapse of the intricate structures and relations, and the means by which people secure their livelihood and survive. This involves households, the loss of agricultural- based subsistence, increasing work in the informal sector or in the "shadow economy" of prostitution and tourism and outside of government records or regulation.  Others have migrated abroad, seeking employment and creating "household" structures which extend across continents. Closer to home, while official unemployment rates hover around 7% these figures mask profound changes taking place: increasingly households patching together multiple part-time, contingent or "flexible" jobs in order to ensure household income; the removal of any sense of job security; the downloading onto the household of state welfare provisions (for example, in the area of health care); or the very high rates of youth unemployment - currently at about 14%.[16] Wage labour is obviously critical to look at. What I am arguing is that we need to think about how we measure "looking for work", to analyze how wage labour is often combined with other types of activities including both household and informal sector work, and that it is important to examine the overall means of survival or subsistence of both individuals and households and how that is changing. This is critically important to think about, in part, because welfare state programs have been based on a certain notion of wage labour or lack of it.


The enduring contradiction of capitalism then, isn't so much that between capitalism and unemployment (an endemic feature to capitalism) but rather, between capitalism and the ability to meet human or social needs. This contradiction has been pointed to in various ways over the years, from Engels, to Polanyi, to more recent feminist work on the contradictions between production and social reproduction. 

It was a concern with these kinds of considerations that led me to undertake a study on women and unemployment insurance in Canada. My interest in the question really arose in the late 1980s. This was a critical time: the Conservatives were in power, the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement had come into effect, and the Macdonald Royal Commission had released its report calling not only for a 'leap of faith' with respect to free trade, but also for a far-reaching restructuring of social programs.  This was a critical moment when it seemed that there was some possibility of influencing social policy directions, although, as it turned out, the groundwork was being laid for the establishment of a market-based agenda and for what, by the 1990s, was being referred to as a neo-liberal restructuring: that is, the idea that the state needed to reduce expenditures, that it should be less involved in the economy, that we needed to become more internationally competitive, that individuals were largely responsible for their own unemployment, and that welfare state programs needed to be restructured in ways that would break the 'dependencies' that workers might develop on them.

A second major transformation of this period was the continued large-scale entry of women into the labour force, often in the service sector and in new, more contingent work situations.  In 1951 the majority of families (57%) had only one income recipient, but by 1971 this had been reversed, with 65% of families having more than one income recipient.[17]  It was noted at the time that it was the entry of married women into the labour market that effectively prevented an erosion in families' economic position.

It seemed important, then, to look at the relationship between these two trends: at the increasing market-driven restructuring that was taking place, on the one hand, and the enormous changes occurring in the position of women, on the other: their entry into the labour force, the growth of new types of work, often in the service sector, as well as women's political activities in a range of areas. At the time, the political economy literature had only to a limited extent incorporated considerations of gender or changing household structures. Yet, it seemed to me, that the transformations that occurred from the mid-1950s on, as women left the home for the paid labour force, constituted one of the central sources of tension, contradiction and change in the post-war period, profoundly altering the nature of family structures, paid work and political activity. These transformations, it seemed, were not just peripheral but formed a key aspect of the political economy of the second half of the twentieth century, that were linked in fundamental ways to the larger restructuring that was taking place.  In my book, then, there were a number of underlying questions that I wanted to address: why was there a restructuring and why in a neo-liberal direction? How did this fit with the changes that were taking place in the position of women? And how did this fit within the broader context of changing survival strategies at the level of both individuals and households?

The UI program was an important area for investigation, in part because the question of unemployment and responses to it were central to how both Keynesianism and neo-liberalism were defined. Indeed, shifts with respect to UI reflected larger debates about directions in a number of key areas: macro-economic policy, labour market policy and social policy. While the image that one often has of the unemployed is of men in unemployment lines, there were also multiple stories of women having difficulty finding work or an income, and I was concerned that their experience also be made more visible.  I wished to provide a glimpse, even if fragmentary, of how women lived their lives in this period and, in particular, the experiences that women have had with unemployment and with gaining access to UI income security.


For a large part of the study I was immersed in seemingly technical details of benefit rates, the endlessly complex maze of shifting qualifying requirements involving at one point a 5- phase benefit structure, with (for at least the last 20 years) a complex combination of varying regional unemployment rates and length of time in labour force (measured in different ways) needed in order to gain access to benefits - as any of you who have had experience with the UI program will know. In addition to the UI Act and regulations are the interpretations given by UI insurance officers as they make decisions in the often grey areas and exercise considerable power over people's lives and over whether or not they have access to benefits.  All this was important to study  - through archival material, decisions made by the UI administrative tribunals (the Umpire), through government documents - because how class and gender relations are formed at a particular moment and through particular time periods, how a gender order is constructed, occurs often in concrete ways not only through prevailing attitudes, or through workplace or household structures, but also through the regulations, interpretations and what often appear simply as technical provisions of a piece of legislation. Not only did state programs such as unemployment insurance reflect prevailing views, then, it further helped reinforce and create the complexly interlocking structures and relations of class, gender and race. At the same time, study at this level could also reveal that sometimes unexpected spaces could open up and present the possibility for contestation and change.

A major underlying concern in writing the book, then, was with the question of the conditions under which change or transformation comes about. We are presented in the literature - at least the political science literature - with a rather abrupt shift from a Keynesian welfare state to a neo-liberal one. I was interested, however, in understanding more of the process through which this shift occurred. At one level, then, I wanted to identify some of the structural tensions and contradictions that meant that change in some form had to come about. The Marxist notion of contradiction is key here.  In the post-war period one can identify a series of contradictions. For example, a key contradiction was between, on the one hand, an economy and an economic approach in 1945 which depended on women leaving the labour force in order to obtain stability and high levels of employment; and, on the other hand, the fact that most families were not able to survive with this arrangement - that is, with one male breadwinner income - and that women's paid work was necessary both to maintain family income and, indeed, to buy the consumer goods that were central to economic growth in the post-war period. This contradiction, acting with other forces, contributed to the generation of a series of changes in other areas: in terms of ideology, juridical norms, households and so on.

Secondly, at another level, I wanted to emphasize transformations at the level of the everyday.  This included contestations that occurred, for example, as individual women and men, assisted often by labour unions, brought challenges to the UI program, asserted their right to receive benefits, questioned the terms under which benefit entitlement was determined, and worked out their own strategies for survival. What I wanted to show, then, was a more complex layering of changes and how various forces and factors can interact over a fairly long historical period to result in cumulative patterns of development and change.

The period that I looked at in the book (1945-1997) represented a relatively brief period in the history of capitalism. For a brief few decades at the beginning of the second half of the 20th century Keynesian economics seemed to hold out the promise of economic stability, and that welfare states could both stimulate the economy and address the social and economic problems faced by individuals and families. The theorists of the post-World War II welfare state were optimistic about the possibility of taming capitalism and attenuating its economic inequalities, and national policy frameworks oriented to the domestic economy appeared to permit a certain congruence between capitalist accumulation processes and a redistributive social policy.[18]  Of course, politicians in Canada were also quite explicit that Keynesianism in general and the UI plan in particular were also about defusing labour unrest, stabilizing capitalism and "prevent[ing] the power of Government passing to those who would go much farther" as Mackenzie King put it.[19]

The 1940 UI Act introduced, for the first time, an income security program for the unemployed where benefits were a right not a means-based charity. This was an important gain that provided a degree of stability to working class households. While initially only some 42% of workers were covered[20], by the time the 1971 Act was brought in, coverage was extended to some 96% of the labour force[21], thus coming closer to some form of universal protection in the event of unemployment.  At the same time, however, the program was clearly limited - by being an insurance-based plan where actuarial concerns (that is - a concern that the plan not become a drain on the state coffers) were paramount. The plan reflected and reinforced, rather than attenuated labour market inequalities, so that those with less job security and lower pay would also receive less in state benefits ( and in that sense there was a "pooling of risk" but only limited social solidarity).

While the UI program was certainly about class issues, what I want to emphasize here is how class and gender became deeply intertwined as the post-war era progressed.  In addition, I want to highlight how contentious, throughout the post-war period, the notion of unemployment was. Unemployment was contentious not only with respect to what constituted an acceptable level, but also in terms of what counted as unemployment. In this respect, the whole question of women's entry into the labour market, how to deal with female unemployment, and how to deal with household maintenance and survival if women were out working, was key.  These questions were a key source of disturbance throughout the Keynesian period, formed an important aspect of the crisis of the 1970s, as well as of the subsequent neo-liberal response.

In the post-war period, while the government made a commitment to full employment (or at least "high and stable" levels of employment), in the context of a concern about returning soldiers and a fear of a renewal of the high unemployment of the depression years, what was intended was to ensure full employment for men; it was assumed that women would return to the home to take up domestic duties.  Unemployment and programs designed to deal with unemployment were therefore conceived of primarily in terms of a male breadwinner.  With respect to the UI program only a certain, limited number of occupations were considered appropriate for women, women had difficulty proving their "availability for work" and in the 1950-57 period an explicitly discriminatory "married women's regulation" was in place, requiring women to work an additional period of time (an additional 90 days) to prove their attachment to the labour force.  


What is striking, however, and what I want to emphasize today, is how, as women's labour force participation began to increase in the mid-1950s and through the 1960s, state officials had to grapple with the question of what constituted unemployment and in particular, to try to get a better understanding of the nature of women's unemployment.  In this period and through a good part of the 1970s, the prevailing view was that women could "choose" whether or not to work and therefore that their unemployment was of lesser significance. Sylvia Ostry, one of the foremost experts on the Canadian labour market in the 1960s, argued that while the working life of most men is characterized by continuity, in contrast:

The working life of most women is characterized by discontinuity. most women, unlike most men, are free to choose among many different types of activity: paid employment, leisure, volunteer work, work in the home . the element of choice in the labour market behaviour of women in our culture is significant and it is this element which accounts for the characteristic variability - over time and space - of female labour force activity.[22]

The Gill Committee, established by the federal government to examine unemployment insurance in the 1960s, similarly argued that married women "have a unique ability to move into and out of the labour force at will."[23]

This view of unemployment, however, was startlingly out of sync with the testimony coming before the UI adjudicators, as well as the data from the National Employment Service (the section of the UI Commission that referred people to jobs). These latter sources revealed that women had much difficulty finding employment and that the notion of "choice" for women in this period was in fact very constrained. In the early 1950s, for example, the National Employment Service reported a steadily increasing difficulty in placing female applicants looking for work. The service noted that while there was a demand for women in some areas (secretaries, stenographers and typists):

it was generally the experience of placement officers that most of [the] applicants were married or in the older age brackets, and thus could not meet requirements of employers' orders . Despite efforts of employment officers to persuade employers to consider such applicants, the general trend was for single women well under thirty years of age.[24]

Similarly, through the 1960s, while overall there was economic growth and expansion, the labour market for women was quite uneven and unstable. Much of the work was part-time, and for many women, finding work at all was difficult. Through the first half of the 1960s, the National Employment Service continued to report a demand for women workers in a selected number of occupations requiring specific training and experience (for example, nurses, librarians, and medical technicians) but overall, a "surplus" of women looking for work in manufacturing and in less skilled occupations.[25] In other words, women who did not have specific skills had a good deal of difficulty finding work.

Testimony from the 1950s and 1960s, found in UI administrative tribunal decisions as well as in archival sources, further speaks to the difficulty that women had in finding work, but also how critical finding work was for them, given the rising cost of living and the need to augment family income. In 1951, for example, a woman writing to Stanley Knowles explained that she lost her job at the T. Eaton Co when she married, because the department she was working in had a policy of letting go of married women. Because the married women's regulation was in place, she was disqualified from receiving UI for two years from the date of her marriage, unless she could "prove" her attachment to the labour force by working for the additional 90 days. She wrote to Stanley Knowles stating that:

The cost of living is so high that my husband and I find it very difficult to get along with only one of us working. For the past three months I have tried to get a job but have been unable to do so. An Insurance Officer told me . that it was almost impossible to place me now that I was married and this same person also told me that I would have to work 90 days before I could claim benefits. When I appealed my case I asked the court how they expected me to work for 90 days if I was unable to find a job and they said "That is the $64.00 question. We can't answer that." [26]

The many cases documented in the files of the UI Umpire of women who were pregnant and had been laid off or lost their job (many in fact forced to resign), gave a particularly stark view of the difficult conditions that many women were working under, how constrained many of their choices were, and again, how ambiguous the concept of unemployment was when it came to anything to do with childbirth, child-rearing, or attempts in that sense to combine wage labour with household survival. These cases included laundresses and laundy checkers who found it too difficult to stand all day[27], a cowl assembler, whose job involved "heavy work . where intense heat and strong odours of  rubber prevailed",[28] an assembler welder, a punch press operator, and a waitress all wishing to find lighter work.[29] A 1963 case involved a woman who left her work as an "egg candler" at Loblaws when 22 weeks pregnant and who was looking for lighter work. The UI Board of Referees upheld the insurance officer's disqualification stating that "we cannot conceive of lighter work for her". It then became clear that the work involved standing in a cold room (63-64 degrees) for eight and a half hours a day inspecting and culling eggs, and at times lifting crates weighing 20-30 pounds.[30]

These examples not only call into question the middle class image presented by Ostry and others of women "choosing" between work and leisure, but also the whole notion of what constituted legitimate work or unemployment for the purposes of state-based income security. This became all the more so as, through the 1960s, the number of women in the service sector and in temporary or part-time positions increased. Again, it became quite difficult for state officials to decide where these workers fit within the UI program. The 1960s was a period of welfare state expansion, when there were extensive discussions about "manpower" planning and how to reform the UI program. Little attention was actually paid to the new women workers in discussions of training programs or labour market planning, but there was a concern about what their increased participation might mean for demands on the UI program. State officials still viewed women's primary commitment as being to the home and the notion that women could "choose" whether or not to be in the labour force was still widespread. And it was beginning in the 1960s, in response to these concerns, that distinctions began to be made between those with a "major" and those with a "minor" attachment to the labour force, a notion more clearly enunciated and entrenched with the neo-liberal EI reforms of the 1990s. The suggestion was made that more generous benefits be made available to those with more stable and long term work patterns, or, as they phrased it at the time, who were  "bona fide members of the labour force" with reduced benefits for relatively new entrants to the labour force, or with intermittent work - categories which were more typical of the growing female labour force.[31]

The 1971 UI Act that resulted from these discussions provided for what, in relative terms, were very significantly more generous benefits. Coverage was extended to include hospitals, government employees and teachers (it was thought that these groups would never actually need to use the plan and that it would be an additional source of revenue) and eligibility requirements were lowered to as little as eight weeks worked in the previous year. Both these measures, in the end, made the plan more accessible to women, although, in fact, this was probably more a side-effect of the general expansion of the time, rather than a concern specifically with women workers.

In the early 1970s, however, the costs of the UI program started to rise, both as unemployment crept upwards and as a result of the increased benefit level and expanded coverage. Concerns about fiscal pressures on the state began to surface more strongly at this time. The first effort to control costs - in the early 1970s - involved much intensified measures to investigate and monitor claimants - so that the 1971 UI Act, on the one hand, appeared more generous and liberal, but on the other hand, involved increased monitoring and surveillance. This included, in 1972 and 1973, the hiring of special benefit control officers, many of them, it was reported, ex-policemen.[32] In some areas control efforts involved conducting home interviews and "blitzes" with teams of benefit control officers moving in for short periods to interview about six claimants a day (this was in smaller towns) and to investigate whether claimants were "actively seeking work".[33] It also involved attempts to identify claimants whose occupational skills were in demand. (They ran a computer program to find this out). Here again, there was a particular focus on occupations drawing on a female labour force. The underlying view continued to be not only that women were in a position to "choose" unemployment, but that care should be taken as they were particularly likely to abuse the UI plan by entering the labour force simply for the time needed in order to collect benefits. At the same time however, there was some recognition that something was clearly happening in terms of the labour force itself - seen, for example, with the increase in work in the new service occupations.  There was some attempt, then, (although considerable difficulty), to grasp what was actually going on. When asked about this in the House of Commons, Robert Andras, the Minister of Manpower and Immigration acknowledged that women were receiving particular attention when it came to controlling abuse, but denied that this was in any way deliberate:

[he stated] matching jobs to people who were unemployed ertain occupations showed up. secretarial jobs, waitress jobs, things like that . we did not start out with the presumption that women were going to be the guilty ones. It was done by a classification of occupations. It was not a witch hunt against women.[34]


To give some examples of what was going on: in 1973 the Ottawa Citizen reported that "a special UIC investigation of stenographers, typists and waitresses drawing benefits in the Ottawa-Hull region has resulted in disqualification of as many as 85% of them".[35] A similar investigation in Kingston resulted in the disqualification of more than 70% of about 200 secretaries, clerks and general office workers who were receiving benefits.[36] An investigation of 28,000 UI recipients in the Toronto-Hamilton area resulted in a disqualification rate of 65% to 70% (these were not just women).[37]  When a local UIC officer in the Toronto-Hamilton region was questioned about the special investigation in their area, he stated that they did not have jobs for the 28,000 UI recipients being investigated: "at any given point in time we're running roughly 2,500 jobs and we average 20,000 people looking for employment," he stated.[38] Similarly, in the House of Commons the Moncton area MP, Mr. Thomas, questioned what the government was doing:

The people who have been investigated certainly could not be identified by job classification because in most cases there were no jobs available at all, whether they were waitresses or sales clerks or whatever. The thing that always mystified me was that in a small town . one would be investigated and would be disqualified and the other five were overlooked. I am trying to get at the picture of how your investigators went out. How did they pick the houses? Was it just a matter of gong to a house to investigate? Or was there some reason for their investigating one out of six in the same area?[39]

Similarly, a Conservative MP (William Knowles) described the lack of jobs for people being investigated in his largely rural Ontario riding of Norfolk-Haldiman.

In my area at the present time there is obviously no farm help required. There are very few small industries in the towns and villages in the area. As far as help is concerned, these plants are all filled to capacity. They do not want any more help. As a matter of fact, some are laying off employees. The benefit control officers are coming in and cutting these people off unemployment insurance, saying they are not looking for a job.[40]

By the mid-1970s, rather than simply attempts to control through monitoring and investigation, efforts were made instead to restructure the UI program itself. Significantly, it was the right wing (the Fraser Institute and so on) which became most conscious of the significance of the shifting nature of work and the shifting role that women were playing at this time and whose analysis and policy proposals took account of it.[41] Organizations such as the Economic Council of Canada also highlighted the question of female unemployment and UI use. The changes in this respect were highlighted in attempts both to marginalize unemployment as an issue of importance - and as a justification for beginning a process of retrenchment within the welfare state. Women, along with youth, were classified as "secondary wage earners", and the presence of more than one wage earner in the family became a justification for the revision of the acceptable rate of unemployment[42] up from 3-4% to something in the range of 8%. Their response to the economic crisis and to rising unemployment levels at this point, then, both drew on and further reinforced gender inequalities.

While, by the late 1970s an increasingly visible women's movement, as well as parts of the trade union movement, had successfully called into question the whole notion that women were secondary earners, they were not particularly successful at challenging the overall direction of economic restructuring or the policy response to it. Certainly, by the time of the Macdonald Commission and the debates of the mid-1980s, references to secondary earners had been dropped and the language used was much more gender-neutral.  By this point, the concept of unemployment was no longer being framed in terms of primary and secondary earners or of women "choosing" unemployment, but rather, what was being put forward was a more gender neutral notion of increased individual responsibility for unemployment; unemployment was seen as a consequence of individual attributes and dependencies. This was a more gender neutral "employability" model where it was assumed that all adults, male and female are, or should be, employed. A number of basic questions, remained however: how to deal with the increasing part-time, contingent labour force and how to make social programs compatible with an economic agenda centred on capitalist expansion on a global level.

The neo-liberal solutions of the 1990s did in fact address a number of these issues. Clearly, one of the most significant of the reforms of the 1990s was the massive scaling-back of the social safety net for the unemployed.  The most significant overhaul to the UI plan occurred in 1995, when there was a change in name from unemployment insurance to employment insurance. Reforms throughout the 1990s and particularly in 1995 lowered benefit rates and made qualifying conditions greatly more difficult for both men and women, so that whereas in 1989, some 83 % of the unemployed received UI benefits, but now only about 40% do.  (CLC figures show that in 1999 42% of unemployed men and only 32% of unemployed women received UI[43]).

In addition, the reforms in effect addressed one of the major underlying structural contradiction in the postwar regime:  the contradiction between a welfare state and income security plan based on the notion of a male, full-time, full-year worker and the reality of the Canadian labour force that was increasingly short-term, contingent and female. The reforms addressed this issue through greater formal equality and gender neutral language, but by overall greatly reducing benefits and by doing so in a way that created new forms of inequalities and did not address the underlying substantive, structural issues.   In particular, the shift to calculating benefits on the basis of hours worked rather than weeks worked greatly increased the time required to qualify, especially for those working part-time (fewer than 35 hours per week) as well as for new entrants and re-entrants to the labour force. For example, while previously in high unemployment areas, a minimum of 180 hours was needed to qualify, this was increased to 420. In low unemployment areas, whereas previously 300 hours were required, now 700 were.  For new entrants, 910 hours were required (the equivalent of 26 weeks at 35 hours each). Essentially there has been the entrenchment of the two-tier system first proposed in the 1960s: on the one hand, more generous benefits for those who are stably employed, and on the other hand, greater difficulty in qualifying and fewer overall benefits for those in part-time, contingent work and with intermittent work patterns - an increasing form of employment for both men and women.  


In conclusion, I have tried to show the importance of how unemployment was conceptualized and re-conceptualized throughout the Keynesian period and through the shift to neo-liberalism, and furthermore, that this had important gender dimensions. In particular, I wanted to emphasize that the transformations that were occurring as women entered the labour force, and as the structure of employment shifted, were central both to the contradictions of the post-war period and to the transformations that occurred, as well as to how household survival is ensured. The neo-liberal response in terms of income-security measures represented one possible solution to the tensions and contradictions of the post-war period.  Certainly it was a response which addressed immediate fiscal pressures on the state and was compatible with the extension of capitalist relations (now on a global scale). At the same time, however, there are clearly limits to neo-liberalism in that it has obviously not addressed the underlying problem of how to address social provisioning or human needs in any meaningful way. In Canada, we are at 7% unemployment, but multiple earners are now needed to maintain household income, notions of social solidarity have been eroded, and individuals and households are faced with increased responsibility for meeting social costs involved with health, raising children, looking after the elderly and so on. This calls for different ways of thinking not only about how to put new programs in place, but also the concepts that we use. The post-war welfare state represented the policy response of a particular era - one particular way of addressing the social - and one that could not endure. What kind of solutions are now possible, however, is still an open question. Certainly I think we have to think about it in terms of the overall means of household survival and subsistence and to be careful, in devising strategies for the future, that the concepts that we use do not create new forms of hierarchies or inequalities.

[1] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, (New York: International Publishers, 1967 (1867)), p. 630

[2]  Ibid, p.  632

[3] Ibid, p. 633

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid, p. 630

[6] David Harvey, The New Imperialism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 176-7 Harvey is drawing on Luxemburg's formulation here. R. Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (New York, Monthly Review Press, 1968 edn)

[7] A. Singh and A. Zammit, "International Capital Flows: Identifying the Gender Dimensions", World Development 28(7) 2000. Cited in Brigitte Young "Financial Crises and Social Reproduction: Asia, Argentina and Brazil", inI. Bakker and S. Gill (eds), Power, Production and Social Reproduction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 111

[8] Brigitte Young,  "Financial Crises and Social Reproduction", p. 115-120

[9] Harvey, The New Imperialism, p. 144

[10] Statistics Canada , "Participation rates and unemployment rates by age and sex, Canada and selected countries, 1999",, accessed 4/22/2005

[11] Morley Gunderson, "Work Patterns" in Gail C.A. Cook (ed), Opportunity for Choice: A Goal for Women in Canada (Ottawa: Statistics Canada in association with the CD Howe Research Institute, 1976)

[12]  Lorna Marsden, "Unemployment Among Canadian Women: Some Sociological Problems Raised By Its Increase", Patricia Marchak (ed), The Working Sexes (Vancouver: Institute of Industrial Relations, UBC, 1977). See also Beverly Tangri, "Women and Unemployment", Atlantis, vol. 3, no. 2 part II, Spring 1978.

[13] John Garraty,  Unemployment in History: Economic Thought and Public Policy (New York, 1978), p. 5, quoted in James Struthers,  No Fault of Their Own: Unemployment and the Canadian Welfare State, 1914-1941 (University of Toronto Press, 1983), p. 3

[14]  HJ Hodder, ADM, Employment and Immigration Canada, Canada, House of Commons, Standing Committee on Labour, Manpower and Immigration. Minutes of Proceedings and Evidence, 22/11/78, p. 5:10

[15]  Province of Manitoba, Aboriginal People in Manitoba 2000, ch. 6, "Labour and Income",, accessed 5/2/2005

[16] In 2003, approximately 14% of Canadians under the age of 25 were unemployed. Statistics Canada, "Unemployment rates, by age",, accessed 4/22/2005

[17] "Hugh Armstrong and Pat Armstrong, "The Segregated Participation of women in the Canadian Labour Force, 1941-1971", Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, 12 (4), Part I 1975, pp. 381-2

[18] See, for example, T.H. Marshall, Citizenship and Social Class and Other Essays, (Cambridge, 1950); Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Beacon Press, 1944)

[19] King diary, 1 April 1938, quoted in Struthers, No Fault of Their Own, p. 191

[20] Gary Dingledine, A Chronology of Response: The Evolution of Unemployment Insurance from 1940 to 1980, prepared for Employment and Immigration Canada (Ottawa 1981), p. 11

[21] Coverage was extended to all those who worked in an employer-employee relationship, excluding the self-employed. See Dingledine, A Chronology of Response p. 60

[22]  Sylvia Ostry,  The Female Worker in Canada, 1961 Census monograph programme, (Ottawa: Dominion Bureau of Statistics, 1968), p. 1

[23]  Canada,  Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Unemployment Insurance Act (Gill Committee Report) (Ottawa: Queen's Printer, 1962), pp. 133-4

[24]  Canada, Unemployment Insurance Commission, Annual Report (1952), p. 14. See also Ibid, (1951), p. 25.

[25]  See, for example, Canada, Unemployment Insurance Commission, Annual Report, 1961, p. 17; 1963, p. 15; 1964, p. 17; 1965, p. 19

[26]  National Archives of Canada (NAC), Stanley Knowles Papers, MG32 C59, file 19-A, UIC cases, correspondence, 1942-1952, Mrs. Dora Doersam to Stanley Knowles, 10 May 1951

[27]  Canada, Unemployment Insurance Commission, Decisions of the Umpire, CUB 930, Feb. 1953

[28]  Ibid, CUB 1220, March 1956

[29] Ibid, CUB 1308, Nov. 1956; CUB 530, Dec. 1949; CUB 1502, April 1958

[30] Ibid, CUB 2147, April 1963

[31] NAC RG27, vol. 3391, file 8-4-18, pt. 6, "Income Maintenance and Employment Adjustment Program", Feb. 28, 1964; RG27, vol. 3392, file 8-9-185, wallet, "Report to the Minister of Labour by the Interdepartmental Committee on Changes to the UI Programme", March 25, 1966

[32]  NAC, RG 50, vol. 39, file 528-4, pt. 3, Lucien Bradet to JW Dobson, Aug. 13, 1974;  NAC RG 106, vol. 97, file 1230-UI, part 1, "UIC 'purge' brings call for probe in Commons", Hamilton Spectator, March 5, 1973.  A 1977 report prepared for the Law Reform Commission noted that a high proportion of control officers were former policemen, private detectives and investigators for commercial collection agencies. Pierre Issalys and Gaylord Watkins, Unemployment Insurance Benefits: A Study of Administrative Procedure in the Unemploment Insurance Commission, prepared for the Law Reform Commission of Canada (1977), p. 75

[33]  Canada, House of Commons, Debates, statement by Robert K. Andras, Minister of Manpower and Immigration, March 13, 1973, pp. 2152-2154

[34]  Canada, House of Commons, Standing Committee on Labour, Manpower and Immigration, Minutes of Proceedings and Evidence, 22/5/73, 10:11

[35]  NAC, RG106, vol. 97, file 1230-UI, part 1, Patrick Best, "Many cut from UIC roll after probe", The Ottawa Citizen, Jan. 22, 1973

[36] NAC RG 106, vol. 97, file 1230-UI, part 1, "UIC 'purge' brings call for probe in Commons", Hamilton Spectator, March 5, 1973

[37] Ibid

[38] Ibid

[39] Canada, House of Commons, Standing Committee on Labour, Manpower and Immigration, Minutes of Proceedings and Evidence, 22/5/73, 10:11-10:12

[40]  Canada, House of Commons, Debates, March 12, 1973, pp. 2127-2128

[41] See, for example, Herbert G. Grubel and Michael A. Walker, "Moral Hazard, Unemployment Insurance and the Rate of Unemployment", in Unemployment Insurance: Global Evidence of its Effects on Unemployment (The Fraser Institute, 1978)

[42] Christopher Green and Jean-Michel Cousineau, Unemployment in Canada: The Impact of Unemployment Insurance (Economic Council of Canada, 1976); Economic Council of Canada, People and Jobs (1976)

[43]  Canadian Labour Congress, Unemployment Insurance Bulletin, vol. 4, no. 1, 2002

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