Some CANADAEAST dailies recently (November 22) featured a front page story on “high end” jobs coming to Fredericton and Moncton. NB Minister of Economic Development and the President of Invest NB are shown smiling about a deal with information technology (IT) giant CGI Group Inc., whose officials promise to create up to 125 full-time jobs. Invest NB is taking credit for this, brokered with a $2 million payroll rebate, courtesy of we taxpayers. Montreal-based CGI employs around 72,000 workers in 400 offices in 27 countries, and is no stranger to lobbying for and receiving such incentives. Their top five executives – recently paid over $16 million in salary compensation – are surely among those agreeing that New Brunswick is a “great place to do business” … in the usual way, that is.
Meanwhile, south of the border, CGI has been under fire for its lead role in the failed launch of HealthCare.gov, a botched flop of epic proportions. Vast numbers of Americans, trying to sign up online for Obamacare, have been turned away or otherwise frustrated in attempts to register. The flop was a team effort, with other contractors and federal bureaucrats sharing discredit, but it is worrisome that CGI has been on the ropes before, over another failed IT system. In Ontario, CGI built a medical registry for diabetics that functioned so poorly that eHealth Ontario officials recently cancelled its $46.2 million contract, after three years of missed deadlines.
Surely, questions should routinely be asked about a company’s track record of performance, as well as labour relations and workplace ecology, before public purse rewards are dangled before it. It is a matter of record that in other CGI offices, fast rates of growth have led to staff burnout and high turnover rates, some related to managerial demands that people work around the clock to meet impossible deadlines. Some CGI offices hire more contract workers than permanent staff, and have been described as unstable.
Once again, Invest NB has doled out public money to a corporation with no ancestral ties to New Brunswick. This is actually according to script, for this Crown Corporation was set up to do precisely that, doubtless reflecting a premise that we can’t do big things for ourselves here. This is ironic, as Invest NB, in its outreach to outside investors and IT companies, touts New Brunswick as an obvious choice for expansion and relocation, owing to our large, highly educated, skilled and non-slacker IT workforce, complemented by nimble post-secondary educational institutions eager to accommodate industry needs. CGI’s current President and CEO endorsed these advantages, adding that the turnover rate of New Brunswick employees is much lower than those in their India offices. This says volumes about how hungry we are to hold on to jobs here. It is because of this hunger, of course, that we lose perspective.
There is a better way of creating jobs and doing business. Consider this: New Brunswick’s government offices, hospitals and universities represent “anchor institutions” that will not abandon the province for more profitable pastures, and given the critical need of these public institutions for well built and maintained IT infrastructure platforms, and given that these institutions provide a virtually guaranteed market for IT providers to flourish, why are we not seeing the development of more locally-adapted, homegrown IT enterprises? Such companies, especially if structured as non-profit, worker owned and managed cooperatives, would be inherently more likely to provide dignified, decent-paying, stable and sustainable IT jobs than growth- and greed-driven multinational corporations with loyalties elsewhere.
It is unfortunate that New Brunswick lacks an agency equivalent to Québec’s Chantier de l’Economie Sociale Trust, which provides financing for collectively-run businesses, co-operatives and social enterprises This different way of doing business is thriving in Québec, which has around 3,500 co-operative enterprises, employing around 100,000 workers. Here, our Economic and Social Inclusion Corporation is budgeted to support community projects and small-scale social enterprises, but has neither the funds nor mission to invest in medium- to large-scale social enterprises and co-operatives.
This needs to change, for business as usual does not benefit the many. In the present case, models of world-class IT enterprises that place community and human needs first, consistent with the spirit and practice of cooperativism, can be found here.
Gary Heathcote is a friendly troublemaker and retired anthropologist, living in Fredericton.