Two technology industry CEOs that are also on the board of directors for the Basic Income Canada Network have co-authored a letter asking Ontario Premier Doug Ford to reinstate a basic income pilot program that was scrapped in the summer.

In interviews, the authors expressed their concern that society is moving towards greater income disparity and that software-driven automation is replacing labour, making it more difficult to earn a living. The letter has the signatures of at least 112 Ontario-based CEOs, with the stated goal of reaching 100, and represents companies earning a combined annual revenue of $1.5 billion. The group is called CEOs for Basic Income and the letter is co-authored by Floyd Marinescu, CEO of C4Media Inc., and Paul Vallée, CEO of Pythian Inc.

The letter has been circulating in Ontario’s technology community for weeks but was publicly released on Thursday morning at Queen’s Park Media Studio in downtown Toronto. Written to Premier Doug Ford and Minister of Childen, Community, and Social Services Lisa MacLeod, it urges for the Ontario basic income pilot to be continued. The Progressive Conservative government announced the program’s cancellation at the end of July. A government web page says it will be “winding down” effective as of March 2019.

The basic income pilot should be continued, the letter argues, because software automation is eating all the jobs. It also points to the globalization of more mid-level information workers, the trend of more work becoming contract-based, and names Amazon as an example of the new “winner-take-all” economy.

“We don’t need to wait to see if advances in automation eliminate many existing jobs; we can already see how decades of automation and globalization have affected the economy,” the letter states. “Despite unemployment in Canada at its lowest rate since 1976, the share of low-income jobs is increasing: nearly doubling to 30 per cent of Ontarians since 2001, with the per cent of Canadians in minimum wage jobs increasing five fold since 1997.”

The basic income pilot provided payments to 4,000 people in communities including Hamilton, Brantford, Thunder Bay, and Lindsay. It provided individuals with $16,989 per year and couples with $24,027, less 50 per cent of any earned income. It was canceled about one year into the three-year program that was originally introduced by former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynn.

The CEOs for Basic Income say it wasn’t long enough to get the data needed on whether it works or not.

“If the Ford government truly believes that basic income will discourage work, then you should allow the pilot program to continue so you can have data on your side. If however it encourages work, then this idea is one that all parties can build off. We have no partiality to the scheme designed by the previous Ontario government, but we do feel it is good enough to test the main theses of basic income,” the letter states.

Ontario government response

IT World Canada asked the Office of Premier Ford and Minister MacLeod for a statement regarding the letter. A spokesperson for the Ministry responded with this statement:

“The wind-down of the Basic Income Pilot was first announced in July. Payments to eligible participants will continue until March 2019. This will allow participants time to transition from the pilot. Our focus now is to support a smooth transition. For example, if someone left Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program to join the pilot, they will be reinstated to that program, if eligible. The Government for the People has committed to a 100 day review of social assistance and poverty reduction strategies in Ontario to best assist the 1 in 7 people in the province who are living in poverty. The plan is expected on Nov. 8.”

Software automation is causing social strife

In an interview, Vallée points out that former Conservative Senator Hugh Segal helped design the pilot. He’d like to see the results of the pilot because he’s concerned that progress in computer science has the unintended consequence of making it more difficult to have upwards class mobility in society.

“We hate toil, we hate mundanity, and work that’s repetitive,” Vallée says. “We find that soul-killing and we want to use our expertise from computer science to avoid that sort of life. But we never realized that by allowing businesses to substitute labour with capital, we’d allow businesses to erode our social ladder.”

Pythian, an Ottawa-based firm, is an IT services firm that’s helped businesses in many sectors achieve efficiency through automation. Everything from pizza restaurants to car dealerships and banks. Now even the IT sector itself is being automated, Vallée says. That’s why there are so many technology sector CEOs signing the letter to reinstate the basic income pilot.

“We have a ringside seat to the disruption that’s happening in our society,” he says. “We’re the ones creating the technologies that replace labour with software.”

Premier Ford should continue with the trial even if it’s not perfect, Marinescu says. Too much of society is engaged with precarious work, and a wake-up call is needed that our social fabric is at risk.

“As Western economies are moving towards more low-income wages, I’m really worried about that and what we’re going to do about it,” he says.

The Ontario government doesn’t offer a total cost estimate for the basic income pilot. Since the 4,000 participants receive variable amounts based on their income, it’s also hard to calculate total costs. But it must be less than $272 million, which would be the cost if every one of the participants received $17,000 for the full four years.

Asked if the CEOs for Basic Income would consider funding the pilot to complete its study, Vallée said that would be unrealistic. He estimated the costs would be in the ballpark range of $50 million per year.

“We believe this is the right thing to do for society and we’re ready to do our fair share,” he said. But paying for it would probably be “asking us to sacrifice for profitability. I don’t think it’s economically possible.”