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Tory EI Reform Package Hits Seasonal, Casual Workers Hard

Local labour, grassroots groups demand reversal

by Rana Encol

Wayne Groszko of the Ecology Action Centre is concerned the EI reform will force people to drive longer distances in search of work (Photo courtesy of the EAC).
Wayne Groszko of the Ecology Action Centre is concerned the EI reform will force people to drive longer distances in search of work (Photo courtesy of the EAC).

 

Political leaders and civil society groups in Atlantic Canada are urging the Harper government to reconsider its controversial Employment Insurance reform package.

The New Democrats called on the government Tuesday to reverse a program they believe will “restrict access and benefits, depress wages, push vulnerable Canadians into poverty and download costs to the provinces.”

“Ultimately it's the provinces that will bear the brunt of EI reform. People will turn to welfare, and who's going to pay for welfare? The taxpayers,” said Anne-Marie Day, NDP MP for Charlesbourg–Haute-Saint-Charles, who presented the opposition motion to the House of Commons Tuesday. She reminded the house that “the famous 'spring black hole'” — when seasonal work in sectors like agriculture, fishing and tourism dies down and workers turn to unemployment insurance — had arrived.

Under the regulations that split workers into three tiers according to the frequency of their benefits claims, seasonal workers who fall under the “frequent claimants” category, such as lobster fishermen, blueberry farmers, or film and television technicians, must now accept work that may fall outside their job classification, pays up to 30 per cent less and is up to one hour away.

The one-hour stipulation depends on the “modes of commute common to the place where the claimant resides,” according to the text of the bill and leaves ample room for interpretation and even longer commutes, if such travelling is considered typical in the community.

Wayne Groszko, Renewable Energy Co-ordinator at the Ecology Action Centre, thinks the “devil's in the details in how one would interpret this,” but anticipates that one hour will often mean a one-hours' car drive, which is about 100 km. It will force people to seek employment within a larger radius from their homes, thereby reducing the number of people who are claiming unemployment.

Take Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, one of many of the province's communities without public transit. Is it reasonable to expect that someone seek work in Halifax, 100 km away, if they live in Bridgewater?

“I don't think that's a reasonable legal expectation,” says Grozsko. Though he expressed sympathy for those who must make that commute, he believes enshrining such an expectation in law is tantamount to disregarding the environmental and social health of communities and family. The implicit assumption, he says, is that one can afford to fuel, insure and maintain the car that goes with the commute. That doesn't bode well for a province in which transportation already accounts for 25 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.

The first person to make headlines for losing her benefits under the program was Marlene Giersdorf, a single mother from PEI who refused to make the commute from Montague to Charlottetown for work because she didn't own a car and felt uncomfortable with a longer absence from her young child at home.

EI claimants are now at an all-time low: four out of 10 people who are unemployed are not receiving benefits. There will be 8,000 fewer claimants amounting to savings of $12.5 million this year and $33 million by next year.

Workers in the regional, seasonal-driven economies in Atlantic Canada are the highest per capita users of EI in the country. Margaret Wente's column claiming that EI “has become a giant transfer of funds from high-employment regions to those where seasonal employment is common” and Wente's recent appearance supporting this position on CBC Nova Scotia has drawn ire from Maritime workers' representatives.

Dean Tupper, representing labour councils as a vice president at the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, says that EI claimants aren't just seasonal and casual employees; they could be minimum-wage Wal-Mart employees laid off after Christmas. In other words, he says, “it could be anyone, anywhere.”

“If you don't think so, you go to Ontario and look at the big three, the auto workers and the hits they've taken. They're one day away from Ford or GM or Chrysler shutting down a plant. Anyone of us at any day could be (unemployed),” he adds.

In the meantime, industries that rely on casual or seasonal labour will suffer as more people choose to secure work elsewhere: “When young people go out west and earn that big money, I don't think they're coming back,” says Tupper, explaining that jobs in Alberta might prove more enticing than accepting a substantial pay cut and commute at home. Atlantic premiers have joined the chorus of anxiety over an exodus from rural provincial areas to the west.

Tupper is co-ordinating public forums across Nova Scotia to explain changes to the system and invite public action; dates confirmed at this time are as follows:

  • Bridgewater: Feb. 21
  • Halifax: Feb. 26
  • Glace Bay: March 7
  • Antigonish: March 14
  • Annapolis Valley: March 20

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