Labour Day uncertainty: it's been a tough year

Wayne Young
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Not all Islanders are celebrating this Labour Day weekend.

For many, it's been a difficult year. As governments at all levels tightened their belts in the face of mounting deficits last spring, hundreds of civil servants found themselves looking for new jobs.

After securing his first majority government, Prime Minister Stephen Harper moved quickly to eliminate more than 19,000 positions as part of a drive to cut $5 billion in program spending.

Unfortunately for Island workers, it appears a disproportionate number of those cuts are in P.E.I. A study released in June suggested about 400 jobs will be eliminated here over the next three years - 10-12 per cent of the federal workforce in this province.

Premier Robert Ghiz, fresh off his own election victory, followed suit by removing 300 jobs from the provincial payroll - about three per cent of the provincial workforce. Opposition parties say the figure will actually be much higher.

It's probably not enough to Wave Goodbye to P.E.I., as the P.E.I. Union of Public Sector Employees suggested in a recent advertising campaign, but it is creating a lot of uncertainty. The union's campaign draws heavily on evocative images designed to show Islanders there are consequences to government cuts, and that rural P.E.I. will be especially hard hit.

If they're right, that's something the rural areas can ill afford, especially during a year in which workers in the primary industries are struggling. Farmers are facing lower yields after near-drought conditions for much of the summer. That fine weather should mean a bumper season for tourist operators, although early figures suggested numbers were down in some sectors.

But it's a looming crisis in the lobster industry that has many Islanders worried. In fact, some fishermen wonder how much longer they'll even be able to afford to put their traps in the water. There's plenty of lobster, but the wharf price has been abysmal.

At one Island port last week the price dipped to $2 a pound, prompting fishermen to tie up for the day until the price improved. It did improve marginally and they were back on the water the next day, but they're still not happy with wharf prices they haven't seen in decades. In an interview, one fisherman said he'd probably opt to leave P.E.I. for greener pastures in Western Canada if he can't get a price that allows him to make a living fishing lobster.

And that's the real tragedy in human capital - able-bodied men and women who only want to work and raise their families here feel forced to leave. Pending changes to employment isurance won't help, either.

The federal government wants to get Canadians off EI and into jobs they qualify for, and that's fine. But in a province like P.E.I., where its three primary industries are seasonal in nature, some workers may be forced to larger centres during the off-season to find that work. If some opt not to return, there may be a shortage of workers at the fishing ports, farm and tourist operations. And in the communities those families leave behind, there will certainly be a void.

One bit of positive news this year was a 40-cent increase in the minimum wage to $10 per hour. That's in line with the minimum wage in New Brunswick and within 15 cents per hour of Nova Scotia's minimum wage.

If governments generally make their deepest cuts soon after being re-elected, then the worst bleeding in the civil service may be over.

As for the lobster fishery, the P.E.I. Fishermen's Association is going to try to come up with a long-term strategic plan that will address challenges in the industry. It's a big job. Let's hope they can find a way to boost wharf prices so fishermen won't be forced off the water.

Labour Day marks the last long weekend of the summer, one that many Islanders facing an uncertain future no doubt will be happy to put behind them.

Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.

Organizations: Holland College, P.E.I. Union of Public Sector Employees

Geographic location: Iceland, P.E.I. Fishermen, Western Canada New Brunswick Nova Scotia Charlottetown

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