Life in the ‘circle of hell'

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian)
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By Flora Jean Thompson

Commentary

The government of Canada has become less democratic, especially regarding decisions made without discussion or debate. I understood Employment Insurance was between the employer and the employee and that government was to administer that money, plus the millions of dollars in interest for the benefit of workers.

Has something changed?

The Harper government reminds me of comments made back in the 1960s by a wealthy Canadian doctor who was retired in the Bahamas, but came back to London, Ont. every year to work where I was employed. He bragged that the discussions for any new project in London always started at the men's club to which he belonged. Unfortunately, the average citizen's tax dollars paid for the good old boys' plans back then and they will also pay for Harper's employment insurance changes.

I had steady work for 25 years in three provinces with provincial governments as a Licensed Practical Nurse. I never once thought of ever collecting EI. I moved back to P.E.I. to raise a child. I had setbacks with health, a low education level and was forced into the ‘circle of hell'.

The circle of hell is this: short-term jobs through job creation, low wages and no benefits. The job ends, and then there's a two-to-four-week waiting period for EI and then about 51 per cent of salary. Then EI ends. Then back to the short-term job, low wages and no benefits. The job ends again with fewer weeks on EI. Welfare paid even less than job creation and EI, so the circle of hell continues.

Governments allow this abusive circle of hell, and rich employers use short-term, low-wage job creation programs to start businesses. Powerful employers and well-paid full-time employees are seen as entrepreneurs, filling boards and committees, bequeathing to colleges or universities, donation plaques and pillars of the church on Sundays. What happened to being thy brother's keeper? These people did not care if I lived or died. Financially, I thought dying was easy because the casket and plot were paid. With tongue in cheek when I did use the word ‘die' to one woman in power, she called the police who arrived at my door re suicide prevention.

I worked for 44 years in low-paying jobs and on most pay days, I felt like a volunteer. I applied for provincial and federal jobs already filled before the application deadline. The interviews were just formalities. In P.E.I., it is called patronage. My hope, dignity and value as a human were brought low and it was difficult to get out of the circle of hell.

Do the officials who change EI think beyond money? Do they ever think about living on a pittance and then 51 per cent of a minimum wage salary? The price of food, drugs, dental, optical, rent, mortgage, phone, heat, light, car payments, insurance, licences do not drop to 51 per cent for seasonal workers who are then forced to cut the necessities of life.

Has the Harper government ever looked at the many reasons for EI? The only jobs for many people are short-term, contract or seasonal work in fishing, farming and tourism. Seasonal workers often buffer their spouse's low wages to buy staples. Older men and women work in stores and fast-food restaurants to survive until pensions begin. They also work as crossing guards, selling newspapers and delivering flyers. Teens work for university and college expenses. Higher education is expensive.

The main reason for seasonal workers is that we live in an economy that doesn't offer opportunities for permanent jobs. To live here and raise a family, people must take seasonal jobs and live on 55 per cent or less of their working wage in the off-months. For various health and skill reasons, some people are unable to handle full-time work. However, the majority of seasonal workers would gladly take a full-time job if they could find one. As it is, they work from dawn to dusk with hot asphalt, cutting grass, building sidewalks, sweeping streets and shovelling snow. They stand 12 hours with highway signs or in fish factory lines and lift and lug on farms in all kinds of weather. Hired in the dirty jobs collecting garbage, gutting fish, spreading manure or cleaning portable toilets after summer events, they rarely receive accolades.

I was repeatedly told that higher education brought respect, more choices, higher wages, security, benefits and a pension. From ages 40-62, I got higher education but it did not help me financially. In P.E.I., being employed depends on who you know (patronage). Further, it depends on the employer, the job, the title and lots of luck. Some people have no choice but to get into the circle of hell and EI or leave the province for employment.

Flora Jean Thompson lives in Charlottetown and is a member of the P.E.I. Coalition for a Poverty Eradication Strategy.

Organizations: Employment Insurance, P.E.I. Coalition for a Poverty Eradication Strategy

Geographic location: Canada, Bahamas, London, Ont. London Charlottetown

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