EI changes, moratorium pose threat

Programs closely intertwined in Atlantic region to affect primary industries, especially tourism

Published on May 29, 2014

Premier Robert Ghiz , of P.E.I., left, shakes hands with Premier David Alward of New Brunswick at the end of a Council of Atlantic Premiers meeting in Saint John, N.B. on Monday, May 26, 2014.

©THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Prince Edward Island is being adversely affected by a perfect storm of merging crises that pose a threat to important economic sectors of this province just as the summer tourist season is about to get underway. The worst fears of Atlantic premiers over changes to Employment Insurance were realized, suggests a draft report discussed by the premiers earlier this week in Saint John. P.E.I. Premier Robert Ghiz has long argued the EI changes must be reversed because of dire consequences for the region, but especially in this province where the major primary industries of agriculture, fisheries and tourism are so dependent on seasonal workers.

The EI changes have greatly reduced or eliminated eligibility claims, forcing hundreds to leave the province for employment elsewhere, mostly to western Canada, while out-migration numbers have hit a record high in P.E.I.

If seasonal workers are forced to leave, the challenge for primary industries would be finding enough people — especially experienced employees — to fill job vacancies this summer. Now Premier Ghiz has placed a dollar figure on the negative impact to P.E.I. — $20 million, a staggering figure which will have a cascading effect through all sectors of the Island economy.

The latest Stats Can figures indicate EI claims continued to decrease dramatically on P.E.I even though the unemployment rate continues to hover just over 11 per cent. One explanation is that workers are leaving for employment elsewhere, thus jeopardizing seasonal industries here.

What has especially angered Atlantic premiers is that Ottawa imposed EI changes unilaterally without consulting the provinces or assessing the impact on this region. The changes were seen as a blatant effort to both reduce EI payments and also supply the labour demands of Alberta oilfields by forcing Atlantic Canadians to move elsewhere for work. Ottawa has achieved its desired goals on both counts and now the Atlantic Provinces are grappling with the fallout.

Another sudden decision by Ottawa also came to a head this week during the annual meeting of Restaurants Canada underway in Charlottetown. Delegates are upset the moratorium imposed on temporary foreign workers in the food service industry is having a devastating impact on their businesses.

Several complaints of abuse, mostly in Western Canada, resulted in Ottawa suspending the program for the food industry. Ottawa set up the program, failed to exercise due diligence to ensure that Canadians would not be adversely impacted, and then acted surprised there was a problem.

The TFW program and EI cuts are actually closely connected in Atlantic Canada. Restaurant delegates said that by halting TFWs from working in the food service industry, it has forced their businesses to curtail hours and days of operation, which means that Canadian employees are also losing money. Seasonal workers who stayed in Atlantic Canada with the hope of making up lost cash this summer, are now being threatened again.

Ottawa’s overreaction comes just as many restaurants and food operations in Atlantic Canada are gearing up for the summer. Restaurants Canada chair Liam Dolan of Charlottetown is demanding a meeting with PM Stephen Harper on the moratorium and to address the crisis of a workers’ shortage in the food service industry. Good luck on that one. If the PM can't control both the agenda and the message, there will be no meeting.

While the present moratorium only affects food service workers, there is a fear that if abuses are reported in other sectors, the entire program might be scrapped in a desperate federal pre-election gamble. That indeed would be disastrous.