EI rules will hurt primary trades, says P.E.I. premier

While reaction continues to brew over Thursday's announcement about changes to the Employment Insurance program, P.E.I. Premier Robert Ghiz says provincial officials will be meeting with the federal government to discuss how the new rules will affect Islanders.

While reaction continues to brew over Thursday's announcement about changes to the Employment Insurance program, P.E.I. Premier Robert Ghiz says provincial officials will be meeting with the federal government to discuss how the new rules will affect Islanders. 

Premier Robert Ghiz says provincial representatives will head to Ottawa to discuss EI changes.

There are now three different categories for claimants: long-tenured workers, frequent claimants and occasional claimants.

Many seasonal workers on P.E.I. would fall under the frequent category. That means after six weeks, that person would have to accept any position that fits their job description — even at 70 per cent of their regular wage.

The federal government says the goal is to get more workers off EI and into full-time jobs.

"Ottawa needs to realize that one size does not fit all when it comes to EI in each province," Ghiz said.

"Our three largest industries are still agriculture, fisheries and tourism. And like I try to point out to the federal government every time, is that there's not a lot of people going to the beach or playing golf in January. There's not many lobsters being caught in January and there's not many potatoes being grown," Ghiz said.

"Therefore, we're going to need seasonal workers in the province of Prince Edward Island and if they start to force out seasonal workers, well then, that's going to hurt our primary industries in the province in terms of getting their products processed to go to market."

Cardigan MP and Liberal fisheries critic Lawrence MacAulay is also slamming the EI changes, saying they will jeopardize seasonal industries and represent an attack on the Atlantic region by the Harper government.

"It is strictly a reform agenda and I was scared of this, praying to God it wouldn't happen, but it has. This is going to be very, very damaging to our economy on Prince Edward Island," said MacAulay.

MacAulay said seasonal workers are being "nailed" on this issue, and instead of putting money into retraining or job creation, the Harper government has come after people who rely on EI.

Next week provincial Minister of Innovation Allen Roach will meet with federal Human Resource Minister Diane Finley to discuss how these EI changes will affect P.E.I.

'Huge impact' on rural P.E.I.

The Liberal-dominated Standing Committee on Fisheries, Transportation and Rural Development said it wants to hear from MP Gail Shea and P.E.I. Senator Mike Duffy on the EI changes.

"The changes to EI will have a huge impact on rural P.E.I.," said Tyne Valley-Linkletter MLA Paula Biggar at a meeting of the committee Thursday.

"I think it's probably going to be the most detrimental thing to rural P.E.I. that I can think of since I was a child," said Biggar.

A motion was put forward calling on Shea and Duffy to appear.

There was some discussion on the matter, but eventually all the members agreed it would be a good idea to hear from the two federal representatives.

There is no word on whether Duffy and Shea will accept the invitation.

Claimants need computers

Carl Pursey, the president of the P.E.I Federation of Labour, said the changes are flawed, will create a huge backlog of appeals and will reduce wages even further.

The changes just haven't been thought out, he said.

"Well I think they are awful. This is just another attack on eastern Canada, is what it is. What I understand from this is that ... everybody is going to have to have a computer. And a lot of the low-wage earners and people like that don't know how to use a computer or anything else. But if they are going to send you alerts twice a day that you have to act on, you are going to have to have a computer," he said.

"And also this new appeal process that will be starting next April. I mean with the thousands of appeals they are getting, it could be a year or two before your appeal is even heard. So you are cut off and left without any money."

Pursey said there won't be as much money in the community and businesses will suffer as a result.

The federation plans to voice its concerns to federal politicians asking them to reconsider, Pursey said.

Fishermen upset

The P.E.I. Fisherman's Association is also upset with the proposed EI changes.

President Mike McGeoghegan said he thought fishermen were going to be exempt, but that didn't turn out to be the case.

Under the new system, fishermen who collect EI would be classified as frequent claimants and be required to accept any job they're qualified to perform, possibly at lower pay.

"I can't see me in a fast food restaurant serving somebody. I don't know if I have the patience or not to do that," said McGeoghegan.

"It's not going go over well right now. You know, until I see where the minister can change it at her discretion anytime she wants. Hopefully they'll bring some common sense to this part."

McGeoghegan worries fishermen will be thrown into the workplace to compete for jobs with much younger applicants. And he said they need the winter to prepare for the coming fishing season.

Fishermen should have been consulted, says Mike McGeoghegan. (CBC)

He said one solution would be to pay fishermen more for their catch. Then they wouldn't need or even qualify for EI.

"All they have to do is pay us for our fish, and then we don't qualify. But because they've kept us on the low end of this for years and years and years, and they haven't paid us what the fish is worth, that's why we qualify for unemployment," said McGeoghegan.

"Give us $7 or $8 for our fish. They get $24 to $28 in Europe. Pay us what the fish is worth, we're exempt, we don't qualify for unemployment, and then everybody's happy."

About half of Island fishermen currently collect EI, McGeoghegan said.

He said they should have been consulted before the changes were made.

Foreign workers affected

Meanwhile, a community development group says seasonal industries, which have grown to depend on foreign workers, will also be affected by the new rules.

"Temporary foreign workers will be out of jobs and Islanders will be forced into jobs they don't want," said Josie Baker, member of the Cooper Institute.

"Right now temporary foreign workers are part of P.E.I.'s economy and it's not something that we can just easily remove," she said.

"I'm worried that Islanders will be forced into those jobs and that that will not benefit employers, employees or temporary foreign workers."

The federal government is making these changes without understanding the Island economy, said Baker.

"These decisions are being made without consideration for the reality of Prince Edward Island, the reality of the seasonal economy, or the reality of rural communities. The P.E.I. food system has grown to depend on temporary foreign workers and that Islanders can't support themselves on those wages."