Robyn Benson, PSAC

EI changes: blaming the victims

EI office.JPG

Why is the Harper government so bound and determined to make life miserable for unemployed workers?

New rules to make it harder for seasonal workers in particular to receive Employment Insurance benefits are just the most recent in a series of measures that punish workers for being unemployed. In Quebec, massive protests have erupted, and an anti-reform coalition continues to grow. In the Atlantic provinces, still highly rural, where high unemployment is a fact of life, the four Premiers—who span the political spectrum—have spoken out forcefully against the restrictions.

Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development Diane Finley has been playing her dutiful role as Harper’s hit-person all along. A year and a half ago, she cleared out 1,000 or so casual workers struggling with claims backlogs, and put a ban on overtime into effect, too. When outstanding claims mounted up as a result, she had the audacity to blame our members in the EI offices for conducting a secret work to rule.

Things became, in fact, almost surreal. Service Canada had established an Office of Client Satisfaction for unhappy claimants—but Service Canada employees were discouraged from telling anyone about it. The word got out, though, and complaints soon spiked.

This sort of thing, meanwhile, has become all too typical:

Jamus Dorey of Nova Scotia applied for employment insurance on July 24. His claim was not processed until Sept. 24, and he received his first EI cheque on Sept. 28.

“It went on and on and on,” he said. “I would call almost every second day for the full eight weeks and not one person from Service Canada actually called me back.”

Mr. Dorey found a job in October. But as the single father of a young son, he says he is very glad he had his own savings to get through two months with no income.

EI offices have been closed all across Canada—the aim is to “consolidate” 120 offices across the country into 22—but, not surprisingly, at least two in Conservative-held ridings were spared.

Add to this a squad of 121 “integrity officers” deployed in Atlantic Canada alone, sent off to visit EI claimants in their homes, unannounced. As it turns out, despite earlier denials by the Minister, these officers (our members, by the way) are assigned quotas of money to be recovered—sorry, “performance objectives” to be met—and their managers earn performance pay when targets are achieved. Quebec has the highest quota set—$121 million. Ontario’s target is $110 million, while officers in the Western provinces and territories are expected to recover $115 million.

The integrity officers who are being sent out to do the government’s dirty work are, to no one’s surprise, encountering angry responses, putting them at considerable personal risk.

Everyone suffers, in other words: claimants and Service Canada workers alike.

A protest by the NDP against this government-ordered harassment brought this response from Finley: “The NDP only care about fraudsters and cheaters, who they call victims.”

Which brings us to the new rules in the last Harper budget targeting seasonal workers.

Workers who are unemployed in the off-season will be expected to take any job for which they are qualified, at as much as 30% less than their regular wage. And such jobs could require a commute as long as 100 kilometres from home, as though rural areas were blessed with public transport.

Seasonal work will likely continue be a dominant feature of the Atlantic provinces specifically for some time to come. In a part of Canada notorious for its high unemployment rate, seasonal work in fishing, forestry, construction, tourism and agriculture has allowed more than 100,000 workers, most in rural areas, to live and raise families. Employment insurance has traditionally tided them over during the off-season.

Pro-business journalists, characteristically, sees EI payments to seasonal workers as a problem. Here is one typical article from that perspective. EI payments prevent labour mobility—the West is facing labour shortages, we are informed, so workers should just move there.

In fact, the new rules are dividing the provinces, with the Alberta and Saskatchewan governments welcoming the changes as encouraging workers to head West.

What becomes of seasonal industries when there are no workers to fill the positions is never seriously addressed. Yet the prospects for year-round employment for many seasonal workers remain problematic.

For his part, Harper has just shrugged off the concerns of the Atlantic and Quebec premiers, and, by extension, the effects of his new policies on workers across the country.

For the foreseeable future, it seems, we will be hearing more stories like this one: Marlene Geirsdorf was denied EI benefits and told to go on welfare because she had no means of transportation to get to a possible job in Charlottetown, 60 kilometres away. Only a considerable outcry led to her benefits being restored—but must each such case be addressed through a public protest?

Harper’s changes to EI are divisive, punitive and extreme. They threaten the continued existence of the seasonal economy from which we all benefit, and the personal lives of workers and their families—not only in Atlantic Canada and Quebec, where the effects will be most keenly felt, but in other parts of Canada, particularly in rural areas. This one is everybody’s fight, and we’d better get down to it.

[Photo: Matthew Sherwood/Globe and Mail]

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on June 26, 2013 8:31 AM.

Assurance-emploi : On blâme la victime was the previous entry in this blog.

This just in: Senate blocks anti-union bill is the next entry in this blog.

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