Canada's Atlantic premiers want the Harper government to immediately suspend changes it made to employment insurance that target seasonal workers, arguing that the new system only increases the need for temporary foreign workers.
Prince Edward Island Premier Robert Ghiz criticized the federal government's changes as "counterintuitive," at a time when the Conservatives are trying to clamp down on temporary foreign workers.
The premiers' annual meeting, which was held this year at White Point Beach Resort on Nova Scotia's south shore, ended Monday with the four politicians complaining that Central Canada doesn't understand the Atlantic region – and doesn't listen to them.
"They created the need for temporary foreign workers already," said Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter, arguing the EI changes have forced Atlantic Canadians to leave their communities.
"The further you erode that work force the greater that demand will be for temporary foreign workers," he said. "It is fundamentally a disconnect in terms of the understanding that Central Canada has of the Atlantic region."
The premiers want the EI changes suspended until they have been able to conduct a comprehensive study of their impact on the region. As well, the premiers are asking the Conservative government to hand over any relevant employment insurance data so that they can conduct a comprehensive audit.
No research was done by the federal government, they argue, in advance of major changes it made last May to the employment insurance system that require claimants to accept a job for which they are qualified within 100 kilometres of their home.
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale called for a "reversal" or "intervention" to protect the interests of seasonal workers. Workers in the region are being penalized because they work in seasonal industries, Ms. Dunderdale said, noting there is not "somewhere you could go an hour away and become involved in another industry."
"We are not that diverse," she says.
Ms. Dunderdale noted that fishing is a $1-billion industry in her province. But fishery workers are seasonal – and given the changes, they will have to look for full-time work elsewhere.
"A lot of these people are living on $18,000 to $20,000 a year," she says.
"But they are critical to the success of our seasonal industries. If these industries are going to succeed, then they will have to bring in temporary foreign workers … so where's the balance there. Whose interest are we serving?"
Last year at their meeting in PEI, the premiers warned that any changes to the insurance program that focused on seasonal workers would hurt the Atlantic region that depends on seasonal industries, including agriculture, fishing, forestry and tourism.
The Atlantic labour force has a higher proportion of seasonal workers than other provinces.
But those warnings fell on deaf ears – and the federal government went ahead. Now, the premiers are upping the ante by calling for the suspension – and a comprehensive study.
Ms. Dunderdale emphasized the need for such a study, involving economists, business leaders, workers and communities, because so far all she and her fellow premiers have is anecdotal evidence.
She said she has brought up the seasonal worker issue with the Prime Minister who told her it was not his intention to "impact negatively on the seasonal workers …"
"Yet we are seeing that happening," she said, noting the changes that affected seasonal workers were done without any thought, or planning or setting of goals.
Again, there are no guarantees the federal government will listen.
New Brunswick's David Alward noted that they haven't "had a lot of success thus far" but believes that the four Atlantic premiers "standing together collectively on this is a very strong message."