Workers in Seasonal Industries: Action Needed

August 8, 2023

Recent reports have highlighted growing concerns regarding the challenges faced by workers in seasonal industries. Danny Cavanagh, the president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, says that while this issue is not new, it has intensified recently, particularly in regions heavily reliant on seasonal labour. A significant factor contributing to the problem is the struggling fisheries sector, with noticeable declines in various fisheries, including crabs and lobsters. For instance, Southern Nova Scotia is experiencing a difficult lobster harvest season.

“The situation has generated significant uncertainty in these regions and directly impacted the workers’ ability to accumulate sufficient hours to qualify for Employment Insurance (E.I.) benefits. Although there were hopes that specific reforms would address these challenges, the budget priorities have diverted attention elsewhere.

“The recent federal budget bill’s reintroduction of the 5-week pilot project acknowledges the persisting problems. The testimonies during the E.I. reform consultations have made it abundantly clear that the Pilot is no longer adequate for the task. It is worth noting that since the introduction of the pilot project in 2018, the unemployment rate in the targeted regions of Eastern Canada (excluding Yukon) has decreased by nearly 3.3 percent. Regions most affected include Prince Edward Island (-6.0%), Newfoundland and Labrador (-5.4%), Gaspésie (-5.3%), and Eastern Nova Scotia (-4.9%). In contrast, the rest of Canada witnessed an average decrease of only 1 percent during the same period. This demonstrates that the five extra weeks the pilot offers are no longer sufficient if they ever were. Consequently, it has become more challenging for workers to qualify for E.I. benefits, and when they do, they receive fewer weeks of entitlement at a lower benefit level,” says Cavanagh.

Although the decrease in unemployment rates may seem positive, it is crucial to recognize that these E.I. regions or sub-regions may not be experiencing an increase in available jobs but rather a decrease in the number of people seeking employment. Moreover, some of the hardest-hit sub-regions are nested within E.I. regions with different economic profiles. This is particularly evident in the New Brunswick peninsula, Southern Nova Scotia, and parts of the Quebec North Shore. Despite persistent requests, the continuous postponement of revisions to the E.I. boundaries in these regions is no longer acceptable.

Cavanagh says concerns have been raised regarding the inappropriate use of the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program. Local workers struggling to secure work hours are frustrated to see TFWs frequently receiving shift priority. Enhanced oversight is needed in the fish processing industry to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate requests, and the involvement of union representatives may contribute to maintaining integrity within the system.

Considering that the budget does not include the anticipated E.I. reform and that the situation in these regions will likely worsen in the coming months, it is crucial to respond appropriately. One possible solution would be to amend the current pilot project or establish a new one, utilizing the Employment Insurance Commission’s prerogatives under Part V of the E.I. Act. It is important to remember that the existing pilot project is already five years old and has undergone recommendations and evaluations. Consequently, proposing changes at this stage would be a reasonable action.

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