The Harper government is pushing drastic changes to employment insurance (EI) rules, but there is increasing resistance.
These rules will create three classes of unemployed and force people to accept lower paying jobs, while making it harder to collect benefits. The effects have been felt most drastically in places where seasonal work is the norm, but this is a problem for workers across the country.
New EI job search rules require a claimant, after a fixed number of weeks on layoff, to apply for jobs outside of their normal occupation, paying 10-30 per cent less than the job they were laid off from and up to an hour away from their home.
Changes to the EI appeal system mean that gone are the days of a balanced tripartite Board of Referees. They are instead replaced by a Social Security Tribunal that consists of one government-appointed expert. The changes include fewer in-person hearings and periods for appeal cut from 60 to 30 days.
In addition to this, Harper’s omnibus budget bill has shifted parts of the EI Act to EI Regulations, meaning the Minister can make more changes without debate in Parliament. The new job search requirements and the cancellation of EI maternity, parental and compassionate care benefits to Temporary Foreign Workers with lapsed SIN numbers are examples of the type of unilateral changes that can be made.
These changes are in addition to scrapping extra weeks and lower hours qualifications for high-unemployment areas and the already reduced financing to the EI system since 2008.
These changes fit with Harper and the Tories’ vision for Canada, which is dependent on the mobility of cheap labour and people willing (or forced) to travel farther to work for less. To complement this new approach to EI, the government has announced that it will be cutting 2,100 more positions from Service Canada; these are the people who support and deliver EI services. That means increased wait times, unresolved files and reduced services for people who need them.
This all sounds quite bleak, but there has already been mass resistance to the changes to EI in Quebec and New Brunswick, including chasing Harper’s special EI investigators right out of town.
It was in this context that the Good Jobs for All Coalition held a public forum at Ryerson Univesity in Toronto on the changes to EI. Good Jobs for All is an alliance of community, labour, social justice, youth and environmental organizations in the GTA. The forum brought together different speakers to highlight the effect the changes to EI will have on workers and to start a campaign in Ontario to reverse them and fight for more. As it is now, only 20 per cent of unemployed people in Toronto collect EI benefits. This is a steep decline from previous years and represents a long-term trend across Canada.
Kenny Hussein, from the United Steelworkers Job Action Centre, told the story of how he was laid-off and forced to use up his savings before he could get EI benefits at 55 per cent of his previous salary. He described the trouble he had getting the required hours to qualify for EI after a year where he was forced into reduced hours and job sharing at work.
Armine Yalnizyan, Senior Economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, described some of the long-term patterns for EI in Canada. Noting that in 1990, 74 per cent of unemployed people qualified for EI, today it is 35 per cent.
Finally, Patrick Rondeau from the Conseiller regional Federation des travailleurs et des travailleuses in Quebec and Daniel Legere, CUPE rep and activist in the New Brunswick Scrap the Changes Resource Committee, shared their experiences of helping to organize resistance to the changes and mobilizing people to reverse them.
Rondeau remarked that “Harper couldn’t fight unemployment, so he decided to fight the unemployed,” before he went on to explain how the unemployed fought back. Rondeau detailed the banner drops, press conferences, neighbourhood canvassing and protesting that brought together 24 student groups, municipalities, unions and agricultural groups to fight the EI changes and mobilize 50,000 people in the streets of Montreal.
Legere told the story of resistance in New Brunswick that began with a protest started by one person who worked at a fish plant, but grew to include demonstrations of several thousands occupying bridges, collecting 60,000 postcards of protest delivered to Tory MPs, and community committees that really changed the landscape in New Brunswick politics. Their fight stopped the home visits by EI investigators and forced Atlantic premiers to declare a common front in opposition to the changes.
The changes to EI will have devastating effects on workers and communities across Canada. The discussion at the forum heard from carpenters, retirees, educational assistants, electricians, migrant justice activists, plumbers and food service workers, all of whom are affected by the restricted access to EI and all of whom expressed the need for a fightback. The examples of Quebec and New Brunswick show the possibilities to mobilize people and take on the Harper EI agenda.
The Tory spin machine is working on overdrive to make these changes appealing. Diane Finley stated, “This is going to impact everyone because what we want to do is make sure that the McDonald’s of the world aren’t having to bring in temporary foreign workers to do jobs that Canadians who are on EI have the skills to do."
But the fight will have to demand extending access to EI to all and breaking down the divisions between Canadian workers and Temporary Foreign Workers. That means challenging the nationalism of Harper and fighting for good jobs and good wages for anyone working here.
As Daniel Legere noted, “If you work hard to influence public opinion, you can influence public policy.”
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