By Belle Hatfield
For The Vanguard
A wave of uncertainty is sweeping over South West Nova Scotia as those in the fisheries and fish-processing sector wait to assess the impact of proposed changes to the Employment Insurance system, announced recently by Human Resources Minister Diane Finlay.
The revised act that governs employment insurance seeks to turn the rules upside down. Frequent users, defined as those who have made more than three claims and who have received over 60 weeks of benefits in the past five years, will be hit the hardest. That includes many people working in seasonal industries, like the fisheries, tourism, forestry and agriculture sectors. But the regulations haven’t yet been written.
“A lot of things are going to be changing, but we really don’t know yet what it’s going to mean,” says lobster fisherman Mark Pottier, who captains the Obsession 1.
Pottier works with a crew of two, which he employs for the six-month lobster season. Multiply that by 1,000 boats in lobster district 34, that’s up to 3,000 workers in south-western Nova Scotia, just in the lobster fishery, who are wondering how the pending legislation will affect their lives when they tie up at this time next year.
The new rules will require more paperwork and more effort for seasonal workers to retain their EI, but Pottier remains hopeful.
“I can't imagine that they'll be able to find work for the thousands of fishermen who fall in this category, but from what I interpret that's the plan. Come [next] June … I don’t think a lot of them will be successful in finding jobs and probably they’ll still be able to draw their EI,” he said, pointing to the area’s high unemployment rate.
Indeed, according to published reports, human resources staff expect less than one per cent of claimants across the country to lose their benefits under the new system.
Since the announcement, on the wharfs and in the coffee shops there’s no shortage of opinions. For some it signals the death knell for the community. For others it’s about time the government cracks down on those seen as abusing the system.
Yarmouth MLA Zach Churchill says the EI issue is the hot topic in his office as it is throughout the community.
“I have had nothing but concern expressed to me about this,” he said. “People are worried that they are going to have to move out west, that they are going to have to go back to school, that they are going to have to figure out a different life plan. People feel that the rug has been pulled out from underneath their feet on this one.”
Within the processing sector, however, it isn’t all doom and gloom.
“It may be a double-edged sword, that’s what my members are telling me,” says Marc Surette, executive director of the Nova Scotia Fish Packers Association.
The processing sector faces chronic shore-based labour shortages that the changes may help address. As well, some summer fisheries have had difficulties recruiting crews in the past because, after lobster season, many experienced fishermen rely on EI until the season opens in November.
“The fear is that the pool of workers might dry up. The good part is that it might encourage people to accept more work,” he said.
But there’s not enough work in the fisheries to give everyone year-round employment.
“It’s seasonal work. It’s fishing. You cannot get away from that,” he said. “The majority of these people are willing to work as often and for as long hours as possible. The work just isn’t there.”
And the job skills are not necessarily transferable, Surette says.
“You can’t take somebody from a potato farm in New Brunswick and stick them in a lobster pound or a filleting house in Nova Scotia. I think they may be overlooking that. These are not just menial labour jobs. There is an art and it comes with long experience and hard work.”
He says news of the proposed changes has increased the volatility in an already cyclical industry.
“Everybody is speculating, but we don’t really know what we’re dealing with. It has the potential to do some good things, but it also has the potential to decimate what’s left of the processing sector here in Nova Scotia,” said Surette.
Meanwhile, as the Obsession 1’s captain, stores his gear for another year, he has some advice to anyone working in a seasonal occupation.
“You guys are probably going to want to sit down with your [EI] caseworker and get as much information as you can,” says Pottier.