Federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley clearly wasn’t expecting a warm reception Wednesday when she went to visit the crab plant in Witless Bay.
Walking into the plant, Finley was confronted by Irene Ploughman who has been working
there for decades. She said she’s “scared” about Ottawa’s plans to retool the employment insurance system.
“Don’t say that unless you know all the details,” Finley said, before going into the plant for a tour.
During her visit to the Witless Bay plant, Finley was accompanied by a pair of RCMP officers, and her communications person shut down a media availability after less than five minutes.
Last month Finley rolled out sweeping changes to the EI system. Frequent users will be forced to take work at 70 per cent of what they were previously making, and they can be required to take work in a different field.
On Wednesday, she said the government is still working out the details of the policy, and that’s part of why she was visiting the province.
“Obviously we’ve worked on the high-level policies and the broad spectrum, but there are always details that need to be focused on because the devil is in the details,” she said. “That’s when it helps to really listen to people who are dealing with the stuff on a day-to-day basis.”
Ploughman said there are a lot of people in the fish plant who are worried about where this will leave them.
“We’re worried about the EI changes because where are we going to get hired? Where are we going to work?” she said. “Who’s going to hire me? I’m 63 years old. I’m only qualified to work in a plant. I haven’t worked anywhere in 30-something years. Only here.”
Finley said there will be some improvements to the EI system as part of the changes.
“For example, come August, they’ll be able to work while on claim and keep 50 cents of every dollar right from dollar one that they earn,” she said. “That’s a big improvement over right now, and they seemed pleased to hear that.”
But Fish, Food and Allied Workers union president Earle McCurdy said he believes this change will hurt fish plants, and make it harder for businesses to find workers.
If workers are forced to take other jobs, when the fish plants open up again, they won’t be in a position to come back.
“Quite frankly, I think the operators of the fish plants in this province will find that depending on the details of the implementations and what the government has in mind, it could be a lot more problematic to get a workforce year after year,” McCurdy said. “Who’s going to be wanting to bounce back and forth like that all the time? I believe that fish plants are at risk of losing workers. So are inshore fishing enterprises.”
Derek Butler, with the Association for Seafood Producers, said he believes that the EI changes will help plants get workers and improve the system as a whole.
“There’s a lot of scaremongering going on; that part of it is unfortunate,” Butler said.
“But in terms of our industry, we’re a seasonal industry; we rely on EI, so we understand we can’t eliminate EI.”
Liberal MP Scott Andrews was quick to react to Finley’s visit to the province.
In a news release, Andrews accused Finley of giving no real answers.
“I’m hearing every day from my constituents that these changes will have a negative impact on their economic well-being,” he said.
“While the EI minister flies into town for a quick visit, she is not able
to alleviate any of their concerns and offers nothing in terms of information.”