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Seasonal work: get the facts

This opinion piece is in response to a recent column in the Transcontinental Media publications written by Russell Wangersky titled "Seasonal Labour: the vicious cycle" (The Southern Gazette, Oct. 14).

Several comments made in this article by the writer, and other comments attributed to Employment Minister Jason Kenney, require some clarification. Kenney suggests that higher wages and automation will be the salvation of the seasonal fishery and Wangersky seems to suggest that there are only two beneficiaries of the EI program as it exists.

I would suggest that both of these statements are simplistic at best and both display the total lack of understanding of how our resource sectors contribute to our economy as a whole. Let's look at the facts.

Fact No. 1: Fishing and crop farming in Canada are seasonal industries, not necessarily for the same reasons. Anyone who looks out their window in this country has to recognize that for nearly five months of each year we have snow on the ground or in the air. Hard to get much farming done during those months! The fishery is not quite as dependent on weather but is seasonal more as a result of the quota and management systems in place that only allow for short periods of harvest per species.

Fact No. 2: Seasonal workers are a required component of both the farming and fishing sectors. If fishers and farmers don't have an available, reliable supply of seasonal workers when required to carry out their harvest and processing activities, their entire business is at risk because both are dealing with relatively short seasons to harvest and prepare perishable commodities for market.

Fact No. 3: Seasonal workers cannot live on the earnings that they receive during their working seasons. Higher wages as suggested by Kenney are not the answer, as we compete in a global marketplace and any increase in wages only forces a corresponding increase in selling price which has the potential to price our food products out of the marketplace. Increased automation can have the same effect in seasonal industries where the cost of automation cannot be properly recovered over a short period of time.

That leaves few choices if people are to put food on the table; EI, social assistance or relocate and retrain, with only the EI option providing workers for future seasons. It is unreasonable to think that employers can pay a year's wages for six months' work as suggested by some as an option.

Fact No. 4: There are not two beneficiaries of EI, there are actually five beneficiaries. Yes, the seasonal employers and their employees are very dependent on the EI program to enable their businesses to survive and those seasonal jobs to be available. What are the real alternatives?

Without seasonal workers both sectors don't exist in this country and a significant portion of not only our own food supply is no longer available but also a significant portion of our available food exports are no longer available.

I believe that both the politicians who seek political gain out of downplaying seasonal work and blaming the EI system as well as the media that hangs off of their every word need to step back and look at the bigger picture.

The other three beneficiaries are governments, local economies and, ultimately, consumers, who all benefit from the availability of EI coverage for workers between jobs.

It's too easy to blame seasonal workers for not contributing more to the EI fund than they remove because they are an easy target. Governments have reaped huge surpluses from the EI fund over the years - $54 billion, in fact, was written off by this Conservative government in 2008 and there is currently talk of surpluses that will be kept by the current government, surpluses generated partially because of all the roadblocks that have been put in place to discourage repeat claimants (seasonal workers) from receiving benefits.

The availability of EI for workers in seasonal industries allows these businesses to contribute to the local economy in the areas that they carry out their business. This generates EI premiums, CPP premiums and income tax for governments. The consumer ultimately benefits from affordable pricing in the marketplace.

If one looks at the bigger picture it becomes more evident who the "real" beneficences of the EI program are!

Fact No. 5: Foreign workers are a necessary component of the seasonal labour force. It would be fair to state that without foreign workers in the farming sector many Canadian horticultural operations would cease to exist.

There is extreme political pressure currently promoting drastic limits on access to foreign workers in our resource, transportation and service sectors. Much of this pressure appears both misguided and misdirected.

If there are problems with individual employers of foreign workers, by all means they should be dealt with harshly and swiftly. Instead, when an issue is raised in the media, the political reaction is to cut access to foreign workers, not deal with the problem. The reality in the fishing and farming sectors is that foreign workers create Canadian jobs; they do not take Canadian jobs!

For the most part foreign workers tend to be employed in occupations that Canadian workers will not commit to performing on a consistent, reliable basis. Higher wages and automation will not solve this problem; it will only force businesses to look at their exit strategy not their expansion strategy.

In summary, I think it is time that both governments and the media stop worrying about how much an individual pays into or receives from the EI program and instead concentrate on identifying and creating an income structure that does not automatically assume that seasonal work is second-class work. They should also be encouraging the respectful employment of foreign workers to ensure that businesses are able to maintain and grow their operations with confidence.

Most of us who have full-time jobs and cheap food on the table owe a vote of thanks to the seasonal Canadian and foreign workers who help make both possible.

Greg Webster

Webster Farms Limited

Cambridge, N.S.

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