Employment

Help wanted: Ottawa withholding EI reform details

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Applicants line up at the National Job Fair and Training Expo in Toronto on April 5, 2012. (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail)

Some of Canada's leading business groups say it's time for Ottawa to spell out its changes for Employment Insurance in the face of rampant speculation over the Conservative government's plans.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business represent employers across the country and support the idea of tighter EI rules, but they say the government needs to cough up the details now.

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“Certainly any clarity they can give is desirable. I really honestly don't think they're suggesting somebody trained as an MD should be taking a job doing lawns or pool care,” said Perrin Beatty, the president of the Chamber.

The CFIB's vice-president, Dan Kelly, expresses a similar view. “The government, from a communications perspective, needs to get the policies on the table,” he said.

The Conservative government's sweeping budget bill, C-38, would remove key sections of the Employment Insurance Act that allow recipients to turn down available jobs if they are not in their area, their field of work or involve poor working conditions.

The government says that once the budget bill is passed, it will announce new rules through regulation, but won't say what they will be. Opposition MPs say it's not fair to ask them to vote on a bill without knowing its implications.

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley has said the new rules won't force people to move and will aim to connect workers with jobs at their skill level, but further details won't come for weeks or months.

The budget's EI changes, coupled with a recent announcement that Ottawa will fast track the approval process for skilled temporary foreign workers, is prompting union leaders to accuse the Conservatives of implementing an employers' agenda to drive down wages.

But business groups dismiss the charges and insist the labour shortages identified by Ottawa are very real.

“If anyone thinks they're trying to drive labour rates down, it's probably more expensive for companies to go through the process of bringing in a temporary foreign worker and all the paperwork and regulatory burden as it would be to hire someone locally,” said Mathew Wilson, a vice-president of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters.

Louise Vandenhurk, who owns and runs a Dairy Queen in Estevan, Sask., says she would love to hire local workers, but can't find any. She said student applicants are so busy with other activities that their windows of availability are too small to be worthwhile for employers.

Ms. Vandenhurk said she and her husband were working seven days a week until they started bringing in temporary foreign workers from the Philippines, some of whom have since become Canadian citizens and remain on her staff.

Her concern is that changes to EI rules could mean she'll have to hire people who don't want to work, leading to headaches like missed shifts.

“How do you force somebody to work?” she asked. “I feel sorry for the government to have to find an answer to this, because I don't have one.”

While Ottawa says its EI changes won't force people to move, Ms. Vandenhurk says her fellow employers in booming Estevan face a genuine labour shortage. “It is a huge issue,” she said.

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