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Workers demand immediate fix to Employment Insurance

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On July 1, 2008, 2400 workers found themselves on the street when Progressive Moulded Products (PMP), a non-unionized auto parts manufacturer, suddenly ceased operations and walked away with over $30M in severance and termination pay.

Since then, some workers have been forced to use credit cards to make their mortgage payments while others have relied on cheque cashing and payday loan companies – that charge double digit rates of interest – in order to buy groceries.

“We are proud, hard working people who need a good secure job to make a better life and future for our children,” said former PMP employee Fa Lin, now a member of the PMP Workers Action Centre, at the Good Jobs for All Coalition Fix EI rally Saturday at Metro Hall in Toronto.

In response to workers who are being denied jobs with competitive wages and safe working environments, the Good Jobs for All Coalition, an alliance of community, labour, social justice, youth and environmental organizations in the Toronto region was formed last November to improve living and working conditions for all Torontonians.

On Saturday, over 2000 people rallied at Metro Hall demanding the federal government fix the Employment Insurance (EI) system, protect pensions and services, and put the needs of working people before corporate sector profits.

“Stephen Harper, the workers are paying into the EI system and need it back now,” said Lin. “Canadian children are hungry.”

Mohan Krishnamoorthy is part of a growing rank and file movement called Hotel Workers Rising. He and his colleagues struggled, sacrificed, suffered and endured the SARS crisis in 2003 that left thousands of hotel workers unemployed and underemployed. Back then, like today, the EI system failed many hotel workers.

After working more than ten years at the Delta Chelsea hotel in Toronto, one worker received a $6.00 cheque from EI; many received nothing at all. At the time, hotel workers were unsuccessful in their attempts to change the EI system.

“Today, we are on the verge of winning needed changes to EI,” said Krishnamoorthy. “But that’s not enough. Now is the time to raise our living standards.”

After 26 years of service, Steelworker Abdul Samad was laid from his job at the Emcon Technologies plant in Concord. “The EI system we have in place right now is not working,” said Samad. “It must be fixed.”

The Good Jobs for All Coalition is calling for major changes: 360 hours to qualify in all parts of this country;  benefits should be at least 60% of best earnings; eliminate the 2 week waiting period; and benefits should last 50 weeks plus a further one year extension during the recession.

As it stands, the hours to qualify for EI are based on where you live and the unemployment rate in your economic region at the time of filing your claim for benefits. In Toronto, for example, where the unemployment rate is 9.1 per cent, a person needs 560 hours to qualify for regular benefits which are payable from 25 to 49 weeks.

The basic benefit rate is 55% of your average insured earnings up to a yearly maximum insurable amount of $42300. This means you can receive a maximum payment of $447 per week. Your EI payment is a taxable income, meaning federal and provincial or territorial, if it applies, taxes will be deducted.

You must serve a 2-week unpaid waiting period before your EI benefits begin to be paid. Generally, this period is the first 2 weeks of your claim.

Standing on the back of a pickup truck at the corner of Bay and King in the heart of the country’s financial district, Lorraine shared her unfortunate experiences with the EI system. During her last assignment with a temp agency, Lorraine thought she was finally going to land a full time job with the company she was working for.

Instead, she worked for a temp agency for 18 months with no benefits or holiday pay. Sick and tired of making $12 an hour and not getting all the benefits regular workers were receiving, Lorraine decided to fight for her holiday pay through the Workers Action Centre. Although she eventually won more than $500 it came with a price: the agency dropped her from its temp staff.

While looking for another assignment, Lorraine waited six weeks for her first EI cheque.

“I don’t understand why they keep the first two weeks,” said Lorraine. “Is that your punishment for not keeping your job? You’re already down on your ass. Is that to keep the poor even poorer?”

It wasn’t long before Lorraine couldn’t afford to pay her electricity bill and was cut off three weeks before Christmas. Unable to pay her bills or eat properly, her health deteriorated, resulting in sinus infections. But she couldn’t afford to pay for the antibiotics.

Eventually, she did find another temp assignment, but didn’t work enough hours to qualify for EI. Forced to give up her apartment, Lorraine is looking for a room that she can afford. She’s fed up of being trapped in a vicious cycle of temp assignments that relegate her to low pay and no benefits.

“We’re right at the corner of where the whole recipe for disaster began,” said Armine Yalnizyan, an economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. “The economy is twice as big as it was 25 years ago. And trickle down might have worked if it wasn’t for the sponges at the top.”

Yalnizyan continued: “As soon as the meltdown started, $125B was made available to make sure the banks didn’t crumble. But as soon as it hit us, there is nothing to support Canadians who are more exposed today than at any time since the Great Depression.”

While Flaherty and Harper are considering cutting back on the stimulus package, Yalnizyan pointed out that none of the stimulus dollars have reached the average worker.

“So let’s bring them back into the House of Commons, where the common people want some action to deal with this recession,” she said. “The common people need protections to make sure they don’t fall into destitution and poverty. Let’s make sure that the government works for us and not just for the banks.”

Click here to see photos from the rally and march.

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