06/06/2012 10:30 EDT | Updated 08/06/2012 05:12 EDT

Atlantic premiers defend seasonal workers

The federal government does not understand the economy in Atlantic Canada, the region's premiers said following a meeting on P.E.I. Wednesday.

The premiers defended seasonal industries in their provinces, industries the premiers said could be harmed by changes Ottawa has made to employment insurance.

Under the new rules, frequent users of EI are required to take a job that pays 70 per cent or more of their current wage after six weeks without work. There are questions about how many people will actually be able to find work. In February, on P.E.I., eight people were out of work for each available job. That ratio was 14 to one in December.

P.E.I. Premier Robert Ghiz said he is concerned the changes could force skilled workers out of seasonal industries such as fisheries and agriculture.

"It's not like we're going to have an IT company set up next to a fish plant that only operates eight months a year, so people will work for four months in a fish plant and then move over to an IT company for the other eight months," said Ghiz.

New Brunswick Premier David Alward provided a concrete example of the contribution of seasonal industries in his province to the country.

"The last time I checked the people in Ottawa liked to eat lobster, and they like McCain French fries as well," said Alward.

Seasonal industries are worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy, said Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale, and the federal government can't simply pull the rug out from under them.

"How do we protect those industries? If you're not going to do it through the EI program, then you have to present some alternatives," said Dunderdale.

The premiers are looking for further dialogue with Ottawa in order to understand better what the changes mean. They expressed frustration that they were not consulted in the process leading up to Ottawa's announcement.

"We're being told that the program will have flexibility when in the past that flexibility hasn't existed," said Alward.

"We need to know and understand what those changes are so we can ensure our seasonal industries, our regions, will not be negatively impacted."

The premiers have sent a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressing their concerns over the changes to employment insurance.