06/16/2012 03:49 EDT | Updated 08/16/2012 05:12 EDT

EI reform a 'direct attack,' shellfish group says

Proposed changes to the employment insurance program threaten the future of its industry, the P.E.I. Shellfish Association says.

The board held an emergency meeting this week to discuss the proposed changes, and its executive director levelled criticism at Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government.

"Mr. Harper's government has launched an attack on our industry by launching an attack on seasonal workers," said Rory McLellan, the executive director of the association.

Provincial politicians in Atlantic Canada say the region will be hardest hit by the new rules because the key industries are seasonal.

Under the new rules, frequent users of EI would have to take a job that pays 70 per cent or more of their current wage if they go six weeks without work.

"Basically our people are the poster children for seasonal industries," said McLellan. "We are regulated by the federal government so that we can only work at certain times of the year. At other times, our people are dependent upon employment insurance."

Federal Revenue Minister Gail Shea, who is also a member of Parliament from P.E.I., said last week the point of the changes is to put people back to work. She said the government would be reasonable and wouldn't force people to leave their homes for a job.

People who say otherwise are simply fear-mongering, Shea said.

McLellan disagreed.

"This is a huge issue that threatens the very existence of the shell-fishermen on P.E.I.," he said. "If you take away the employment insurance component, basically these people are going to have to leave the island and find work elsewhere."

McLellan's organization will meet with fishermen's groups from Atlantic Canada and Quebec in July to come up with a plan of action.

"We will continue to lobby the federal government to open its eyes," he said. "Either this is an attack on the shellfish industry or they're incredibly stupid. "