Mr. Yvon Godin (Acadie—Bathurst, NDP)
moved that Bill C-265, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (qualification for and entitlement to benefits) be read the second time and referred to a committee.
He said: Mr. Speaker, as always, it is an honour and a privilege to represent the people of Acadie—Bathurst in the House of Commons. It is also an honour to introduce Bill C-265.. I would like to thank as well the member for Sault Ste. Marie—that good northern Ontario city, as he said earlier—for supporting my bill.
Let me say at the outset, that we got off to a bad start because about 15 minutes before the bill was read in the House of Commons, I saw that the Conservatives were already calling for royal recommendation. I could see that the LIberals were going to support that and back what the Conservatives were saying.
In short, they are saying that the workers' money, the employment insurance premiums paid by workers and companies, does not belong to them. Those monies were seized by the federal government when the Liberals were in power, and were put into the government coffers, in the general revenue fund. Now, the government says that it wants to pay down the debt and balance the budget at the expense of workers.
From the start I said that was not right. In the past I have used the following example. The amount of tax paid is shown on an individual's pay stub. Usually, the tax is used to pay for things that the country has to fund, such as the health system, roads, pensions and all that. In addition, there is the Canada pension fund. What is the pension fund used for? It provides a pension to individuals when they are older. That is why these monies are withheld from workers' pay. The other deduction is for employment insurance. That is used to pay people when they lose their jobs. It is money that belongs entirely to the workers and the government is responsible for managing the employment insurance fund and making it available to them.
It is thus regrettable and shameful that this evening, in this House, the Conservatives have asked the Speaker for a royal recommendation for this bill, arguing that this money belongs to the Conservative government and that it will be used to pay down the debt and achieve a zero deficit at the expense of workers.
But coming back to my bill, which is an important one, when we ask that the threshold for becoming a claimant be lowered to 360 hours, this is like taking the EI fund and putting it back in the hands of the workers who have lost their jobs, to whom this fund belongs.
In Canada, only 32% of women who contributed to the EI plan currently qualify for benefits. Only 37% of men who had employment qualify for employment insurance benefits even if they contributed to the plan. This means that the vast majority of women with seasonal jobs or part-time jobs 20 hours per week will not be eligible for employment insurance initially, if they are required to accumulate 910 hours of work.
That is how the government came to play with the figures and with the formula to rob them of their EI. That is how it was done, and that was done under the Liberal government.
Today, we have a Conservative government. I cannot wait to hear the government line. I am sure that it will say that 85% of Canadians who are eligible for employment insurance do qualify for benefits. But if they are eligible, every one of them, not 85%, should qualify.
We in the NDP say that the money should go back to those who contributed. For example, students who pay EI premiums and attend university will never see a cent in EI benefits. Women who work but do not accumulate 910 hours and young people starting off on the labour market will never be eligible for employment insurance.
This is why the 360 hour level requested in this bill would help put the EI account back in the hands of those to whom the money belongs, and these people could finally qualify.
The National Council of Welfare has just released its latest report.
It indicates that reduced accessibility to employment insurance benefits is a cause of poverty among the various age groups, including children. In 1990, 80% of unemployed workers qualified for employment insurance benefits, compared to only 37% today.
How can the government say that 85% of workers qualify for employment insurance, when there is a $50 billion surplus in the employment insurance account? This is money that was taken by our governments, money that was taken from the country's poorest. Today, I would not want to find myself out of work. When a man or a woman loses his or her job, he or she goes back home and must tell the family that he or she will not be entitled to employment insurance benefits the next week. Imagine the impact on the family.
We are talking about poverty in Canada. The employment insurance program has generated poverty in this country. There are 800,000 Canadians who do not qualify for employment insurance. These are workers who lost their jobs. The Liberals and the Conservatives should be ashamed to have implemented such a system and to take workers' money. This is totally unacceptable and despicable.
I am also asking in the bill that we take the best 12 weeks, instead of the best 14 weeks. It is bad enough that workers only get 55% of their salary, up to a maximum salary of $740. Now, even though workers are only getting 55% of their salary, the government still feels it has not taken enough money from them. It will use 14 as a divisor, so that unemployed workers will barely get anything.
When the Conservatives were in opposition, they were interested in only one thing: lowering employment insurance premiums. There is not a single company in Canada that went belly up because of employment insurance premiums. However, I have seen families, women and children suffer because of the changes made to the employment insurance program.
This evening, I spoke to an employment insurance official. I am going to talk about a real case that I want the public to know about.
A woman in my riding decided to look after a senior who is over 80. The senior pays the woman $30 an evening, or $90 a week. The employment insurance service denied the woman employment insurance because this constitutes a work week. The woman stays 12 hours a night, because she spends the night at the senior's home. Her pay amounts to $3 an hour. This violates New Brunswick's and Canada's minimum wage legislation, but that is fine.
However, it is inconceivable that this woman, who looks after a senior, should be denied employment insurance. The government claims that this is a full-time job. The woman is paid $30 an evening for three days of work a week. Yet the Department of Human Resources claims she is not entitled to employment insurance. Do you think this is humane? The employment insurance system is in drastic need of reform.
When they were in opposition, the only thing the Conservatives did when recommendations were made was to call for lower premiums. Pity the poor companies. Their premiums are too high, they are going to starve, even though some are making billions of dollars.
In the nine and half years I have been a member of Parliament, I have never had a call from an employer in my riding complaining that its employment insurance premiums are too high. Never.
Where is our social conscience? Where is the wonderful country we like to boast about?
An employee does not decide one Friday not to come to work on Monday. What happens is that the employer has no more work for the employee. The employer asks the employee to stay home because of a lack of work. Why punish the employee? Why punish that person's family?
Why punish his or her children? In my riding, I receive cries from the heart from people who do not qualify for benefits because of the changes made to the plan in 1996. These are shameful changes, which are still in the statutes of Canada.
Yesterday, in the House of Commons, the Liberal leader said that the Conservative cuts were almost criminal. But these cuts were made by the Liberals, with the Conservatives' support, back in 1996. Earlier, when the Conservatives suggested that this bill would need a royal recommendation, the Liberal member rose and said that he was in agreement with that. That is what is making me say that there is no difference between the Liberals and the Conservatives. They are the same. It is shameful and monstrous to attack people who have lost their jobs and have been paying for a system that belongs to them, a system that they and their employers have paid into. Nowhere in Canada have I seen employers take to the streets because they were starving as a result of EI cuts or premium increases. I did, however, see families in that situation. I have seen thousands and thousands of them.
I want to commend two groups in Quebec: Mouvement Action Chômage and the Coalition des sans-chemise. People walked from Montreal to Ottawa and took to the streets in support of the workers, to defend their cause. I want to commend them. They have once again stood up and sought justice from our Parliament, from our governments. What a shame.
Allow me to come back to the divisor based on the best 12 weeks. In the fisheries sector, fishers can work between 70 and 80 hours per week for the first few weeks but that does not continue throughout the fishing season.
I have something to say to those in Ontario and the west who do not understand. At the end of the season, when fishermen work only 20 hours, that is considered a week. This is where the problem lies. This is a basic problem. One must accept that, in the fishing business, fish and cod cannot be caught on Yonge Street in Toronto. We cannot fish for lobster on St. Catherine Street in Montreal. Fish and lobster are caught in the ocean, and there comes a time when there are no more and when the work weeks are shorter. That is why it is shameful to set the divisor at 14, when these people have only 55% of their salary. Thus, they are punished twice.
For example, the greatest gift that could be offered to my riding of Acadie—Bathurst would be investments to ensure that everyone there has jobs. They would be happy to work 12 months of the year. Instead of constructing enormous buildings here in Ottawa and providing all services from Ottawa, why not invest in the regions where the unemployment rate is high?
Peter Mancini, former NDP member from Cape Breton, proposed creating new jobs in regions with high unemployment in order to help these people find work. We do not want to move the jobs. People back home do not want to leave the riding of Acadie—Bathurst, they do not want to leave Caraquet, they do not want to leave Shippagan, they do not all want to go out west to work for the big oil companies that the Prime Minister favours by decreasing their taxes and cutting benefits for workers who lose their employment. It is shameful. It is monstrous, shameful and unacceptable.
That is why I am calling on this House, on behalf of workers in Canada and in Quebec, to support the bill, to decrease the number of hours so that women in our country will be equally entitled and there is no discrimination. Let us stop abusing the women in our country.
We can also help people by lowering the divisor from 14 to 12. This would have an impact on the amount of money they receive. Given the number of hours they work in a week, this equals 12 weeks. That is why a divisor of 12, not 14, would be right.
Mr. Speaker, with that I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about Bill C-265.
Once again, I am asking for the House of Commons to support the workers. In the meantime, keep in mind that this money does not belong to the Government of Canada. It belongs to those who contributed, namely the workers.
Mrs. Lynne Yelich (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, it never ceases to amaze me how dramatic the member who introduced this bill can be. He has to consider our position here. He went on about the Liberals and the Conservatives agreeing. What he has not realized is he is a member of the third party in the House and he probably will never be in the position to make this decision.
I am pleased to join this debate on behalf of the new government. Let me begin by saying that Canada's new government is committed to ensuring that the EI program continues to serve Canadians in an effective and timely manner. The government knows how important EI is to unemployed Canadians and we want to make sure the program continues to operate in a way that meets their needs in a prudent and responsible manner.
We are not only prudent, we are caring. That party, which claims to be everything to everyone, has forgotten that we do care, but we temper it and we balance it, and we balance it with prudence. That is why any proposals for a change to the program must be looked at in the context of the overall Canadian labour market, as well as be consistent with the fundamental objectives of the EI program, something that was missing from the member's speech. Most important, they need to be supported by evidence.
Bill C-265 is asking the government to amend the Employment Insurance Act in the following ways: to reduce the entrance level requirements for the employment insurance program benefits to a flat 360 hours; to eliminate the variable entrance requirement; and to introduce a new best 12 weeks approach for determining benefit rates. Those would be significant changes. The question is, are they the right changes for these times? To answer that question, let us look at the environment in which they are being proposed. Let us look first at the current state of the labour market.
Canada's labour market is strong. Canada's labour market is performing well. Some would say it is performing exceptionally well. According to Statistics Canada, the national unemployment rate, which currently is about 6.1%, is the lowest it has been in some three decades and the share of the population that is employed today is at near record levels. This is good news. It means more Canadians are working and the demand for labour is strong. It also means that the opportunities to find and keep work are many.
We also know that many sectors are experiencing labour market shortages and many are looking for more workers.
We also know that even in this strong labour market, many Canadians will go through transitions and will continue to look to the employment insurance program for support and the employment insurance program will continue to help Canadian workers.
Employment insurance provides financial support during periods of temporary unemployment. It can help balance work and life responsibilities. It can provide assistance as unemployed workers adjust to the market changes and seek help to re-enter the labour market. These are all important functions of the program. Anyone interested in how well the program is delivering on them can consult the latest monitoring and assessment report which is prepared by the Employment Insurance Commission.
The latest report, for example, analyzes the operations, the impacts and the effectiveness of the employment insurance program for 2005. It demonstrates that the program is clearly meeting its objectives. When it comes to access to employment insurance benefits, we know that over 83% of unemployed workers who had paid premiums into the program and who had recent job separation, who qualified, were eligible to receive benefits. In other words, despite the member's claims to the contrary, the evidence shows that access to the existing employment insurance program is actually quite high.
There are those who claim that the number of hours needed to qualify for EI benefits should be reduced because they say that too few unemployed persons receive employment insurance benefits in some parts of Canada. However, they are often quoting a statistic known as the B/U, or beneficiary to unemployment ratio. That is a misleading statistic. It is not an accurate indication of actual access to the EI program.
This is because the statistic includes those who have not contributed to the employment insurance program by paying premiums.
Mr. Yvon Godin: Don't smile, be serious. If you believe it, be serious.
Mrs. Lynne Yelich: I am trying to tell the member because he has been jiggling the figures. For example, individuals who have never worked, or those who are self-employed, have not paid into the program and are, therefore, not eligible to receive the benefits.
The B/U ratio also includes those who have paid EI premiums but are not eligible for benefits because they voluntarily quit, they were unemployed for two weeks or less, or they worked fewer than the required hours.
When we look at the access rates of those for whom the program is designed, we can see that the actual rate is quite high and again over 83%.
Nevertheless, the government recognizes that in regions where unemployment levels are high, it can sometimes be difficult to obtain enough work to meet the employment insurance qualification requirements. That is why the EI program includes a variable entrance requirement, something that the member did not allude to.
The variable entrance requirement is designed to provide for consistently high program access by making monthly adjustments to qualifying requirements that reflect the latest unemployment rates in each region across the country. Do members think the member understands that this is designed to provide for consistently high program access by making monthly adjustments to qualifying requirements that affect the latest unemployment rates in each region across the country? This is where he is being served well by this employment insurance program.
When a regional unemployment rate increases, the entrance requirement is relaxed and the benefit duration is extended to allow more time for a successful job match. On the other hand, if a regional unemployment rate goes down, the entrance requirement is raised and the benefit duration shortened, thus recognizing the greater opportunities that are available for employment.
It is worth noting that to assist those with significant labour market attachment provides a significant benefit. For example, workers in high unemployment areas can get up to 37 weeks of benefit for about 12 weeks of work. All programs must have entrance requirements.
Bill C-265 proposes we abolish the variable entrance requirement and adopt a reduced flat 360 hour entrance requirement that would be the same for every region regardless of the unemployment rate.
There are a number of problems with this proposal. It would disproportionately benefit those living in regions with low unemployment over those in high unemployment regions. Reduced entrance requirements could create disincentives to work since workers may choose not to work beyond the minimum entrance requirements, and it would have only a very marginal impact on the number of additional people who would qualify for benefits.
The evidence indicates that the variable entrance requirement has played an important role in equalizing the percentage of individuals who meet employment insurance entrance requirements across various regions. Further, this measure could reduce labour force participation at a time when Canadians are facing growing labour shortages.
The new government is not in favour of eliminating the variable entrance requirement as the bill proposes. Evidence does not support abolishing it. This does not mean that the government is opposed to making improvements to employment insurance. I too have a soft spot for those who are unemployed--
Mr. Yvon Godin: How soft?
Mrs. Lynne Yelich: --and the government is also taking all things into consideration.
I remind the member that he does not have the corner on compassion in the House. I come from a community too that benefits from EI and good legislation. In fact, the government has taken action in a number of ways to address specific issues with respect to employment insurance.
We have taken action. We are expanding eligibility for compassionate care benefits so more family members can qualify for this. I am sorry I cannot continue on. I look forward to further debate on this issue in the future.
Mr. Rodger Cuzner (Cape Breton—Canso, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to speak to this issue. I hold a great deal of respect for my colleague who sponsored this private member's bill and for his work on this file and on employment insurance in general. Our positions do not mirror one another, but we are very like-minded. Our ridings are quite similar in many regards.
Prior to the last election, his leader and deputy leader sat down and negotiated with our prime minister. They talked about amendments to the budget of $4.5 billion. They were important amendments in housing and access to housing. They were investments in post-secondary education for students, very important programs, and they subsequently died.
However, through that whole negotiation process, there was not a word about EI from his leader and I felt bad for my colleague from Acadie—Bathurst. He has put so much time in on this file and I shared his pain when his leader disregarded.
I agree on the method the member has taken, through private members' business. Sometimes in the House we believe it is necessary to have a large scale, grandiose approach to fixing things. In this minority situation I do not think we have that luxury. Some working Canadians are hurting because of certain nuances in EI legislation. It would be great to do an overall revamp of the program, and many have talked about that, but to be practical, I do not think that opportunity exists, especially not in the minority situation.
There may be concerns on both sides, those of the workers and those of the employers. Everyone has their own perspective on this legislation. To come in with a perfect bill or a perfect slate of changes to fix the EI program will evade us currently, but we can do some small things. We can tweak it, adjust it and make it better. In essence, we want to serve the working people of our country.
Measures such as this one presented by the member for Acadie—Bathurst, through his private member's bill, may not be perfect, but if we wait for perfect, we miss a lot. A couple of the points in the bill deserve further study and have great merit. Therefore, I would like to see the bill go to committee.
My colleague and I worked together on an all party committee on EI reform two years ago. We saw a broad spectrum of presentations made by trade unionists, independent business people and chambers of commerce. Some very good recommendations came from that committee. A number of them were acted upon by the last government. Those changes have made a difference in the lives of many Canadians.
Look at the abolition of the divisor rule. At one time we would determine premiums by using the last 26 weeks over the last 52 weeks of work. That was changed to the best 14 weeks over the last 52 weeks of work. In talking with people who handle those EI files in my riding, that impacted on almost 39% of those receiving a benefit. That was significant. When people are looking at facing a long, cold winter what rate they receive makes a difference in many households, not just in my riding but across the country.
We took away some of the disincentives that were inherent in the legislation, some disincentives for part time work. We increased the amount of part time work one was able to claim going forward while receiving benefits, thus increasing the trigger before they had to claim. We also looked at the number of hours for first year entrants. There were a number of pilot projects put forward that did have an impact.
Was it perfect? Absolutely not. The member talked earlier about the factoring of severance pay into EI and not being able to draw EI if one is owed severance pay. This is something that we sometimes talk about in theoretical or obscure terms, but I saw it up close and personal in my own riding with the closure of the coal mines by Devco in Cape Breton. Hundreds of miners received severance packages, but they were not able to draw unemployment insurance. They put in 23 or 24 years in a tough industry, paid into the EI fund for those years and were not able to reap any benefit from that plan.
That EI was just an opportunity so they could readjust their lives and go on. Many of those miners have gone on and have done tremendously well, but just that opportunity to draw from that program while they went through their transition would have been of great benefit. This was a recommendation that came out of the all party committee and I was really disappointed that it in fact had not been acted upon.
What I am saying to my colleague today is that if we can take it one battle at a time, although some people say we are doing this piecemeal, if we can win one battle at a time, they are little victories and they end up to the greater good, so I appreciate my colleague's comments.
In the past government, we were very committed to regional economic development. We wanted to grow the number of full time jobs in communities. The workers in rural Canada are not seasonal workers. They are workers who work in seasonal industries. Much of the economy of this great country is generated through those types of seasonal industries. We have talked about the fishery, harvesting our crops, mining our minerals, and forestry. All those jobs are very much seasonal.
I want to take a practical example. We tried to grow some full time jobs in a particular area. The specific area is Chéticamp on Cape Breton Island. A community group came forward with a fabulous plan to develop an infrastructure whereby we could bring in a private call centre industry. They refurbished an entire facility. A private company came in, ramped up and started with 25 jobs. As the business took off, the company saw an opportunity to grow that business again, and it went to 50 jobs.
Sometimes in rural Canada there are some things that factor in with full time employment . The company is now ready to go to 100 or 125 jobs in an area that has an unemployment rate of about 12.5%, but it is tough to get people because those people have to make a decision. Economically, they have to look at what it costs to get to work. With a 45 minute drive to and from work, working for $10 an hour, perhaps with child care expenses and the complications that come with that, they have to sit down and look very hard at whether or not it makes sense to take that full time job.
Let us look at seasonal industries. In our forest industry, we have a small company that makes fabulous Christmas wreaths. It is not just the people at the plant who make the wreaths who are benefiting, but also the ones who provide the boughs, the raw resources and the transportation for the products. Everybody benefits. These communities grow through small seasonal businesses like this, so we have to be there to support them.
Let us not think that this is an Atlantic issue. There are as many people who draw benefits from EI in the city of Montreal as there are in all of Atlantic Canada. This is an issue that reaches straight across this country. I look forward to addressing it further at committee.
Mr. Yves Lessard (Chambly—Borduas, BQ):
Mr. Speaker, first I want to thank and congratulate the NDP member for Acadie—Bathurst, for his perseverance in defending the unemployed for so many years, often in rather difficult situations, as the member for Cape Breton—Canso pointed out earlier. The situation in which he was put when the next to last budget was presented made things even tougher for him. The member for Cape Breton—Canso himself had probably not noticed, but $2.5 billion had been taken out of that budget. I think this was a deplorable misfortune about which the hon. member surely has regrets. It could even make him cry, but this is the past. Let us just say that such things should not happen again, because it does not help workers.
The bill before us is a positive measure that does two things. First, it reduces the number of hours required to qualify for employment insurance benefits to 360 hours, and bases benefits on the highest-paid 12 weeks. This means 12 weeks of 30 hours, thus making it easier for people to qualify.
As the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst rightly pointed out, over 60% of workers are excluded from the employment insurance program when they lose their job, even though they have contributed to that program throughout their working life.
The parliamentary secretary and member for Blackstrap wondered whether these were good changes in this day and age. I find that question to be disconcerting. There is no specific era to determine whether we should help those in need or those who are not in need. There is no specific era for making such a distinction. There is no specific era for determining whether the government has a responsibility towards the unemployed. I think the answer is obviously yes. This bill provides proper solutions to the problems faced by the unemployed.
Ever since the Liberal Party reformed the EI program, the government no longer considers it to be an assistance program. It is a hidden tax that has particularly helped the Liberals achieve fiscal balance. However, the only ones contributing to the employment insurance account are the workers and the employers. As we are speaking, over $50 billion has been diverted from that account.
This is nothing new. Since 1998—when the incumbent was a man—and up to the most recent report, released on November 23, 2004, the Auditor General has reported that the government continues to loot the employment insurance fund, thus violating the rules that were set by the government itself.
As for the Bloc Québécois, of course we will vote in favour of this bill. It is a bill that addresses concerns that we raised with other bills. My colleague for Cape Breton—Canso said earlier that it is just one part of the measures that should be implemented. It is positive and it must be implemented.
It also reflects the will of the parliamentarians who sat on the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, which made 28 recommendations. By mid-December, it had made 8 recommendations and added another 20 on February 15, 2005. The measures found in Bill C-265 are actually measures recommended by the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities.
This same committee had recommended that the misappropriated amounts be restored to the employment insurance fund. Guess what? Last year, the Bloc Québécois tabled a bill calling for the establishment of an independent fund, as recommended by the committee.
During parliamentary committee meetings on Bill C-280, it was the Conservatives themselves who suggested the rate at which the fund should be reimbursed.
Now that they are in power, they no longer hold the same positions they did when they were in opposition, back when they supported the Bloc's demands on this issue.
Let us review, in brief, the history of these bills. Last year, in the previous session, the Bloc introduced a bill that included these measures. Bill C-269, introduced by a Bloc Québécois member, is now in second reading in committee. It, too, contains these measures.
On November 8, the House of Commons voted to debate Bill C-269 in second reading.
This bill was drafted in response to the demands of major unions and groups of people who are unemployed. It acknowledges the real needs of unemployed people. These groups made statements to the parliamentary committee.
I would like to speak in detail about the costs of these two measures. In December 2004, Malcolm Brown, an assistant deputy minister at the Department of Human Resources and Social Development, stated that the Bloc's proposed measure concerning the 360 hours—12 30-hour weeks—would cost $390 million of a $16 billion budget. It would improve employment insurance and enable 90,000 more unemployed people to collect employment insurance. Furthermore, the assistant deputy minister calculated that the measure in this bill concerning the 12 best weeks would cost $320 billion. This measure alone would help 470,000 people in need. Those 470,000 would not have to collect social assistance from the provinces. Obviously, under the circumstances, they are currently exacerbating the fiscal imbalance.
Over the past 12 years in particular, the restrictions imposed by the Liberal Party on the employment insurance program have not only penalized people who lost their employment, but also the families of those people. They have also penalized the regions in terms of the regional economy. In your riding, Mr. Speaker, there is an annual shortfall of between $30 million and $40 million because the unemployed do not receive the EI benefits they are owed. It is scandalous. These people go on welfare, of course, which increases the burden on the provinces and Quebec, since they have to support these people.
In closing, the Bloc Québécois will support Bill C-265 in order to have it considered at second reading.
The Bloc Québécois sincerely hopes that the House of Commons passes this bill unanimously, or at least with a majority, refers it to second reading to deal with it quickly, receives it at third reading and that cabinet does not apply its royal recommendation to block this bill.
That would be the best thing that could happen for the unemployed. For once, the government—
Ms. Penny Priddy (Surrey North, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-265 and to comment on the EI injustice in my community.
In the past, part time workers needed 910 hours to collect employment insurance. Under those circumstances, only 32% of women are eligible for employment insurance. In point of fact, only 37% of men are eligible for employment insurance. No matter what we do with the hours, the injustices in the EI system will continue as long as we continue to look at seasonal workers the way we do.
I represent Surrey and the lower Fraser Valley where about 8,000 to 10,000 farm workers are considered seasonal workers. They are primarily elders and almost 100% of them do not speak English. They depend entirely on the farm contractor or farmer to fill out their forms and then they sign them.
These people are trying to make a small amount of money to add to their family income. They are grandmothers and grandfathers living with their families. They are not used to being dependent upon someone and they want to make their own contribution. These people work many hours a day beyond what is acceptable. When harvest is in, picking hours are long.
These farm workers sign the forms that the farmers give them but they do not know what they are signing. No one is in the fields to tell them in their own language their rights but they do know that if they do not sign the form they will not get paid and will not be able to go back to work. They, therefore, sign the form even though they do not know what they are signing.
These elders, who do not speak English, did not have someone explain their rights, were used by farmers and farm contractors and are now being sued by the government. They really work piecemeal. A farmer or farm contractor divides the piecemeal work by the number of hours and tells the worker to sign the form. The government is now saying that they tried to defraud the EI system but they did nothing of the kind. They had no idea what was going on. The workers who worked in 1997 are currently before the courts, which means there are another four years yet to go.
It has been suggested that it will take about $6 million to try this case that will collect $600,000 for the government. Is that economic efficiency to spend $6 million to collect $600,000? This money is not being collected from large corporations that are not paying the taxes they should. This money is being collected from 80 year old people who have moved to this country because they believe in justice. They are trying to do the right thing but because they are frightened by their employers they sign the form. They did not know it was wrong but the government is taking them to court. What on earth would they pay us back with? They barely have enough money for the clothes on their back.
As I have not worked in the fields I would not suggest that I know what it is like. However, I have talked to some of these elders through translators and they have told me what it is like to be in the fields with the sun or the rain beating down on them for 14 to 16 hours a day picking fruit. It is outrageous for someone to tell them that if they do not sign a form they will not get paid and they will not be allowed back to work.
I have been told about a similar circumstance in New Brunswick involving fish plant workers and a former Liberal MP who found a particular way to deal with those seasonal workers.
I am not saying that is the same situation. What I am saying is that we need a different kind of EI structure for seasonal workers, such as those working on the farms in the lower Fraser Valley from which many of us across the country receive our fruit, particularly blueberries and cranberries.
The other people involved in part time work are in security, in construction work and so on.
These farmers are just trying to do their best. They have come to this country to be with their children and make a contribution to the household. Therefore, for the bill to be fair, it needs to look at B.C.'s seasonal workers. The act has an overall inherent flaw in how EI is granted to farm workers.