Hon. Diane Finley (Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, CPC)
moved that Bill C-50, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act and to increase benefits, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
She said: Mr. Speaker, I am proud to introduce Bill C-50 to the House today. What is it about? It is about our government helping workers and their families. It is about extending EI regular benefits to those who have worked a long time and have never or rarely collected EI benefits.
Many workers have lost their jobs through no fault of their own because of the global economic downturn that has cut the ground out from under them. What happens to the workers who have rarely, if ever, collected EI before and who suddenly find themselves out of work? These are Canadians who have paid their dues, have worked hard, have paid their taxes for many years and have, of course, paid EI premiums.
It is only fair and responsible that we support them and their families in their time of need. Many workers have worked in the same job or industry all of their lives and face the prospect of having to start all over again.
In many cases, these workers are now facing low prospects of finding work in their industry, and many will face challenges transitioning to a new career.
These measures will help ensure that long-tenured workers who have paid into the EI system for years are provided the help they need while they search for new employment.
These are temporary changes to the EI program to help workers when they need it most.
The proposed measure would extend nationally regular benefits for long-tenured workers by between five and 20 weeks, depending on the number of years they have worked and paid EI premiums.
As proposed, this new, temporary measure would cover all new claims established from the start date, which will depend on when the legislation comes into force. Payments would then gradually phase out by fall 2011.
As members can see, this temporary measure is designed to help long-tenured workers find work as our economy recovers. The additional weeks of EI regular benefits would help these workers by providing support for a longer period while they look for work during the economic downturn.
This government is concerned about fighting the recession. This is, of course, in contrast to the official opposition that is more intent on fighting the recovery. This government believes that it is more important to be fighting for working Canadians, rather than fighting an unnecessary election.
This temporary measure is in addition to other measures that we are taking under our economic action plan to help workers. Canadians from all areas of the country and from all walks of life are being provided with meaningful help.
For example, another measure to help support long-tenured workers is the career transition assistance initiative. It consists of two measures to help workers retrain for new jobs.
The first extends their EI regular benefits up to a maximum of two years while they participate in longer-term training. Thousands of long-tenured workers will benefit from this measure.
The second measure gives long-tenured workers earlier access to EI if they invest in their training using all or part of their severance package.
Moreover, in our economic action plan, we have moved very quickly to provide the advantages of five additional weeks of EI regular benefits. In areas of high unemployment, we have increased the maximum duration of EI benefits by up to five weeks and, through our economic action plan, we are investing an additional $1.5 billion in provincial and territorial training programs. These programs are effective because they are being implemented by those closest to the labour market challenges in their respective areas. Close to 150,000 workers across the country will be benefiting from these initiatives that will help them retrain to keep their jobs or transition to new work. These agreements have been signed, sealed and delivered.
Let me now say a few words about work sharing, a federal program under EI that helps protect jobs. This program is another example of successful action taken by this government. It allows employees who might otherwise be laid off to continue working a reduced work week while they receive EI benefits for the days they do not work.
Under Canada's economic action plan, our government has made changes to work sharing that will maximize its benefit during this difficult period. The work sharing program now allows more flexibility for the employer's recovery plan and extends the maximum duration of the agreement by an additional 14 weeks.
Let me give this House an example of just how this is working. At a Michelin plant in Waterville, Nova Scotia, 550 workers have been participating in a work-sharing program since April 12, 2009. Under their agreement Michelin workers at this plant collect EI benefits for one day a week and work the other four days.
This government has always believed that the best way to help Canadians is to ensure that there are opportunities for work. This is a prime example of the right EI policy providing the right result. That is just one example.
At the beginning of September there were over 5,800 work-sharing agreements in place, benefiting almost 165,000 Canadians whose jobs are being protected.
Sometimes, despite their best efforts, businesses fail. When an employer goes bankrupt, workers have good reason to worry about the money that is owed to them. That is why a wage-earner protection program provides eligible workers with guaranteed and timely payment of their remaining wages, severance, termination and vacation pay if their employer goes bankrupt and cannot pay them.
Since January 27, 2009, the WEPP has reimbursed $17 million in wages to over 8,000 Canadians who were owed eligible wages by their bankrupt employer.
We know how difficult it can be for young people to find their career paths when they have little work experience. That is why, under our economic action plan, we are supporting two measures to help young people in transition.
Our Canada summer jobs program has seen its funding increased by $20 million over the next two years. Subsequently, this year we were able to sign approximately 22,000 agreements to support the creation of almost 40,000 jobs for students who will get valuable work experience.
And we have finalized a $15 million agreement with the YMCA and YWCA to implement the new grants for youth internship program across Canada.
Under this program, up to 1,000 young people will gain work experience through internships with not-for-profit and community service organizations, with a focus on environmental projects.
In today's environment we realize how important it is for Canadians to develop the skills they need to participate and indeed succeed in the job market. In particular we need to attract young people into the skilled trades. Earlier this month Canada and Calgary were host to the WorldSkills Competition. Canada's young people had an opportunity to become more knowledgeable about world-class expertise in the trades. I want to congratulate all the competitors on Canada's team at WorldSkills Calgary.
Let me announce to the House that Canada's team, known as the “Great 38”, won a total of eight medals this year: three gold, three silver and two bronze. To all those participants I would like to say their country is behind them and we are proud of them all the way.
While I was at WorldSkills Calgary, I was particularly delighted to present the first apprenticeship completion grant cheque in Alberta to a former participant in the Canadian WorldSkills competition. Under our economic action plan we added the apprenticeship completion grant to motivate Canadians to complete their apprenticeship training and receive certification in a designated “red seal” trade. The apprenticeship completion grant builds on the apprenticeship incentive grant which encourages young Canadians to progress through their apprenticeship training.
Mr. Speaker, are you aware that an apprentice could receive a total of $4,000 in grants with both of these programs? That is good news. As many as 28,000 Canadians could take advantage of this excellent opportunity aimed at training our workforce of the future.
We are also providing support, indeed more support, for older workers under the economic action plan. The targeted initiative for older workers will provide an additional $60 million over three years to enable people 55 to 64 years of age to get skills upgrading and work experience to help transition to new jobs.
These are people who bring a wealth of experience to the workforce, providing invaluable knowledge and mentorship skills.
The economic action plan is helping Canadians in all walks of life. It is helping an older forestry worker in Quebec transition to a new career. It is helping a young woman in Regina train for a job in web design. It is helping a single mother in British Colombia get back into the workforce by learning a trade.
It is helping the laid-off worker in Ontario who needs extra weeks to look for a new job. Our economic action plan is helping a lot of people who have been knocked down by the economic crisis to get back on their feet.
Not so long ago, as we moved into the summer months, the Leader of the Opposition made a great deal out of how important he felt EI was to himself and to other members of his party. We on the government side agreed to work together with the opposition to develop solutions to this serious problem. Our government brought serious proposals to the table. The opposition, however, became fixated on a program that would provide for a 45-day work year. We said from the beginning that it was the wrong direction. We knew that a 45-day work year would not create a single Canadian job.
Sadly, before our work was finished, the opposition walked away from the talks. Actually more to the point its members decided that they would not even bother to show up. On the advice of the Leader of the Opposition his party walked away from Canada's unemployed. Not only that, but when our government held a briefing session yesterday for the opposition members to discuss this bill and to inform them about it, the Bloc and the NDP were there to learn more, but not one Liberal MP cared enough about the unemployed to show up and learn about the bill.
I will stand in this place today and say to the House that this government will never, ever walk away from Canada's unemployed, especially when they need our help the most.
We are making good progress, but the job is not done.
I want to re-emphasize that Canadians do not need, nor do they want, an unnecessary election.
The economy is still our number one priority. We need to continue to implement our economic action plan in order to create and maintain jobs.
Mr. Michael Savage (Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I am very happy to have the opportunity to debate, for the second time this week, a bill about employment insurance.
We have heard from the government a bit about the bill. We will hear from the opposition parties how they feel about it, but the sad, overarching fact about all of this which overrides the content, or the lack of content, of this bill is that this is not really about employment insurance at all. It is about politics and about political games.
The Conservative government does not particularly care much about the social infrastructure of this country. We know that and we knew that from the beginning. When it inherited the Liberal surplus, it still cut literacy, the court challenges program, women's groups and many other pieces of the social infrastructure of this country. That is when it was living off our surpluses.
No, this is not a bill about EI. This is about politics and using EI as a tool. To the Conservatives, this is all a parliamentary chess game with politics first and people second.
Let us take a moment to see how we got to this today.
Last year at about this time, the Prime Minister was denying that there was any recession coming down on Canadians. We then had the economic update, which ignored the problem, and a finance minister who referred to the recession as a technical recession.
In January we saw a flawed budget, but there were some investments in things such as EI, extension for benefits and money for training. We said that we did not think the budget was enough but that it was a start. We supported it. The other parties did not. It was qualified support. The day we announced we would support the budget, we said that we needed to see more to continue our support of the government.
Last spring, employment insurance was a big issue. It was needed across the country. Jobs were being shed in many parts of Canada, including many parts of this country that had not suffered job losses in previous recessions.
The Leader of the Opposition indicated the Liberal position, which was regional fairness and a national standard of 360 hours to qualify. He was not alone on that.
The premier of B.C., Gordon Campbell, said Canadian workers, whether they lived in the Maritimes, the north, or Ontario, should be treated the same way.
The premier of Saskatchewan said that instead of 50-plus different treatments for the number of qualifying hours, we needed to dramatically reduce that.
The premier of Alberta said that unemployed families, whether they lived in Nova Scotia, Quebec or Alberta were equally unemployed.
The TD bank said that the truth of the matter was that during an economic downturn, it was no easier to find a job in a region with a lower prevailing unemployment rate than in one with a higher unemployment rate.
Pierre Fortin from Quebec said of the Leader of the Opposition's proposal that 360 hours was no problem, that it was just and fair.
A number of organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce said that a measure to improve the equity of the EI system that would be consistent with longer-term, smart policy would be to immediately and permanently make the duration of and access to benefits the same.
Perhaps my favourite was from the Reform Party of Canada platform's statement of principles which said: “An unemployed worker is an unemployed worker and deserves to be treated the same, regardless of region of residence. We will urge the immediate elimination of discriminatory EI elements such as regional entrance requirements”. The author of that is now the Prime Minister of this country. That is what he said then. We see where he is now.
In the spring, EI was a big issue, a huge issue in this Parliament. There were a number of private members' bills brought forward which Liberals supported as a way of sending a message to the government that this was a serious issue, that we would not agree with everything that was in all these bills that our colleagues from other parties had put forward, but that we supported the principle of investing in people and in the social infrastructure of this country.
Bill C-241, from my friend from Brome—Missisquoi, called for the removal of the two-week waiting period.
Bill C-279, from the member for Welland, called for an enactment providing that pension benefits, vacation pay and severance were not to be included in earnings.
Bill C-280, from my NDP colleague from Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, called for a lowering of the threshold for becoming a major attachment to 360 hours, the national standard, setting the weekly payable to 55% of the best 12 weeks and reducing the qualifying period for receiving benefits.
We had an opposition day motion brought forward by the member for Hamilton Mountain, and I am going to read the whole thing because it is interesting to juxtapose the view of the NDP on March 5 and the view of the NDP here in September. This motion said:
|| That, in the opinion of this House, the government must address the alarming growth in the number of unemployed Canadians and the increasing number of Employment Insurance claimants; confirm its commitment to a social safety net to help regular Canadians through tough times and bring forward reforms to Employment Insurance rules to expand eligibility and improve benefits, including: (a) eliminate the two-week waiting period; (b) reduce the qualifying period to a minimum of 360 hours of work, regardless of the regional rate of unemployment; (c) allow self-employed workers to participate in the plan; (d) raise the rate of benefits to 60% and base benefits on the best 12 weeks in the qualifying period; and (e) encourage training and re-training.
There is nothing in there about extending benefits further.
That was the discussion back in the spring. It was a very long discussion in the House that dominated many question periods. It was called for in private members' bills and in opposition day motions.
Outside of the House, we heard the premiers, economists and labour unions. We heard everyone saying that we had to do something. The first thing they always mentioned was the unfairness of the system, particularly in a difficult economic time, for people who simply were unable to qualify.
As recently as Monday, my colleague on the human resources committee, the member for Chambly—Borduas, brought forward a bill that called for many of those same things.
In June Parliament was paralyzed and the country was on the verge of having an election until the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister said, “Let us try to make an effort. Let us try to take this out of question period and put it into a room where people can discuss ideas”. The two things that were going to be discussed were regional fairness, from the Liberals, and extending EI to the self-employed, from the Conservatives. Those were the two issues.
What happened? On June 17 this EI working group, called a blue ribbon panel, was formed to look at those two issues. I was announced, my colleague, the member for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine was the other member along with Kevin Chan, a very distinguished member of the office of the Leader of the Opposition. We were the three members. The minister was announced by the Prime Minister.
Two weeks later the other two members of the Conservative Party were announced. That was two weeks after June 17, so we were already into the summer.
We had a tele-conference. The minister said, “I cannot meet for two weeks. I have a vacation”. We were going to meet the next week and the other member of the Conservative Party said, “I've got a vacation too”, so we had to delay it again.
We had our first full briefing on July 14 which was a technical briefing. The minister in the House just said that we only had one position and she had all kinds. The minister presented nothing. There still is not a Conservative proposal to that group. If there is, she knows where my office is. She can send it. We still have not seen a proposal from the Conservatives.
On that day, July 14, in Ottawa we asked a series of questions of the working group. We asked it to cost 360 hours on a temporary basis. We also said, “Give us the cost of going to 390 hours, give us the cost of going to 420 hours, give us the cost of eliminating the three month regional rate system which penalizes people who lose their jobs on the front end of an economic downturn”.
My colleague from Montreal said, “Maybe we should look at the extension of benefits. We could at least look at it. Look at what they are doing in the United States”. That was a Liberal idea on July 14. We have it in writing, Mr. Speaker. I would be happy to send it to your office because I know you are a learned man.
We also asked, “Where is the position on the self-employed, which is your position?”. The Conservatives even promised it in the last election. They said that the Conservative government would extend EI benefits for maternal parental benefits for self-employed people.
The Conservatives said that they could not give us that information. We asked, “You can't tell us what it will cost, you must have cost it for your platform”. They said they could not give us that because it belongs to the Conservative Party of Canada.
I said, “You've got a department and you've got all kinds of people”. Whenever the minister would come to the human resources committee, she would bring a whole boatload of good people in whom we have faith when they are properly directed. The Conservatives said that they cannot give us that information.
We still do not know what that would have cost, concerning the self-employed. That was the Conservative proposal. They said to the Leader of the Opposition, “We want to look at the self-employed based on what we promised in the last election”. We got nothing.
On July 23 we had our first full meeting of the EI working group. We had agreed before that there would be certain protocols followed. The Conservatives would give us documents in advance, we would look at them, and we would all come prepared to discuss them. They would table drafts and we got them at the meeting.
I talked to the minister four or five days before. She was king enough to call when she got back from vacation. She said, “Why don't we present on the self-employed and you present on regional fairness”.
We presented on regional fairness. We had a long discussion and all six members of the working group agreed that we should get information on a number of areas. I will come to the exciting part about that later, which is that we never got that information either. We agreed on protocols and we did not get it.
We had a full discussion. There was no proposal from the Conservatives on the self-employed. We agreed to have three meetings in August. That is what our group did.
The meeting on August 6 was a beauty. We arrived at the meeting. The Conservatives provided their costing of 360 hours. They brought it to the meeting, but they gave it to reporters beforehand. I can show members. I have it here. It indicates on the bottom that it is not for distribution. Maybe they meant they were not going to distribute it to wholesalers across the country or something like that, but they gave it to the media who did not take it seriously. The Conservatives said that the 360 hour costing would be four billion and some dollars. Everybody else said it would be $1.5 billion.
The Conservatives said it would be $4 billion. How did they get to that number? They would not show us the work. When I was in school, I was not great at math and I was always told to show the work. I was not very good at that. It made it harder for me to guess. The Conservatives did not show their work. It was not the department that did not want to show it. It was the minister who did not want to show it. No answers were given to our questions. They leaked a document that was not for distribution. We responded to that.
On August 13 there was another table drop of documents. They brought in new costing for the 360 hours, which again was inflated. They refused to separate the hard, static cost from what they referred to as the estimated potential labour market impact. They said that if EI was changed, there would be an impact on the labour market. There are a couple of problems with that. The Parliamentary Budget Officer picked that one out fairly easily.
The Conservatives said that back in the 1970s the changes made to liberalize EI increased the unemployment rate by 2%. They are saying it will happen again. Let us picture that. Somebody out there who has a job is just itching to leave that job in order to get, for a maximum of 36 weeks, 55% of what he or she was making. It is an insult to Canadians to suggest that is what Canadians would want to do. It is on a temporary basis, not something that goes on forever. In the 1970s people could quit a job and get EI, but that cannot be done now. There is a whole host of differences.
Again, there was nothing on the self-employed.
On August 20 we arrived at the meeting. Again, we were given documents. There was no information in advance. We said that we would have to go away and look at them. That was probably another time the Conservatives suggested to themselves that we would not come back. The Conservatives did not give us information. They were not treating us seriously. There were no proposals. We kept going back, and going back, and going back.
We looked at some points at issue. That meeting, very significantly, was when the minister confirmed that in spite of the protocols of the EI working group which was that we would all submit our questions, the questions would go to the department through a secretariat and the answers would come back, she said that she had told the department not to answer those questions. Why would she tell the department that? Well, we are not going there anyway. We all agreed, including the minister, that we would get questions answered. The minister decided by herself that she did not like that.
That is the EI working group. In 10 weeks there were no serious proposals. Protocols were overridden.
On many occasions we offered to meet more often. It was not just for the joy of the company of the member for Nepean—Carleton and the minister. We felt that this was something serious and we should meet.
We suggested that we meet all day on August 19 and 20, or at least meet in the morning starting at 9 o'clock on the Thursday so we could seriously get at this stuff. We did not meet.
On August 20 we said that if we were not going to get information, we wanted to know to whom we could go for an independent analysis of what is going on.
The Parliamentary Budget Officer is an independent officer of this Parliament. We sent him the information about our proposals. He sent a letter to the department asking if it could back up the information by a certain date. The department could not do that. He did his analysis, and I will quote from that now:
|| The Government's total cost estimate, including static and dynamic costs, presented to the EIWG on August 14 of $2.425 billion overstates the cost of the proposed 360-hour national standard of EI eligibility as--
The Parliamentary Budget Officer went on to say that he believes that the government's dynamic cost estimate is flawed. He said that only the static cost should be considered because the proposed change to the EI system is in effect for only one year and not longer. In the opinion of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the $1.148 billion static cost estimate is a reasonable estimate of the costs of the proposed 360 hour national standard of eligibility. I repeat that the $1.148 billion static cost is a reasonable estimate.
An hon. member: Where did they get the $4 billion?
Mr. Michael Savage: That is a good question. My colleague asked where they got the $4 billion.
We look at this bill the Conservatives are bringing in today. They say it might affect 190,000 people and it would cost such and such. How do we know that? How do we trust the numbers? Perhaps the Parliamentary Budget Officer could look at that as well. How do we know what they are actually saying? Even if what they are suggesting is reasonable, people are pretty skeptical.
The head of the CAW, Ken Lewenza, said that what Canadians need is a “full loaf of bread”. He said that the plan to extend benefits for workers who have been employed for 7 of the past 10 years will not help the vast majority of the country's 1.6 million unemployed.
An hon. member: Crumbs.
Mr. Michael Savage: Crumbs, crumbs.
Armine Yalnizyan is one of the smarter economists in this country. We know Armine; she is very smart. She pointed out that the program's restrictions act against the nature of much of Canada's industry.
Laurel Ritchie of the Canadian Auto Workers said that few laid-off members of that union, “only handfuls”, have been able to meet the long-tenure definition.
CLC economist Andrew Jackson said that his understanding of the new proposal is it would fully apply only to unemployed workers who have initiated a claim to EI benefits since the beginning of this year.
That is where we are. We are debating a bill and we cannot be sure of its benefits in a period of time when EI has been the political football for the government.
The people in Canada who need help are not in the Rolodex of the Prime Minister. They are people such as workers across Canada who agreed to work reduced hours to keep companies afloat when things got tough, and then were laid off and found out they did not qualify for EI because they had worked reduced hours. They are people such as a single mother in my riding who struggles to raise her children, who can only work 20 hours a week, who is laid off and finds out she does not have the required number of hours to qualify for employment insurance.
Workers have paid into the system for years and they do not qualify for benefits, and the Conservative government turns a blind eye to them. At best, these people are mere numbers in the bigger picture.
In fact, to the government, it is all about numbers and not even the right numbers. It is not the 1.6 million unemployed the government pays attention to. It is not the 800,000 workers who have no EI benefits that it pays attention to. It is not the alleged 190,000 who it claims will be helped by this bill or the 60,000 who others suggest might be helped by this bill. It is not the $440 a week maximum weekly benefit, or the 330-hour average weekly benefit that those on EI get. It is not 360 hours. It is not 420 hours. It is not 560 hours. It is not 700 hours. Those are not the numbers that matter to the government.
The only numbers that matter to the government are the numbers 308 and 155, the number of seats in the House of Commons and the number that constitutes a majority.
To make those numbers work, the Conservatives will manipulate, distort and manufacture anything to win. It is always politics before people. This is the game they played with Canadians and the game continues today. We will not play that game. We have no faith or confidence in the government.
Mr. Yves Lessard (Chambly—Borduas, BQ):
Mr. Speaker, I listened to the minister’s speech earlier, and it would have been appropriate to ask her several questions which have not been answered. Despite the briefing session yesterday by officials from the Department of Human Resources and Social Development, certain questions remain unanswered with regard to the persons targeted by this bill. Who does Bill C-50 include and who does it exclude? These questions have still not been answered.
Yet one has the impression that the department is fully aware of the answers, since it has said that 190,000 unemployed persons will be eligible under these measures, for which there is a budget of $935 million. Therefore, we are entitled to specific answers to the type of questions I have just raised. But no, there are no answers. So we must look into the impact that this bill may have on the people who have lost their jobs.
First, let us look at what is not covered in this bill. It does not cover the nearly 60% of unemployed people who do not qualify for employment insurance right now. There is nothing to improve accessibility for all those who do not qualify. Furthermore, according to the department’s own Web site, over 55% of people are presently excluded from the system. So there is nothing for them.
Moreover, this bill excludes young people, women, the self-employed and a good many seasonal workers, for these are the categories of persons who make most frequent use of employment insurance. Let us remember the rule set forth in the bill: one must not have drawn more than 35 weeks of benefits over the last seven years. In other words, that automatically excludes seasonal workers, women and other persons who move in and out of the labour market. So this applies to quite a lot of people.
The minister says that 190,000 people will be able to benefit from this measure. Allow us to doubt this. In fact, the minister accompanies this statement with another, about the cost of $935 million. For a budget of $935 million to be needed, 85% of the people receiving employment insurance benefits would have to use all of their allotted weeks of benefits. But that is not the case, since only 25% of people use them.
So let us remember this: to arrive at the extra $935 million projected in the bill, 85% of people would have to use all their allotted weeks of employment insurance benefits.
Facts are stubborn things, and they shed the brightest light. In this case, the fact is that only 25% of people reach the limit of the number of weeks to which they are entitled. In other words, we come back to between 25% and 30% of the amounts already announced.
We were not given specific information. So we asked in writing how one could arrive at this result, but were provided no answer. So we worked it out and understood that, in fact, this will cover 60,000 persons—at the most—out of 1.5 million or 1.6 million unemployed people in the country. This also changes the number of millions of dollars. Instead of approaching $1 billion, we are closer to $300 million, at most.
Perhaps they can prove otherwise. This they have not done. They make statements without being able to show the method by which they arrived at the results they present. The calculation must be done over again. If you were to do this as well, Mr. Speaker, you would find that you end up with the same result.
My colleague from Dartmouth—Cole Harbour spoke briefly about the shamefulness of the situation, that is, why there is no pilot project.
Usually, when such a project of a specific duration is presented, the government does not have to formally table it in the House. It says that taking steps to set up a pilot project is one of its prerogatives. It could very easily do this. It does not need to come here. On the other hand, the government is well aware of the shamefulness of what it is doing. To introduce such a bill, it has to create a third category of the unemployed, what the Conseil national des chômeurs is now calling “the bad unemployed”. According to the government, there are the good unemployed and now the bad unemployed.
Some people have contributed to employment insurance at such a level that they qualify for the program and have had the good fortune not to have to claim employment insurance benefits. It is the most vulnerable who are excluded. All those who are included are those who have had the benefit—and I am happy for them—of a stable job over the last 7, 8 9, 10, 11 or 12 years, since the bill sets the eligibility rules based on the weeks to which you are cumulatively entitled, on a rising scale. The better a contributor you have been to the fund, the fewer benefits you have received, the more gold stars you earn and the more weeks you qualify for.
Fair enough. Naturally this will favour certain people. In my opinion, the employment insurance system has to be improved from top to bottom, not piecemeal as is the case at present. Some people will see an improvement in their benefits as a result of this bill. This must not be a bill that is discriminatory or arbitrary toward certain segments of society that are being favourably targeted. In fact, it is not a favour, since this it belongs to them as well. But why discriminate against the others? That is the question we have to ask.
Let us return to the idea of a pilot project. What is shameful is having the House and all the parties present vote on and sanction a bill that is discriminatory. Naturally we are not opposed to the principle of this measure. What we do not accept, and what the House must not accept, is discrimination against the majority of unemployed people.
This morning the hon. member for Joliette moved that the bill be referred immediately to committee so that this type of debate can be held and appropriate amendments made for the purpose of removing these discriminatory measures. Why?
In our view, an effort has to be made, even if this is not something that is going to reform the entire system. We believe that it is necessary to make this effort. It must not be done just any old way. We must not abandon those who are in need of the fastest assistance.
This bill also prevents us from debating the crux of the problem—the fact that the employment insurance program has become outdated and does not reflect today's reality. That has happened because it has been drained of the resources required to properly fulfill its mandate of providing benefits equitably and for enough time that people can live with dignity. We know that the former and current governments diverted billions of dollars from the employment insurance fund every year for the past 13 years. The current estimate is that $57 billion was taken out of the employment insurance fund.
A number of people who participated in this debacle would be quite happy if we stopped talking about it. But we never will because it is an injustice. It represents a serious economic crime that was committed against the unemployed, families, and regional economies and communities in every province. In Quebec, people have had to apply for social assistance because almost 60% of those who should be eligible for employment insurance have been excluded.
In recent years, we have proposed concrete measures. We have tried to make this House aware of the fact that more people must have access to employment insurance. We are looking at 360 hours. We are pleased that the Liberal Party has also taken up the cause. The Liberals rallied to our side when we debated Bill C-269 in the last session. We also made recommendations to the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities in the last session.
I would like to talk about the recommendations made by the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities in February 2005. The committee recommended the measures that we now find in Bill C-308, which I was honoured to introduce on behalf of my party. We had a one-hour debate at second reading this week in the House.
I can list the measures. They include, of course, the 360 hours. We must ensure that everyone, without discrimination, permanently goes from 45 to 50 weeks. We want benefits to be raised to 60% of the claimant's income. This is a sensible measure that immediately injects money into our economy. We are calling for the waiting period to be abolished. That is a measure that costs the government nothing, because the individual receives the money at the beginning of the two weeks instead of at the end. This way, people are able to receive benefits from the beginning, and it puts money into the economy immediately. This spring, the Conservatives promised to introduce changes to allow self-employed workers to voluntarily participate in the employment insurance program. They did not follow up on this, and that is also in our bill. We are demanding that there be no more discrimination against people who work for a family-owned business and are related to the owner.
When we talk about comprehensive reform that truly takes into account the difficulties that unemployed workers are facing, these types of measures are the ones we need to take, and not the piecemeal measures that discriminate against people, as we are seeing now.
A little earlier, I spoke about the fact that the employment insurance system is currently based on two criteria that help determine eligibility and access to benefits, and they are the number of hours worked and the unemployment rate in a given region. The current bill, as it stands, creates a third criterion based on contributions to and use of the system. This is the cornerstone of this bill, and that is what we must focus on in this debate.
That is why, this morning, our House leader made the recommendation to send the bill to committee immediately. However, to our surprise, the Conservatives refused, even though the three opposition parties were in agreement. Why did they refuse? As the others have already said, they were playing politics, petty politics, to stall the debate and put pressure on the opposition parties. By stalling the debate, they are effectively delaying the implementation of this bill. It is hard to find anything worse than that. Once again, they are playing twisted political games with the lives of workers, and that has no place here.
Two examples support what I am saying. The first, which we heard about earlier, is the pilot project. That approach would be perfect. So far, that is how it has always been done, since it is a short term project. The second example is the refusal to debate it immediately in committee. What does the Conservative government have to gain by that? Ultimately, by drawing out the debate, first here in the House with five hours of debate today, and sending the bill through all the normal steps, the deadline, which is mid-October, will not be met. The Conservatives can then say that it was the opposition that was stalling.
This is completely outrageous and unacceptable.
Since this time last year, 500,000 workers have lost their jobs in Canada, including 70,000 in Quebec. We have come back to this House over and over again, trying to have Parliament adopt measures to help these people right away. I cannot help but think of the forestry industy in Quebec, for instance. There is really nothing in this for that industry, which is a shame. We have been refused every time. It has been drawn out. Now the Conservative government is afraid of being ousted, so it comes to us at the last minute with vote-catching measures that take into account only certain needs, and it wants to put all the blame on the opposition for delaying this bill.
In closing, I would like to remind the House of our position from this morning. We remain convinced that Bill C-50 must be immediately referred to the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities for study. Otherwise, we will be forced to vote against it, if this course of action is not done properly. I do not see how we could go back to our constituents and say that we agreed to a bill that is discriminatory, arbitrary and that favours one option that will go on for so long.
Mr. Yvon Godin (Acadie—Bathurst, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak to Bill C-50, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act and to increase benefits.
I have 20 minutes to talk about this bill, but it is not very long, so I will give a brief history of employment insurance.
I would like to start by emphasizing the extent of the employment insurance problem in Canada. Workers are unable to qualify for EI and receive the necessary benefits. There are more bills currently before the House of Commons that target employment insurance than for any other program. I was just counting the number of bills that have been introduced in the House and are under study.
The NDP has 12 bills on EI before the House. The Bloc Québécois has six, and the Liberals, two. Maybe they do not believe there are many problems with the system. The Conservatives have one. The Bloc Québécois has only six bills, but each one addresses a number of problems, which makes for fewer bills.
In 1986, the Auditor General said that employment insurance funds should be placed in the consolidated revenue fund. That is when the employment insurance problems began. That is when the government's cash cow was created. The government began to realize that employment insurance funds were going into the consolidated revenue fund. It was easy to tell Canadians to tighten their belts, that there was a deficit and that it was impossible to balance the budget. Subsequently, however, EI funds arrived by the shovel full. It was a good place to get money, which had been placed where it should not have been.
I recall a demonstration was held in 1988 when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney visited Inkerman, New Brunswick. The people were already demonstrating against the changes being made by the Conservative government of the day.
I cannot repeat enough that on July 31, 1989—I remember it well and it can be verified in the archives of L'Acadie nouvelle—the Liberal opposition stated in the papers through the former member for Acadie—Bathurst that all New Brunswickers should fight all of the changes to EI made by the Conservatives because they were disastrous for New Brunswick.
I think it is important to speak of the past. In the spring of 1993, the Liberal leader at that time, Jean Chrétien, sent a letter to a group of women in Trois-Rivières telling them that the problem was not the unemployed but the economy. The economy had to be fixed and assistance to the unemployed could not be cut because they were becoming victims.
Surprisingly, in the fall of 1993, with the election of the Liberals, the changes continued. I cannot say that the changes were any worse than those made during the Conservative era, because we did not know how far the Conservatives would have gone, but the changes continued under the minister responsible for human resources at the time. I think Mr. Axworthy was heading what was known as Employment and Immigration at the time
Then, there was a new appointment, that of Doug Young, the member for Acadie—Bathurst. It was the period of the great changes in 1996. We reached a point where only 33% of women and 38% of men qualified for employment insurance under the Liberals.
Let us talk about economic crises. I do not want people to forget the past. Do you think there was no crisis for plant employees and fishermen in 1992-93 when groundfishing was banned and fishing stopped in the Atlantic? At the time, they were labelled lazy in Atlantic Canada. People said they did not want to work. They said that they were going to put them in their place. That is what the Liberals did at the time. And then they began to build surpluses at the rate of $7 billion or $8 billion a year. They were EI surpluses. Where did the money go? It went into the consolidated revenue fund, under the fine formula of Brian Mulroney, who was Prime Minister of Canada in the 1980s. They put the money from EI into the consolidated revenue fund.
It was not workers who were depending on employment insurance any more, it was the government so it could boast that it was paying off the deficit and balancing its budget. On whose backs? On the backs of the workers.
I was elected in 1997 because people had had enough of that in my riding. They had had enough of someone from the area who should have understood the problem and the plight of seasonal workers. If he had understood the situation, he would not have made the changes, or most importantly, he would have told the Prime Minister to get him out of there and put someone else in if it had to be done. I am talking about cutbacks. That is what happened.
They said here in the House that the problem existed only in the Atlantic provinces and not elsewhere in the country. At that point, I went to meet working people all over Canada, from Newfoundland to Whitehorse. I visited 10 provinces and Yukon, 21 municipalities and regions. I took part in 52 public meetings in two months. The people told us what the problem was all over the country. That was when I made 13 recommendations. We are in 2009 now and still talking about the same problems.
The Liberals want to appear now as the saviours of employment insurance, but it is only temporary. It is clear, that is what they said. But it is temporary. Supporters of their party or ours who think the Liberals are going to made big changes to employment insurance and make them all eligible tomorrow morning should forget it. It is just temporary.
When the NDP tabled a motion in the House of Commons in June 2005 to make it the best 12 weeks, it was the Liberals who voted against it. The Conservatives were in favour of the best 12 weeks.
Some people may know that I am the last in a family of 11 children. In 1972, I had to leave home and go to work in northern Ontario. I was not the only one who had to leave home and go to work in the north of this province. The 11 members of my family left New Brunswick. If anyone knows how tough it can be in the regions where there are no jobs, I think I am one of those people. I was fortunate enough to work, to get a job. I was fortunate enough to be able to return home and get a job in the Brunswick mine. I was lucky. I was fortunate enough to work for the United Steelworkers, to act on behalf of workers, and defend local people who were destitute because of what the Conservative and Liberal governments had done. I had that opportunity.
I had the honour and privilege to be elected by the local people to come and work for them here in Ottawa.
We have always supported employment insurance bills in the House of Commons so long as they were moving in a positive direction. I am not talking about budgets because some people will say we may have voted against budgets that made changes.
Some people say now that there is nothing for seasonal workers in this bill, and that is true. It is a bill for long-tenured workers, those who have worked 17 years or more without ever drawing employment insurance benefits, or very few, under 35 weeks over the last five years. That is what the bill is. Some people are saying that they were ignored. Yes, seasonal workers were ignored. However, we are talking about Bill C-50 currently under study.
When the government introduced the criterion of the 14 best weeks, that was of no benefit to people in Ontario, where unemployment was low. Nonetheless, the majority of Ontario members did not vote against this measure, and it was adopted. When the government wanted to extend benefits by five weeks, not everyone in Canada was able to benefit, since this measure targeted the regions where unemployment was high. All the same, the others gave their support.
For my part, I would not be ashamed to vote today in favour of Bill C-50, but I do not want us to simply take this bill and make it law tomorrow morning. That is not our responsibility. It would be our responsibility if the bill were complete. That is why, this morning, I liked the position of the Bloc Québécois that this bill be sent immediately to committee so that it can be studied and amendments can be made, and if possible, be changed. That is what Parliament does. That is what the people have sent us here to do: make bills and changes to improve the lives of citizens, of Canadians and Quebeckers. That is what the people have sent us here to do. That is our responsibility.
On the other hand, if Conservative or Liberal governments do not want to grant employment insurance benefits to persons in need who have lost their jobs because they consider them lazy slackers, we shall say no to that.
Our Canadians and Quebeckers are brave people who want to get up in the morning to go to work, to earn good pay and a good income so they can feed their children and their family, and send their children to school so they can receive a good education, so the next generation is better than the one before. They have a right to that.
For example, in France, if a person loses his job, he receives 80% of his salary. When I raised this matter in France last July to some parliamentarians, they told me that this was the workers’ program and it was the workers who contributed to it. If the people want their money, that is fine; it is money that goes back into the community. I said this to the House last week, or earlier in the week.
The idea that a change in employment insurance would be an inducement not to go to work is an insult to workers. It is as if GM were given $10 billion and then the company did nothing more and closed its doors because it was not given enough money. It is as if the government were to decide to give billions of dollars in tax reductions to big corporations, and after receiving it, those corporations stopped investing because they had received enough money. Yet the government has no hesitation about granting tax reductions to the big corporations and those persons.
Since we have such a large deficit today, perhaps the government should eliminate the huge tax reductions it is offering the big corporations that have made money. Perhaps it should instead assist the corporations experiencing problems in times of economic crisis, like the forestry and fisheries sectors, for example, where the price paid for lobster has fallen to $2.75 for small lobster and $3.50 for large.
In the fisheries, for example, the price paid for lobster has fallen to $2.75 for small lobster and $3.50 for large lobster. The amount of $65 million was injected into the fishing industry, but fishers were receiving only $15 million. The money did not go to the fishers. We must inject money for changes to employment insurance and to bring in the 360 hours we have been demanding for so long. It is not true that this would cost over $4 billion. It is more like $1.148 billion to help out these workers who are having difficulty making it through to the time when they start working again.
We have to accept the fact there are seasonal jobs in this country. Parliament has to accept that reality. This is what happens to us. We do not all have the good fortune in this country to go to work in a mine that is there for 45 years. I had that opportunity, but not everyone does. Not everyone has the good luck to go to work in a paper mill that lasts 100 years. All the same, though, the Bathurst paper mill lasted nearly 100 years but it went down too this time because of the economic crisis. As a result of the global way of doing things, the forestry mills lost money and closed their doors. People have to be prepared for that. They need training, and we encourage it. We want people to be able to change jobs and continue working, but at the same time, employment insurance is there so that people are not thrown onto welfare. This program belongs to the workers and employers who contributed to it. They pay for the system themselves. The government does not pay a penny. Actually, it steals money from the system. Fifty-seven billion dollars was taken from the employment insurance fund belonging to working people. Those who are really dependent on employment insurance are governments, both current and previous.
Last month I met some fishers from my riding who said they would not even qualify for employment insurance benefits this winter. It is the same in the Gaspé, where I spoke with some fishers. The problems in the fisheries and with lobster are well known. These people would not qualify for employment insurance. What is being done to help them?
This all amounts to saying that we are here to work hard to ensure that changes are made to employment insurance. Regardless of who is in power, we will work hard for change. I can say, though, that the Conservatives and Liberals have never exactly been the friends of the unemployed. The economic crisis in the Atlantic region started in the early 1990s. That was when the biggest cuts to employment insurance were made, with the support of the Conservatives.
The question about the bill before us today is whether we are going to vote it down. Are the figures accurate? We do not know. We do not know whether it is 190,000 workers. I hope not, because we do not want people to have lost their jobs. It might cost a billion dollars, but so what? It is their money. There is a $57 billion surplus in employment insurance, and so what? We want the government to think about these things and have a heart.
We are here in Ottawa to represent Canadians. Everyone wants to have a job and never lose it. We need to have this much respect for our workers and not treat them like lazy slackers who will not go to work any more once they get employment insurance benefits. That is unacceptable.
We will support this bill so that it can be studied. We are going to work hard to improve it so that workers are treated fairly and we will continue to make other changes for working people.
Hon. Jean-Pierre Blackburn (Minister of National Revenue and Minister of State (Agriculture), CPC):
Madam Speaker, I am here this morning in the House to support Bill C-50, which the government wants to have passed. We are hoping of course to have the support of the opposition parties.
Why do I support this bill? The economic recession has hurt our country. It is a worldwide economic recession. We have tried, through various initiatives, by stimulating the economy and by establishing programs, to help workers facing difficult times. We have put a variety of measures in place.
This morning, we are adding another. What do we want to do? We want to protect long-tenured employees. We want to ensure that employees who have paid EI premiums for 10 or 15 years, for example, or even longer and who have worked for the same company may benefit from more weeks of EI benefits if the company has to close. We want to give them 5 to 20 weeks more than they would usually have.
In principle, those who pay EI premiums for a number of years should be entitled to nearly a year of benefits. So it is to a year of benefits the 5 to 20 weeks are added, according to various criteria. One of the criteria requires that the claimant not have received EI benefits for over 35 weeks in the past five years.
Why are we choosing these figures? Because the line has to be drawn somewhere. The cost associated with this initiative—that is, $935 million—must be measurable. We can call it $1 billion. It is estimated that 190,000 people in Canada could benefit from this new measure, which will help them through these most difficult times. It will ensure other opportunities for employment as the economy recovers.
The schemes of the Bloc members are bothering me somewhat. They are trying to play down what we are doing here and to confuse people. Let me give an example. They are saying that seasonal workers are not included. That is true, because this is a measure intended to help long-tenured workers who have paid premiums for years.
Seasonal workers, however, are currently protected. They receive EI benefits under the usual criteria. They are entitled to them after working between 420 and 700 hours. It depends on the region they live in. This measure is in place for seasonal workers.
Today, a specific measure applies to people who have contributed for a long time and find themselves in a much more difficult situation.
What sectors are affected? There are of course the forestry, automobile manufacturing, manufacturing and mining sectors. There are others as well. We want to help them and others like them during these difficult times.
I would also like to mention something else. This week I heard Bloc members saying that many people who paid EI premiums were not eligible. Statistics were compiled in 2008 and show that 82% of those who paid EI premiums and had to draw benefits were indeed eligible. That is an important statistic.
We want to help people in the sectors we have been talking about who have contributed to employment insurance for a long time. Some 190,000 people should benefit from nearly $1 billion. This is in addition to the other steps we have taken. It is not all we have done over the past year.
First, we extended the employment insurance period by five weeks. The Bloc Québécois wanted to drop the two week waiting period, but we thought it was better to tack an additional five weeks onto the end because it might take longer to find a job. It is estimated that 290,000 people will benefit from these additional five weeks, at a cost of $1.15 billion.
We did things as well with work sharing. Employers told our government they had good employees whom they did not want to lose and whom they wanted to keep with the company four days a week rather than five. They asked the government if it could upgrade its work sharing program. We listened, and the answer was yes.
These employees used to be entitled to 38 weeks. We increased that by 14 weeks, making it 52. People who share work are protected now for a year and we give commensurate funding to the companies. How many companies are taking advantage of this? At present, 5,800 employers are taking advantage of it, together with the 165,000 employees who benefit from our improved work sharing program.
There are other things as well. Take, for example, someone who works in a plant and is laid off. He had been doing the same job for 10, 15, 20 years. There are no new opportunities in his region in his traditional job. If he wants to get some training, therefore, we will let him have two years of training paid through employment insurance. Some of those workers who were unable to benefit from employment insurance may well be able to take advantage of this program. About 150,000 people should benefit at a total cost of $1.5 billion.
I also want to mention our most recent measure, the one for long-tenure jobs, from which 190,000 people will benefit. The total number of Canadians who will benefit from all these initiatives is 790,000.
What more have we done? We are protecting our workers for sure, but we also needed to stimulate the economy. To do this, we first reduced taxes by $20 billion this year and for the next five years. Canadian taxpayers will have an additional $20 billion in their pockets.
Then we turned to infrastructure. We are going to try to make Canada one big construction site. Why? The private sector has reduced its investments and so we, as the government, must shoulder our responsibilities. We need to think about protecting our workers and Canadians. We said there are infrastructure projects that need doing in any case. We are going to speed them up. We will inject a total of $33 billion to replace bridges, build new roads, and carry out major projects in various communities in Quebec, in the regions, and all across Canada. That is what we are doing.
With the renovation credit, we want to ensure that people who need to renovate their home or their cottage are able to do so. To that end we are granting a credit of $1,350 on an investment of $10,000 that people make in renovation. This program is administered by the department which it is my honour to manage, the Department of National Revenue. It is working incredibly well. At present, we are even seeing contractors who previously were working under the table now deciding to get their licence and do things officially, because to benefit from our measure, a Canadian has to obtain a receipt from the contractor doing the work on the home. We are giving them $1,350. That has made it possible to hire plumbers, electricians, carpenters, joiners and others. We estimate that $3 billion in credits will be allowed on the next tax return of Canadians who have renovated their homes.
I touched upon another aspect when I visited the regions and, indeed, much of the country recently. I want to talk about scientific research and experimental development, since this too is managed by the Department of Revenue. The fact is that the reason we have such a high standard of living in Canada is not because we are called Canada, but because we produce a lot and we export 80% of what we produce elsewhere in the world. If we produced just for our own needs, we would not have this standard of living. What do we do to be able to keep on exporting? What do we do to ensure that our entrepreneurs have the best possible product at the best possible price, with the latest technology? We encourage them to engage in scientific research and experimental development. In recent weeks I have visited different companies and have spoken to the press about our scientific research and experimental development credit. This credit now stands at $4 billion annually. There is no cap. If more businesses of whatever size want to carry out scientific research, they are eligible for this program. They can take a look at the website of the Canada Revenue Agency. These are some of the measures.
Where does the problem lie? There is always something, somewhere. One has to draw a line. When you draw a line, someone who is missing a few hours or a few weeks may be disadvantaged. It is impossible not to draw a line.
Even if the Liberals proposed 360 hours, that is, 45 days of work, there would also have been a line. There is always a line. Some have the advantage of finding themselves inside the line and so can benefit. There will be 190,000 people who will be able to benefit from the measure that I am now discussing. There is no perfect system, but we are a government that wants to help the most vulnerable and those who are experiencing hardship during this more difficult economic period. In the month of June, for the first time in a very long time, economic growth was 0.1%. This is not a lot, but the numbers show that what we are doing is working. Thanks to the infrastructure program, more and more projects will be starting up. These projects will have to be implemented by March 31, 2011.
The other thing I would like to mention is the contribution rate. We are freezing premiums for employees who are legally required to pay employment insurance contributions. For 2009-10, the rate is frozen at around $1.73 per $100. We have seen to it that our employees, who need to hang on to their money in this difficult times, are protected.
There is another thing I would like to bring to the attention of the House. The newspaper Le Soleil said the following, “The downward spiral of the job situation in Canada could be nearing an end, according to the Conference Board of Canada. In the month of August, the help wanted index showed that the number of jobs posted online in Canada increased by 2.6% over the previous month.” That means that there are more job offers and more opportunities for work. Employers are gradually getting their confidence back. The article continues, “This is another sign that the worst of the recession is now over, according to the Conference Board. According to the Conference Board, the recovery can be seen from coast to coast. In Quebec, the help wanted index rose by 3% in August.” So there is progress.
I would like to talk about the number of hours that an individual must work based on the regions. There are 58 regions in Canada, and the number of hours required depends on the economic activity in the region. We feel it is reasonable to require fewer hours to be eligible for EI in a region like Gaspésie or Saguenay—Lac Saint-Jean, compared to Quebec City or the greater Quebec City region. It is easier to find a job in the greater Quebec City region than in the regions I just mentioned. That is why the system is the way it is. Once again, there will always be a line. If someone accumulated 320 hours, they would be 40 hours short. We calculated the cost, we have an idea of what is needed, and we are trying to help people as much as possible. In Canada, 190,000 long-tenured workers will be able to benefit from this measure.
Hon. Hedy Fry (Vancouver Centre, Lib.):
Madam Speaker, I rise to speak to Bill C-50 which is so difficult to support for so many reasons. The bottom line about the bill that makes it difficult to support is that it purports to amend the Employment Insurance Act to increase benefits. The fact is that the bill will not do what it is says it will do. The bill is so convoluted that few, if any, of the long-tenured workers it says it will help would actually be eligible. That is what is so cruel about it. It creates a false sense of security for these workers that they are going to be getting help when in fact they will not. I want to read from the bill. It states:
|| If a claimant was paid less than 36 weeks of regular benefits in the 260 weeks before the beginning of the claimant’s benefit period and that benefit period was established during the period that begins on the later of January 4, 2009 and the Sunday before the day that is nine months before the day on which this subsection is deemed to have come into force--
And it goes on. One would need a lawyer, a linguist and an accountant to figure out as an ordinary Canadian whether one is eligible or not. It is so convoluted.
We even hear from the group that the bill says it is going to help. Ken Lewenza of the Canadian Auto Workers says: “The new EI plan provides crumbs to unemployed Canadians at a time when they are in need of a full loaf of bread”. Laurell Ritchie of the Canadian Auto Workers says that only a handful of long-tenured auto workers will actually qualify through the bill. The bill's convolutedness, its complexity, and the fact that it says what it will do when it will not, is a good enough reason in the whole for not supporting the bill.
One of the other things that concerns me about the bill is that it is not helping people in the highest hit sector. Let us look at the forestry sector. Armine Yalnizyan, an economist in Toronto, said that it will not help the manufacturing sector. It will not help the oil patch. It will not help the forestry sector and increasingly, it will not help the service sector”. These sectors are all subject to periodic layoffs.
I want to pick the forestry sector because I come from B.C. and this is the sector in B.C. that has been really hard hit. Mr. Kobayashi from the forestry sector in B.C. says that the only workers who have not received EI in the past five years will be eligible for the extra weeks of benefits that the bill says it will offer.
People who live in B.C. know that is a joke because the forestry sector there for the last four years has been subject to periodic layoffs. Because of the softwood lumber issues, mills have been closing down, mills have been idling, and people have been laid off. We see forest fires that have been creating problems and mills not having any lumber to use. We see the pine beetle problem that has hit this sector.
This is not going to work for the forestry sector in British Columbia and that in itself is really sad because these are the people who are losing their jobs and their homes. We have 55-year-old workers who have done nothing since they were 16 but work in the forestry sector in B.C., who are watching everything they worked for over their whole lives falling apart. However, they will not be able to benefit from the bill.
The other thing the bill does not do, and this is what I also find quite cruel, is the fact that the bill does not help many of those workers under age 38 because they have not been in the workforce for the 15 years they would have to be in order to qualify through the bill. The 38-year-old workers have not been in the workforce for 15 years. These are the people hardest hit and most vulnerable. These are the people with very young children. These are the people who are at the beginning of their working careers so their earnings are low. These are the people who are the first to get laid off because they are new to the workforce.
This is again the cruelty of ignoring this whole group of Canadians who are suffering and who, if they just bought a new home, cannot afford to pay for it. We read recently in British Columbia that this group of people says they are one paycheque away from bankruptcy and they have been ignored completely by the government's inability to deal with this problem. These are the people that we need to talk about.
We also find that the 55 to 65-year-old workers who this is supposed to help in the forestry sector and the automobile sector are not going to be helped at all, nor in the service sector.
It is kind of ironic that in the service sector we find that this is the result of ridiculous decisions made by the government, like cutting visas for tourists from Mexico. The tourism industry has gone downhill in this country, especially in my province of British Columbia, and the service sector is laying off workers: restaurant workers, hotel workers, and all the people who work in this sector. Nothing is being done for these people at all. For me this is a huge and cruel joke being played by this bill.
Apart from the substantives of the bill, we have the politics of the bill. If we want to talk about political games, this is the cheapest political trick I have ever seen in my 16 years in the House of Commons.
We have the NDP members for instance who have suddenly said that there is absolutely no reason for them to vote against this particular bill because they do not want to block the flow of money to workers. It is the same party that did not seem to mind when it voted against a stimulus package in January and when it continued for the last nine months to vote against all of the motions that had to do with ways and means, confidence motions, and job creating motions in the House.
The government promised housing for seniors, money for training and infrastructure. It promised money for all of those things which as we see never actually came to pass.
Even then the New Democratic Party members could not support those bills because they said that they were horrible and not helping anyone. All of a sudden the political gamesmanship of saying that they can support that now is actually a joke.
The government that has actually accused our party in the House of getting into bed with socialists and separatists is now desperate not to have an election. Suddenly, it finds it is okay to have a one night stand with socialists and separatists when it feels like it. This is all a joke. The people who are the victims and the brunt of this rather cruel political game are ordinary Canadians.
That is what bothers me. The cruelty of it all is that this is what government is for. At a time when Canadians are suffering, and we just heard that young Canadians under 38, and single mothers, are suffering very much because these are the people who are working in part-time jobs. These are the people who are laid off regularly. These are the people who are the first to be laid off in an economic downturn. These are the people who are losing their homes, who cannot pay their rent, who cannot put food on the table. These are the people who, 60% of them in my province of British Columbia, were recently quoted as saying they were one paycheque away from bankruptcy.
This is about taking care of Canadians. That is what a government's role is at a time when Canadians are in need, at a time when Canadian are desperate. This is not about laying blame. This is about doing what we can to help all Canadians, not some Canadians who we deem are better than other Canadians. This is a time when government, which asks us to trust it, cannot even trust its own people.
We have heard in the House over these last few months words from the Conservative Party across the way, and that is supposed to be government, saying we cannot trust Canadians, they are going to cheat on EI, they are going to steal whatever, and they are going to do all of those things. We find here a government that does not trust its people. It does not trust its people because it thinks that people are cheaters. It does not trust its people because of their citizenship or their immigration status. It does not trust people because of their age.
What are we talking about here? This is a time of recession when the people of this country need their government to pull together, to assist them, all of them, not some of them, not those that it picks and chooses that it thinks are worthy.
I could go into this in greater detail, but for these reasons I find the bill completely unsupportable. I find this lack of understanding of Canadians, this lack of compassion, this cruelty and this picking and choosing, to be totally unworthy of any federal government in this country.
Mr. Ed Komarnicki (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and to the Minister of Labour, CPC):
Madam Speaker, I will be splitting my time with my colleague from Nepean—Carleton.
I am pleased to rise today in support of the bill to improve employment insurance. It is a good bill and it should be supported by every member of the House. There is no question about that. It is certainly a lively debate, and so it should be.
The current EI program is working. We are seeing positive results of the actions taken by the government. However, while the economy moves toward recovery, our continued action is required and our continued attention is necessary. The new measures we are taking through the bill will assist Canadians who have worked for a significant period of time, have made limited use of EI regular benefits and, through no fault of their own, find themselves laid off and looking for a new job.
These are Canadians who paid their dues. They have worked hard, paid their taxes and paid their EI premiums for many years. It is only fair and responsible that we support them and their families when they need it. Many of these workers have worked in the same job or in the same industry for many years and face the prospect of having to start all over again. In many cases, these workers are now facing low prospects of finding work in their industry and many will face challenges transitioning to a new career. It is a very trying time for sure, and we understand that.
With Bill C-50, our government is doing the right thing.
Bill C-50 would extend, nationally, regular benefits for long-tenured workers by between five and twenty weeks. The longer a person has been working and paying EI premiums, the more weeks of benefits that person will receive.
The measure being introduced today is the continuation of our government's efforts to ensure that the employment insurance program is working for all Canadians.
Through Canada's economic action plan, our government has already made a number of improvements to the EI program to support unemployed Canadians and to help them get back into the workforce. We are providing five additional weeks of EI benefits. We have made the EI application process easier, faster and better for businesses and workers, and we have increased opportunities for unemployed Canadians to upgrade their skills and to get back to work. We are assisting businesses and their workers who are experiencing temporary slowdowns by an improved and more accessible work-sharing program. More than 160,000 Canadians are benefiting from work-sharing agreements that are in place with almost 5,800 employers across Canada. This is a positive change and a positive program. These are jobs that are being protected by the actions taken by this Conservative government.
We believe it is important to ensure Canada's workforce is in a position to get good jobs and bounce back from the recession.
Career transition assistance is a new initiative that will help an estimated 40,000 long-term workers who need additional support for retraining to find a new job. Through this initiative, we have extended the duration of EI regular income benefits for eligible workers for up to two years for those who choose to participate in longer term training. We are providing Canadians easier access to training that is tailored to the needs of workers in our country's different regions.
We made a number of other changes to the EI system, even before the recession began. For example, we extended the eligibility for EI compassionate care benefits by enlarging the definition of family member to include a wider range of individuals. We are improving the management and governance of the EI account through the establishment of the Canada Employment Insurance Financing Board, a federal crown corporation that reports to Parliament through the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development. This board will be responsible for EI financing, setting the EI premium rate and ensuring that EI premiums are spent within the EI program to help Canadian workers when they need help the most.
Also Important is that the Canada Employment Insurance Financing Board will ensure that EI premiums are not used to finance Liberal pet political projects, which has been the case in the past.
It should be clear to the House that we have not hesitated to test new approaches and to make changes to EI when they are proven to be warranted.
The House can be assured that we will continue to monitor and assess the EI program to ensure it continues to be effective. We will listen to recommendations and place priority on reasonable, affordable measures. We will continue to identify opportunities to ensure that EI helps Canadians adapt to the modern labour market.
Bill C-50 is just such an opportunity. It demonstrates that the government is making responsible choices to support Canadians now. This measure is time limited. We are taking it immediately. It is responsive to the needs of hard-working Canadians.
We are not the only ones who think that this type of measure is the best one at this time. In yesterday's paper, the president of the United Steelworkers, in our minister's own riding, said:
|| It's going to be quite good and give workers a little more time. This is a good thing to extend benefits to people like that.
Members of he Liberal Party need to get behind this legislation because it is a good thing. They need to support it. If they want other initiatives, that is fine, but this is a good one and it needs to be supported.
The Ontario premier said that it was a step in the right direction.
Back on June 22, Ken Lewenza, president of the Canadian Auto Workers, said in the Exchange Morning Post:
|| In the months ahead tens of thousands of unemployed workers are going to join the growing ranks of Canadians who have exhausted their EI benefits. They need action, not political posturing.
Unemployed workers need the support that we are proposing in Bill C-50. They do not need political posturing by the opposition. They need the support of that party to get the bill through the House as quickly as possible to ensure those who need it the most can get it when they need it.
Action is exactly what we are providing to these hard-working Canadians. We are taking action to extend their EI benefits.
On August 25, in the Canadian Press, Don Drummond, TD Bank's chief economist, said:
|| I think time is going to prove that the debate we're having on the employment insurance system is focusing on the wrong thing. I think this recession will prove it has been less about an access problem than a duration problem.
That is exactly what the bill is addressing.
In this month's Policy Options, Jeremy Leonard, of the IRPP, the Institute for Research on Public Policy, said, “The narrow focus on”--and he is referring to a 360 hour work year, is unfortunate, because.... The more serious issues...how to deal with the large number of long-term unemployed who are no longer eligible for EI....”
The duration of benefits is exactly what we are addressing in today's bill.
Also in this month's Policy Options, Janice MacKinnon, the former social services minister of my home province of Saskatchewan, with whom I do not always agree, said, in reference to the 360 hour program:
||...it be better to expand coverage...and improve the benefits of those who have paid into the program for years but find themselves unemployed?
That is precisely the point. People have been working long and hard. They have been paying their taxes and now they are facing a very trying time. Their benefits are running out or have run out. This program would bridge that for them. They expect our government to respond to that and the parties in the House to get behind it. We are taking reasonable, fair and affordable actions to help Canadians who have worked hard and paid their taxes for a long time.
Our government will remain focused on the economy and helping those hardest hit by the economic downturn. We are focused on what matters to Canadians right now, helping those hardest hit, investing in training and helping to create and protect jobs. In contrast, the opposition Liberals seem to want simply to fight the economic recovery.
Recently on EI, the Liberals walked away from the table and unemployed Canadians. They turned their backs on those who need their help at this particular time. In contrast, this government is continuing to work to help unemployed Canadians. The most recent example of our continued work is the bill itself.
The Liberals refuse to give up on their ill-advised, ill-conceived two month work year scheme. This Liberal scheme was costed at over $4 billion. It is irresponsible and unaffordable in our current circumstances and, what is more, it is offensive to hard-working Canadians who have paid their taxes and EI premiums.
In contrast, this government is taking fair, responsible and affordable measures to help hard-working Canadians who have not been able to get back into the workforce yet.
The Liberals have said that they will vote against all government measures, including this measure, the extra support for workers who have paid into the system for years; and maternity and parental benefits for self-employed, which the minister has indicated this government is working toward.
I would ask members of the House not to engage in political posturing but to look at the positive aspects of the bill. It is simple and direct and it is meant to help those who are long-tenured. Members should get behind it, support it and look at other ways to improve the system later.
Mr. Pierre Poilievre (Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister and to the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, CPC):
Madam Speaker, I thank you for this opportunity to contribute to the debate on employment insurance and the Conservative economic action plan.
Hon. members, many Canadians and their families are facing the real and immediate effects of the global recession. It is important for people to be aware of the action this government has taken to help men and women who have lost their jobs during this global recession, through no fault of their own. These Canadians who, as the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development said, have worked hard and paid taxes their whole lives and have found themselves in economic hardship and need a hand up. That is why our government is extending EI regular benefits nationally for long-tenured workers through this legislation. This extension of regular benefits would range from between five and twenty weeks, depending on the number of years they have contributed to the program.
This new measure is in stark contrast to the reckless scheme proposed by the coalition parties. The Liberals, the Bloc Québécois and the NDP had proposed that someone collect EI after working only 360 hours, or 45 days. That is why we call it the “45-day work year”.
Noted American thinker, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, once said, “History is a better guide than good intentions”.
I have no doubt about the good intentions of my distinguished friends across the way. The 45-day entrance requirement returns us to the failed Liberal policies of the 1970s. These policies had a catastrophic effect on the economy, and they would have the same effect today. The 45-day work year proposal would cost billions, balloon the deficit, accelerate turnover of workers and suppress job creation.
Beyond that, the problem with the 45-day work year is that it forgets the deep-rooted Canadian value of hard work.
The Prime Minister's economic action plan values hard work and it rewards it, too. It helps families invest in their future, with the Conservative tax-free savings account. It lowers income taxes for the average family by roughly $500. It creates jobs, with construction projects that will help in communities across the land, like the Strandherd-Armstrong bridge for which I secured funds. It lets people put their tax dollars back into their homes, with the Conservative home renovation tax credit. This Conservative tax credit creates jobs for painters, builders, roofers and carpenters. It creates new demand for wood products that helps our troubled forestry sector. It lets Canadians increase the value of their most important asset, their homes.
The Prime Minister's economic action plan not only creates new jobs, it protects the ones that we already have, by expanding work sharing aid for businesses to 52 weeks and simplifying the program to help businesses get it faster. Work sharing programs, for those members who are not aware, are programs that help workers who accept reduced a work week, while their employer recovers from the effects of the global recession. Right now, there are close to 5,800 work-sharing agreements across the country, protecting the jobs of 165,000 Canadians. This measure allows businesses to retain employees, thereby avoiding expensive rehiring and retraining costs. In turn, employees are able to continue working, keeping their skills up to date and holding on to the pride of a good job.
Finally, we have frozen EI premiums for two years during the period of this economic action plan, to help businesses create jobs and to award workers by letting them keep more of their own money.
That is why I would call on all members of the House to put aside the Liberal leader's obsession with an immediate election that would waste tax dollars and disrupt the recovery and focus instead on the economic action plan that the Prime Minister has initiated to create jobs right across the country.
I thank my distinguished colleagues for their attention and I encourage them to support this bill and the economic action plan of which it is a part.
Mr. Michel Guimond (Montmorency—Charlevoix—Haute-Côte-Nord, BQ):
Madam Speaker, it is my pleasure to rise on behalf of my colleagues in the Bloc Québécois on the bill to amend the Employment Insurance Act and increase benefits for certain categories of claimants.
First I want to tell the House and the people listening to us that it is false that the Bloc Québécois is going to engage in demagoguery on the backs of people who get employment insurance benefits. The Bloc Québécois has said—and its leader has repeated ad nauseam—that when bills are introduced by the Conservative government, the Bloc will react like a reasonable, responsible opposition party and will study each bill and each motion that is introduced on a case by case basis, regardless of any background noise related to minority government, pre-election periods or election alerts.
The Bloc Québécois cannot support this bill as it now stands. To avoid all demagoguery from the Conservatives—of the kind only they are really capable of—I will explain why this is so. I want to warn the House, though, that the Conservative big wigs will launch huge media attacks claiming the Bloc Québécois is against unemployed people.
The Bloc Québécois opposes this bill because it does not get to the heart of the problem, that is to say, the ability of the unemployed to access benefits. The problem—as everyone knows—is accessibility. If the government wanted to act in good faith, it would first resolve the accessibility issue. There is no point in having the best of programs if people cannot qualify for them. That does not do any good. This is why we cannot support the bill.
Together with the committees of the unemployed, the mouvement des Sans-Chemise and the labour unions, the Bloc Québécois wants 360 hours in order to qualify for employment insurance. The problem is that when workers who have paid their premiums ask for EI benefits, they are told they do not qualify yet because the do not have enough hours. It is a bit like someone who pays for fire insurance and then suffers a total loss. He goes to his insurer to make a claim and rebuild his house, but the insurer says he failed to read the fine print saying that the insurance does not cover the first total loss, just the second. What would we call this insurer? We would call him a fraud, a thief. That is the big problem.
In my riding of Montmorency—Charlevoix—Haute-Côte-Nord, especially in Côte-de-Beaupré, the Île d'Orléans, the greater Charlevoix area and Upper North Shore, there is a category of workers who are nowhere to be found in this bill. The government could provide 300 weeks of benefits, these workers would still not get anything. I am talking about the situation of seasonal workers.
My colleagues here know very well that seasonal workers face a very unique situation in our regions in Quebec. Even if they wanted to do some planting, some reforestation or silviculture work, I am sorry, but in February when there are four feet of snow in the forest, people cannot go around planting little spruce trees.
Even if we do manage to develop winter tourism in our regions—with Europeans, for example, coming to snowmobile, or dogsled or whatever—there is one fact. Most of our inns in the regions close after Thanksgiving. Our innkeepers are hospitable. They would like to remain open year round. The problem is the lack of business. When you work in an inn and there are no guests, the employer does not pay you to sit around and knit. The employer has to lay people off.
I see my colleague from Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine. In the winter, when the river is locked in snow and ice there is no fishing. Fishermen are another category of seasonal worker. If this government, then, which claims to be sensitive and attentive—let me say that we know how the Conservative government operates—had a single ounce of sensitivity, it would have taken account in its bill of the reality faced by seasonal workers. It has been shown that the EI plan in its current form, with the initial cuts made under the Liberals and more made by the Conservatives, is unacceptable. That is why we say that Liberal or Conservative, it amounts to the same thing.
The plan is unfair to certain categories of workers. I mentioned the seasonal workers. I could say exactly the same thing about women, young people and older workers. The current system is unfair. The government should have taken this into account and really corrected the situation and not made cosmetic changes in order to use the coming week off to say in the media that the Bloc does not support the unemployed. The people in our regions know that the Bloc is the only party defending the unemployed in this House.
The best proof that the Bloc wants to change and improve this bill, which is totally unacceptable as it is written—and this is why we will vote against it—is that we said that, before a vote is taken in the House, the committee should hear from the groups concerned. We should invite the Quebec forestry industry council. We should invite the representatives of committees of the unemployed, unions and the Conseil du patronat du Québec to tell us where the bill is unacceptable and how it could be improved.
That is why this very morning the House leader of the Bloc Québécois sought the unanimous consent of the House to send this bill to committee before second reading so the groups concerned, those directly involved, could inform parliamentarians from all parties and tell them why this bill, as worded, is not acceptable.
The government will tell us that 190,000 unemployed individuals will be eligible for the new program. I am convinced that they examined the eligibility provisions. They apply to workers who have had a job for a long time and find themselves unemployed, but what about the categories I mentioned earlier? One industry in Quebec has been hard hit by layoffs for five years. In my riding, they are still happening, and i am talking about the forestry industry. Those workers will not be eligible for the measures in Bill C-50.
The Globe and Mail, a paper not known for its sovereignist leanings, spoke about the bill. Does the Globe and Mail support sovereignty for Quebec? It pointed out that the bill proposed measures that will apply to workers in the automobile industry.
Which automobile industry is that? It is the one in Ontario, because there is hardly anything left of the auto industry in Quebec.
There was one assembly plant left in Sainte-Thérèse, but it closed. There was a Hyundai plant in Bromont, but it is closed too. We have parts subcontractors, I admit, but the automobile industry is concentrated in Ontario, for the most part. So this bill is custom made for Ontario.
We members of the Bloc proudly representing the regions and workers of Quebec cannot support a bill that provides additional benefits to 190,000 people who are unemployed, but practically nothing to Quebec. It is not designed for our forestry workers.
In conclusion, I would like to thank the two groups in my riding that are working very hard to stand up for the rights of the unemployed. I am thinking of Lyne Sirois of Mouvement Action-Chômage on Haute-Côte-Nord and Danie Harvey, who is behind the Sans-chemise movement in Charlevoix. I am certain that these people agree with the Bloc Québécois position that Bill C-50 does not address the needs of the unemployed in Quebec. For these reasons, the Bloc Québécois cannot support the bill.
The Bloc Québécois invites the other parties—because there are talks under way among the parliamentary leaders—to think seriously about the Bloc's offer to hear from the groups directly affected by this bill, before a vote is held, so that they can give us their perspectives. In light of these presentations, the government might listen to reason and amend its bill.
I repeat that we need real reform of the employment insurance program.