Mr. Yves Lessard (Chambly—Borduas, BQ)
|| That the House reiterate to the government the importance of implementing a real income support program for older workers that would apply to all older workers in all economic sectors, in all regions.
He said: Mr. Speaker, the matter at hand today is a most important one. It will attract the attention of all workers. Management is also affected to a considerable extent by the layoffs currently experienced across the country. In addition, our attention is drawn to the situation in Quebec in particular.
In every area of activity and every region, older workers who have the misfortune of losing their job past the age of 50 or past the more vulnerable age of 55 are facing a major problem.
This morning, I have the honour of moving the Bloc Québécois motion asking that the House vote on the following motion:
|| That the House reiterate to the government the importance of implementing a real income support program for older workers that would apply to all older workers in all economic sectors, in all regions.
We were careful to specify that this would apply to all older workers in all economic sectors, in all regions, because over the past few days, the government has indicated its intention to target specific regions and sectors for limited periods of time. This would be very inconvenient, because once again, the work would be done in a selective, arbitrary, and, above all, discriminatory manner.
When people lose their jobs, it makes no difference whether they are in regions with lower unemployment rates. The fact that your neighbour is working will not pay your bills.
This program has already been in operation and has proven its value. It was implemented in 1988 and ran until 1997. The Liberal government of the day cut it in 1997 in a blind move with no regard for the negative impact on the workers affected.
The Bloc Québécois finds it inexcusable that the federal government, the current government, is also taking its sweet time implementing this program.
The Speech from the Throne emphasized the importance of re-introducing the program for older worker adjustment (POWA). The $100 million allocated in the budget and announced by the Prime Minister himself sent a clear signal that the current government intended to re-introduce the program. A unanimous motion in the Quebec National Assembly invited the Government of Canada to re-introduce this program and indicated that Quebec was prepared to participate to the same degree as in previous years, that is, to contribute 30%. The federal government would therefore contribute 70%. This program is actually not that expensive.
We are disconcerted by the Conservative government's callous attitude toward complaints voiced by workers, workers' representatives, and the Bloc Québécois in its attempts to correct this grave injustice.
I emphasize also that this program must deal with older workers who cannot be retrained or who have not been retrained. If a person works in the same trade all his or her life and is a specialist and that occupation disappears when the person is 55 or older, that involves learning difficulties. But above all—given the length of time that person can expect to remain in the labour market—this situation discourages employers from investing in helping someone to qualify for a new job. That represents an additional problem for older workers.
In historical terms, as I was saying earlier, this program, which was in existence from 1988 to 1997 was shared-cost. In 1996, the year before the program was abolished, 11,700 people participating in this program had been involved in 900 group layoffs.
At the time, the program cost the federal government a paltry $17 million. Out of the then $17 billion budget, $17 million represented only a small slice; in fact, 1% of the total.
Even today, it is impossible to understand that they acted in that way in the past and that previous governments and the current government have not corrected this injustice, as I mentioned earlier.
Concerning the difficulty of finding new employment, in 2004, the Employment Insurance Commission released statistics for 2004-2005 indicating a low rate of unemployment due to the economic recovery. Granted there was a low unemployment rate, but let us look at the percentages. Older workers are over-represented among the long-term unemployed. Older workers accounted for 21.3% of the long-term unemployed group, while they made up only 12.5 per cent of the active workforce. In terms of unemployed workers, that group had double its rate of representation in the active workforce. That is because they have a hard time finding new employment, as I indicated previously.
Let us talk about pilot projects. The attitude of the current government is directly opposite to our approach. There are two factors to consider. First, pilot projects enable workers to be trained in order to find new work opportunities. However, the opportunities offered to these workers seldom relate to the work skills they have developed over the years. That makes it even more difficult for them to gain access to that training.
Furthermore, fewer than 4% of all those trained in these pilot projects manage to find stable employment again. Of course they can find small jobs and also end up in situations much more difficult in terms of working conditions than they had before. As far as comparable employment goes, though, or at least permanent employment, fewer than 4% are successful. Which means that this is not the solution.
The second thing the Conservative government tells us is that studies are being done. There is something a bit confusing in this House. When the government changes, it is as though nothing had ever been done before.
Before, during the Liberal régime, we heard the same argument: studies are being done. At the Standing Committee on Human Resources and Social Development, we have received a good share of these studies, as well as all the studies concerning POWA.
How is it that the current government has not been able to access these studies? Our sources are good sources; they are government sources. We have used these sources to develop our position—as have other of society’s stakeholders, particularly the central labour bodies.
The major labour federations in Quebec have developed a common position in this regard. So the government experts and our studies, as well as those conducted by the federations, show first of all that the past experience has been an entirely positive one and that the program was fully justified. In fact it may have been one of the most successful programs.
As far as the situation in industry is concerned—whether the textile, clothing, footwear or now the lumber industry, to name but a few—the experience of recent years shows that this program is still necessary.
Also, as far as job losses are concerned, the worst-case scenario would be for this program to cost $50 million the first year and then $75 million in subsequent years. Naturally the cost of living evolves. It has to be provided for. Still I remind you that this is the worst-case scenario.
So we do not understand why the government is still doing studies, when all the data are on the table for a decision to be made. Regarding the difficulty of finding work for older people, I would point out that 39.1%—so about 40%—of older workers in the labour force have not completed their high school education, compared to 18% among workers aged 25 to 54. This is a further difficulty.
Let us look again briefly at the costs, but this time in terms of benefits. The program was revised in 1993. The latest data show that under POWA at the time, people were receiving between $760 and $1,000 in benefits, depending on their income.
I have briefly described the history of the program and the recent history of job losses. I said earlier that the throne speech stated that POWA should be reinstated. This was also mentioned in the budget.
Nevertheless, on June 9, 2005, I had the honour of presenting in this House a Bloc Québécois motion that received unanimous support. Yet the Liberal Party, which was in power then, never acted on the motion or put it into effect. And the Conservative government—which is still the government in this House—has not acted on the motion either, despite making two additional commitments since Parliament resumed.
In my opinion, this is unacceptable and scandalous, even from the standpoint of democracy. Here in the House, we often talk about setting examples of democracy for other peoples. Perhaps we could start by setting an example in practice.
Moreover, last year, the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities—then known as the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills Development, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities—made 28 recommendations to this House after conducting a long and well-done process with consultations, etc. None of these recommendations has been acted on. And they included POWA, the program for older worker adjustment.
I have spoken up to now about POWA, because that is what it was called. But we have to adapt it to today's reality. Some things have changed, and that is why we should now call it the “income support program for older workers”, because there are already training programs for labour market integration.
It is important to draw this distinction so that the government stops shirking its responsibility for income support for these people by falling back on training.
Insofar as the insecurity of current labour markets is concerned, it seems that only one party in the House can see what is really happening. Apparently, it is only when a government, a political party, is beaten that it starts to see what is really happening, as if being beaten is clarifying.
For at least four years now, the Bloc has been constantly pointing out the difficulties facing industry, the manufacturing industry in particular but other industries as well. The Bloc has been constantly asking the government to take appropriate action to ensure that employment is maintained at a maximum in the face of the push and pull on international markets.
Some countries have instituted controls. This government has done nothing. In the final analysis, it did nothing to protect workers when they lost their jobs, just as it did nothing to protect their jobs in the first place. It is disgraceful.
Look at the people at Whirlpool in Rivière-du-Loup, the textile workers in Huntingdon, the lumber workers in Lanaudière, the workers in the sawmills and in pulp and paper in Mont-Laurier, in northwestern Quebec in Saguenay—Lac-Saint-Jean or Ville de La Baie,. Hundreds of people have lost their jobs. Some 20% to 22% of them were over 55 years old.
I am emphasizing Saguenay—Lac-Saint-Jean more because a leading member of Parliament who is also a minister sits here in the House of Commons. When he was getting himself elected, he said, like his colleagues in Quebec, that the Bloc could not do anything but the Conservatives would deal with all that when they came to power. Ever since taking power, though, they have been running away from their responsibilities. They cannot even go and meet with these workers. We are the only people who are willing to meet with them now.
In the footwear sector in Quebec City, Chaussures Régence and Chaussures St-Émile are in the riding of Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles. One of our eminent colleagues—a man who was highly thought of by the House and got some major legislation through—was defeated. That is what happens in a democracy. But why was he defeated? Because the Conservative candidate said that once the Conservatives were in power, they would take care of all that. So what have they taken care of so far? Nothing. Still they try to delude people. That too is odious. They tell people that they will take care of this or that specifically for them. But things cannot be done piecemeal. They need to pay some attention.
I just came back from touring through nearly all the regions of Quebec. In the Gaspésie and Îles-de-la-Madeleine, people find themselves in an incredible situation now because of the fishing industry. This cannot go on.
This is not a complicated measure. We just have to adopt this motion. If the Conservative government needs our backing, that is what we will give them. However, they must take it and they must vote with us. In other words, they have to walk the talk.
They must stop deluding people. It is time to take action and implement the income support program for older workers as soon as possible. This is urgent and has been urgent for some time. Indeed, for years now, people have been forced into poverty. They have been left without assistance. They must be given the help they need to pull through, which is what they deserve. In the end, they need every little bit they earn just to eat. Many have been forced to sell their house in order to survive, even though they have spent their whole lives working just to have a home.
In conclusion, I call upon all legislators and parliamentarians here today to do the right thing so that tomorrow, each and every one of us—everyone, Mr. Speaker—can return to our ridings and say that we did our job and that we took action to help these people, because the existing program costs $50 million out of a budget of $16 billion. It is such a small amount. Furthermore, we do not want the money to be taken from the employment insurance fund because those people are leaving the workforce and society owes them this recognition, at least.
Hon. Diane Finley (Minister of Human Resources and Social Development, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to be splitting my time today with the hon. member for Mégantic—L'Érable.
I am very pleased to rise today to respond to the motion from the hon. member for Chambly—Borduas.
As the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development, I know that Canadians can draw strength from the fact that Canada is near the top again this year in terms of job growth among G-7 and OECD countries. Our unemployment rate of 6.5% in August was one of the lowest in the last 30 years. Job gains have occurred in every region and across all age groups right across this country.
However, I do share the member's concern for the situation that older workers face when they are suddenly left without work, due to plant closures, downsizing or other economic circumstances beyond their control.
The hon. member's motion includes all economic sectors in all regions, but we know that the problem is especially acute for older workers in small communities that depend on a single industry for their livelihood. This particularly affects workers in sectors such as forestry, fishing, mining and textiles.
For older workers, the challenges that losing their job presents are especially tough. Throughout their working lives, these people have been self-reliant and independent. They have worked hard at their jobs day by day. They have been saving up for their retirement. Then, before their plans are in place, hard times hit their place of employment.
In many small towns, when the major employer lays off workers, the entire community is affected. Often, the older workers need a few more years of income before they can retire. What do they do now? Do they rely upon their retirement savings until their pension kicks in? Do they sell their house or take out a new mortgage, which is pretty tough to do when they don't have a job? Or do they try to find another line of work? But, then, how would they learn the new skills?
These are hard choices for people who have worked all their lives trying to build security for their families. We all share a concern for the plight of displaced older workers in situations like this.
In responding to the motion from the hon. member for Chambly—Borduas, we must ask ourselves: What is the best solution? Is an early retirement program the answer; and if so, would that solution suit the needs of Canada's labour market, or even that of the local economy?
An income support program, such as the hon. member proposes, would essentially remove all older workers from the workforce now and in the future. This removal would be premature and detrimental to the workers, and to Canada's labour market.
Older workers have become the principal source of labour growth in recent years. Since late 2002, it accounted for over half the employment growth in Canada and increases in older worker participation have become the major driver of increases in the overall Canadian participation rate. As the Canadian population ages, encouraging older worker participation will play a very important role in meeting employment demand.
Simply put, Canada cannot at this time afford to pension off workers who are valuable and all too often an unrecognized asset. Rather, any intervention should be geared to providing those workers with the tools they need to remain employable and should not act as a disincentive to labour market participation, relocation or the pursuit of skills upgrading.
Canada's economy needs the skills, the experience and the expertise of all older workers. We need the perspective they bring from a lifetime in the workforce. This is especially true for smaller and medium-sized businesses that often have a hard time finding people, and these businesses are the engine of our Canadian economy.
Canada is not the only country that faces these challenges. In fact, the OECD has recently reviewed the situation facing older workers in the industrialized world. It points out that with the demographics of an aging society, economies need to keep older workers in the workforce to ensure growth and prosperity in a period like we are facing now, of shrinking labour supply. In fact, the OECD advises against early retirement programs and against any other type of program structure that would lead to and encourage early retirement.
In the budget last May, Canada's new government committed to examining ways to help displaced older workers. We promised to undertake a feasibility study to evaluate current and potential measures to assist older workers in the Canadian workforce. This study will examine a number of options and will involve consultations with provinces and territories, stakeholder groups and experts from across Canada.
The options examined may well include early retirement benefits which would be along the lines of the suggestions of the hon. member for Chambly—Borduas, but there are other options. There are other ways to help older workers while ensuring that they remain a vital force in the economy.
We have a very solid foundation to build on assisting older workers reintegrate into the workforce. The Government of Canada has the benefit of drawing from lessons learned from the older worker pilot project initiative that concluded in May of this year.
Let me share with the House some of the lessons that we learned from that. We found that the most successful pilot projects are those that combine employment assistance services with some form of training, marketing and work experience. As well, we found that it is important for the programs to be flexible. One size does not fit all. The best programs allow attention to individual situations and needs, including the skills of older workers, specific labour market conditions and the identification of opportunities that exist in specific cities, towns or regions.
Programs must provide enough time for displaced older workers to learn new skills. The training must be practical and relevant to the participants. There are indeed potential new careers for those displaced older workers, careers that take advantage of their lifetime experience and interests, careers that can help older workers take pride in the way that they continue to build the economy of their communities, and careers that provide self-reliance. It is important to identify the new careers that are most relevant and realistic for older workers on a case by case basis.
In the meantime, contrary to what the hon. member opposite would have us believe, we have many programs to help those who find themselves without work. Displaced older workers are taking advantage of our active employment benefits under part II of the employment insurance program. This helps them find and maintain new employment by increasing their skills, gaining work experience, getting job counselling and job placement services, and accessing labour market information.
Do members know that last year over 80,000 workers over 50 years of age participated in employment insurance part II programming? In addition, close to 230,000 workers received $1.4 billion in employment insurance part I programming. We are not saying that this is the only solution for these workers. In fact, we have committed to take the time and put in the effort required to identify the best solutions for displaced older workers in today's labour market.
Until the results of the feasibility study are known, we should not limit our range of options. That is why I cannot vote in favour of the hon. member's motion as it is written no matter how much I share his concerns. We need programs that keep older workers as active participants in the Canadian economy. We need programs that can be flexible enough to meet the needs of different individuals and communities. We need to take advantage of what we have learned about what kinds of programs work and which programs do not.
I urge hon. members to join me in voting down this motion as worded.
Mr. Christian Paradis (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Natural Resources, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to take part in the debate in this House on the opposition member's motion on support measures for older workers that would apply to all older workers in all economic sectors, in all regions.
It is an honour for me to share my time with the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development. I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge her excellent work.
Allow me first to point out that Canada's new government holds older workers and their contribution to society in the highest regard. We are well aware that we owe them a great deal not just for their past contribution, but also for their current and future contribution to the labour market and to our well-being. Generations before us have shaped the Canada we know and love today and we are extremely grateful to them for that.
The contribution of all Canadians is essential to our collective well-being. As hon. members know, Canada, like all the industrialized countries, is facing an aging population. In fact, by 2020, the number of people between 55 and 64 will increase by 50%.
On the one hand, life expectancy is on the rise, and on the other, people are healthier and are remaining active. They can and want to continue contributing to society longer than before. More and more, Canadians are returning to work after retiring or are embarking on a new career after age 55. They still have a lot to give and dreams and goals to fulfil. What is more, they want to go on working in order to share their experience with other members of their community.
All this comes at a good time, because we need these people. We need their experience and their valuable advice. We need their expertise and their wisdom. They have enormous potential that is just waiting to be tapped. Older workers between 55 and 64 are the largest potential source of future growth in the available workforce. We must therefore work to increase their labour force participation.
If we want to maintain our standard of living, if we want to continue to prosper as a nation, we have to make the most of the potential of all Canadians. The growth in the labour force over the past few years can be attributed mainly to older workers. Since the end of 2002, these workers have accounted for half the growth in employment in Canada, and their increased participation in the labour force is now the main reason for the increase in Canada's overall participation rate. In other words, today, Canada simply cannot allow itself to retire workers who are considered redundant.
At the same time, we have to find solutions to the shortages of workers in a number of economic sectors. Tradespeople, for example, are a rare commodity in some parts of the country, including my own riding, Mégantic—L'Érable. And this situation will only get worse in years to come.
Yet we know that there are thousands of older workers who are losing their jobs—often the only job they have had in their life—because of plant closures or a slowdown in a particular industry. Unfortunately, remote areas and those that depend on a small number of industries are hit hardest.
We have seen compelling examples in Quebec in the textile, forestry and fishery sectors. We are aware of this situation and we firmly intend to continue our efforts to help older workers to reintegrate into the labour market.
However, we do not want to adopt temporary, off the cuff measures. No, first, we want to make an overall evaluation of the situation of older people with our partners in the provinces and territories in order to identify possible solutions. Older workers have special needs that call for specific answers. We do not want to bungle the job.
In the 2006 budget, our new government has made a commitment to help those Canadians who are most affected by the impacts of the global economy, including older workers. As is mentioned in the budget, we are going to conduct a feasibility study with the participation of the provinces and territories to evaluate the measures now available or that could be available to older workers who have been laid off to help them overcome these difficulties. It could involve improved training or increased income support, through early retirement benefits for example. Nothing has been decided or discarded at this time. Everything will be taken into account.
In the meantime, older workers have not been forgotten. They continue to benefit from numerous existing programs, such as Part II of the employment insurance plan. In that regard, each year more than 80,000 older workers, men and women age 50 or older, benefit from job programs funded through the employment insurance act. For instance they are eligible for training programs, can acquire work experience and obtain financial assistance for starting their own business.
Furthermore, almost 230,000 older workers each year receive some $1.4 billion under EI program.
What is more, our government is committed to spending $400 million during the next two years to improve the long-term competitiveness of the forestry sector.
Naturally, the other tax measures announced in the budget will help older workers as much as all other Canadians.
Finally, we are concerned about the welfare of all Canadians and of older workers in particular. Because they have specific needs, we will develop specific solutions. We will ensure that the programs we propose meet their needs and that they will be able to reintegrate into the labour market and continue to contribute to the development of our beautiful country, Canada.
Hon. Shawn Murphy (Charlottetown, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, at the outset, I support the motion, however, when the government implements it, I want it to look at it as a comprehensive strategy involving other issues related to the matter. I assume the motion will pass because, as I indicated in a previous question, a very similar motion was debated by the House on June 9, 2005, and all parties unanimously supported it. I would be shocked and surprised if all members did not support the motion today.
However, there are two aspects about which I want to talk. We have to be very careful in implementing the motion. I suggest and urge the government not to add an additional disincentive to our support system, to a workforce attachment right now.
First, I urge the government, in its implementation process, to look carefully at the income support measures. This matter will require very close consultation with the provinces. I see a real gap in the income support measure for those people between 55 and 65 years of age.
I neglected to say, Mr. Speaker, that I will be splitting my time with the member of Parliament for West Nova.
I believe the government, as part of this process, should look at the income support measures for those between 55 and 65 years of age. I see a very large gap there. Currently, when people attain the age of 65, they are eligible for the guaranteed income supplement. It is not perfect. One does not live in any kind of luxury, but it is an awful lot better than the income support measures for those people between 55 and 65. A lot of them do not have pensions, they are not eligible for the Canada pension plan and they are unable to work for a whole host of reasons. It may be for health reasons or they may be unable to find a job. This is one issue that has to be looked at very closely as the motion is implemented.
Another issue has to be aligned with the motion, and that is a very comprehensive older worker strategy for Canada. We are looking at, and it has been referred to I believe by the minister, a demographic time bomb in Canada. We are looking at an acute worker shortage.
This whole debate has been turned upside down over the last 15 years. Fifteen years ago I would have been in Parliament urging people in public policy to implement programs to perhaps take some of our older workers out of the workforce to make way for the 21 and 22 year olds who were looking for jobs. That is not the case now, especially in the skilled worker sector.
All sector councils across Canada have the big issue of a skilled worker shortage. The construction industry is looking for 150,000 new workers over the next 10 years. The mining industry is looking for 81,000 new workers; trucking, 40,000; and tourism, 333,000. The manufacturing industry is also looking for new workers. The list goes on and on.
This is very serious issue for governments at all levels. It will cause problems with our productivity and for our industries. It will result in workforce instability and it will drive up wage costs. In turn that will drive up the costs of projects and manufacturing goods. That will aid in an element of inflation in our system if it is not there already. Once we have that, interest rates will rise. As everyone knows, that will have a very cumulative negative effect in our economy. It will be good in the short term, but in the long term it will have very severe and negative consequences for us as a society. We can see that going on right now in certain areas of Canada. If it is allowed to continue, it will have negative repercussions.
If a country wants to deal with this issue, there are only certain strategies. Immigration is one of those strategies. I believe the previous government was trying to increase the number of skilled workers coming to the country. There have been some successes, but again we are competing in a world where a lot of other countries, especially the European countries, are having the very same problems we are having. It is a very competitive field out there, looking for skilled and educated immigrants.
We could attempt to increase the participation rate, but again this country's participation rate is reasonably high in international comparison. The birth rate, as everyone here knows, is approximately 1.41%. That is considerably below the replacement rate, probably two-thirds of the replacement rate. Again, as the demographics suggest, at a certain point in time, I believe 2011, there will be no further increase in the local labour market and in the year 2016 we start to drop. Once it starts to drop, it will be a very serious drop year after year. This is something that those in public policy have to be aware of and have to plan for because it is very serious.
However, my point is there has to be attached to the motion an older worker strategy. We have to develop a strategy to encourage older workers to stay in the workplace, if they want. We certainly are not going to legislate that people work. However, if they want to, we have to make it more attractive. To give an example, in Sweden and Japan approximately 90% of their workers between the ages of 55 and 65 work. In Canada it is close to 50%. That gives us an idea of what we are faced with.
Some of the issues I would look at would be training for workers in that cohort. Elimination of any suggestion of mandatory retirement has to come. There have to be changes in our tax policy. We have to make it more beneficial and attractive for older workers, especially older workers of lower income, to stay in the workplace. Probably one of the most important public policy initiatives a government should look at is some of the benefit policies.
If I may give an example, right now probably many people over 65 years of age are receiving the guaranteed income supplement. They probably have no interest in working full time, but may be interested in working part time. They may be interested in working 10 hours a week and making $100 or $200. However, the way our system is, they would be almost penalized dollar for dollar, which is a very strong disincentive for them to work. That has to be looked at part of an older worker strategy.
Another area that has to be looked at is our collective agreements to accommodate certain older workers who want to get back into a unionized environment. Right now it does not lend itself to that shift.
Again, I mentioned about five or six different items and this has to form part of a strategy and it has to be a culture shift. It was not there 15 years ago, but it has to be here now. I should point that if it were successfully implemented, even that would only postpone a problem. It will not solve a problem because it would eventually catch up to us.
Some of the points I have raised are peripheral to the issue, but I support the motion. I believe and urge the government to implement the motion, but it should do so as part of the larger package involving income support for those citizens between 55 and 65 years of age. It should be a very comprehensive well thought out older worker strategy.
Hon. Robert Thibault (West Nova, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank and congratulate the hon. member for Chambly—Borduas for drawing the attention of this House to this very important matter. I congratulate him for having framed this motion that I will support and that I find quite broad. It would be impractical to approach such a vast problem from a narrow-minded perspective.
Solutions to the problems facing older workers cannot be considered without also considering the communities in which they live and where they want their families to live. The communities must have the benefit of economic growth and good potential in order to survive.
It is impossible to look at this in isolation. We have heard a lot of good comments on that this morning. If we break it down, income support alone does not do it and training alone does not do it. I think we have to look across the board at the community, the economy and the place where older workers and younger workers live.
The impact of closures of factories and businesses, as suggested by the motion, affects more than only one demographic segment of our communities. It affects all the communities. There has to be an approach that takes care of all this.
With income support, I think we could start at the very base. We could look at those income support programs we already have and ask if they are meeting the needs. I know that residents in my communities who are receiving the Canada pension plan or old age security are struggling. They are struggling to survive. The amounts they are receiving are not enough in today's economy. We have seen the prices. The cost of living has increased dramatically for them.
If we look at the consumer price index, it does not tell the story. The consumer price index is growing very slowly. Inflation is under control. But if we look at the very basic cost of maintaining our homes and our families, we will see that non-discretionary spending has risen very quickly in the last few years.
Sure, the big items have not gone up. Automobile prices have not gone up all that much and perhaps groceries have not gone up all that much. Electronics certainly have not. However, let us look at the basic costs, such as the price of fuel, the price of heating our homes, the price of energy. Let us also look at the costs of insuring our homes and insuring our vehicles. In rural parts of the country, where a lot of these older workers live, mass transit is not an option. Mass transit is not available. It is impossible to raise a family and maintain a household without a personal vehicle. Those costs are very high.
I have heard suggestions from the governing party that since there is a surplus in the Canada pension plan and the economy is doing very well we should be accelerating a reduction in premiums. I would ask the government to consider the other side of that, the side of maintaining premiums. We have to watch it, because we do not want to choke employers and choke the economy, but I think we should be increasing benefits. The government should be increasing the amount of disposable income that is given to older workers, retirees and disabled people in this country.
I thank the member for Charlottetown for suggesting that we could look at people receiving the Canada pension plan who may be able to work for part of the year as long as they do not lose their Canada pension plan. Some of them, while they can no longer work a full time job because of chronic illness, may be able to do two or three weeks' work in a year. If there is no clawback of their Canada pension plan, this would be a benefit to their community, to their families and to them.
We see many sectors, such as the fruit growing sector and the agricultural sector, that have a chronic shortage of labour. They need a lot of labour in a very short period of time. These workers might be available at that time. It could benefit both those sectors and the workers. I think we have to be imaginative at how we look at this.
In my communities in western Nova Scotia, there has been a very serious downturn in the herring industry. It is cyclical. It will come back. It moves around. The herring quota has been reduced from 80,000 tonnes a year to 50,000 tonnes a year. A lot of people will not make EI this year.
These people are very good employees. They are able to go from one business to another. The employers have been working together to try to maximize the number of weeks that people can work. Everybody has been quite responsible, but many of the workers still will not have the required number of hours. They will not quite make it this year. Who are these people? Most of them are female. A lot of them are older, at 45-plus. They are single parents. They are one parent families. These are the people who hurt the most.
We need to have a little imagination as to what kinds of programs we could put in place. When we were in government, we had a very good program. We would create projects. They were called make-work projects, but they were always of community benefit. These people's time would be valuable. They assisted in the communities and were rewarded for it by earning income and earning their EI insurance, and they could maintain their families.
Training is no longer available to these people. There have been cuts in the training programs. I mentioned this earlier. Three months into the year, the retraining programs and the support programs from HRDC have been cut. Literacy training has been reduced. These are the basic building blocks that people need to be able to get out there.
We are seeing people who have been displaced from the herring industry. Shaw Woods was a very good employer, and a responsible one, but because of international market conditions it had to close down. The Weymouth lumber mill has closed, and the softwood deal will not reopen it, trust me. King's processors, again because of international pressures, had to close down. Then there are the tourism industry and the agricultural industry. They are all taking hits. We see less tourists coming into Nova Scotia from the U.S. market since 9/11, a problem that will not be solved tomorrow. It is a tough problem and it affects a lot of seasonal workers. A lot of these businesses depend on students.
What was the reaction at HRSDC? It was to slash the student employment program. It had already been cut because of the census figures. I hear it is being cut again. An average of 70 students less per riding will find work next year. Not only are we not helping the students, we are not helping the communities. We are not helping the local communities maintain a good, vibrant economy where these older workers should, according to the minister, reintegrate into the workforce. I think we have to look at all those things.
Then there are the CAP sites. I mentioned this earlier. I was in the community of Maitland Bridge two weeks ago. It is an isolated community, next to a national park It was big in the forestry sector. This community is losing its youth. There is no high-speed Internet access in that community. It is very important for Maitland Bridge to develop a CAP site. There are some sites 10 or 15 kilometres or more from where Maitland Bridge is, but in this community there are none. Now there is no potential of getting these sites, because that funding has not been restored. It has been cut.
It is important for us to do these things. It is important that we get broadband Internet access for all the communities. We have been able to do it for a lot of communities and we had the school program to get it into all the schools. We have it in some rural communities, but we have to get it into all rural communities if we want to protect the economy of the communities where these older workers live.
I am not calling for going back to the old ways of EI. I remember the EI trap. Rather than seeking full time work, people would sometimes get into that trap. That did not help, but we have to look at EI and make sure it is working properly.
In my community, because of the boundary divisions that were added, with some larger communities, some urban and semi-urban communities where the unemployment rate is zero, it is assumed by Statistics Canada that the seasonal workers in my community can work year-round. Therefore, they need a large amount of work weeks to draw EI. That is not true. At those rates, they cannot be driving 400 kilometres in the morning to work and 400 kilometres back in the evening. There is no way that is going to work. I think our boundary divisions have to be a lot more reflective of the communities where these people live.
We have talked about pilot projects. It was mentioned that some of them worked well and some of them did not. We have to review them, of course, but what do we continue to hear? We hear they are being studied and studied and they are being put forward. We continue to have the same thing, those same projects. I think we have to be more imaginative than that. We have to give flexibility to the very good civil servants who work for us at HRSDC, Human Resources and Social Development Canada, who know what the potential is in those communities. They know where to make the investments and what groups understand the local economy and can create the necessary jobs and training.
Again, let me look at another point. Let me bring this back to who a lot of these older workers are in my community. Who are the people we are trying to help? A lot of them are women. They depend on and need some organization and some leadership to be fighting on their behalf, because they are in isolated communities a long way from the centre.
What do we get from this government? For one thing, it slashed the budget of the Status of Women department. That was an insult. Then, a few days later, we heard that the remaining budget cannot be given to organizations that do any lobbying, advocacy or research. We continue to have a Status of Women organization in theory, but it cannot do anything, because we know that the REAL Women group believes that the money from the Status of Women should only be used to bring people together to do some brownie recipe exchanges.
I think it is time for us to get realistic and make sure that we take care of all of the people in our fair country.
Ms. Denise Savoie (Victoria, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to take part in this debate. I am going to share my time with the member for Hamilton Mountain.
I congratulate the member for Chambly—Borduas on this motion. I know that this is a subject he cares a lot about. I have listened to him tell us some very disturbing stories about older workers who were laid off and did not manage to find themselves a job.
We, the New Democrats, strongly support the idea of an income support program for older workers from all regions and all realms of activity. The member is right to persist and to place pressure on the government. We all have to exert pressure so that the government will act in order to help these workers who lose their jobs as the result of factory shutdowns or slowdowns in some sector, whether forestry or fisheries. As an example, in British Columbia we are surely going to witness sawmill closures on account of this bad softwood lumber agreement.
We also believe that older workers who lose their jobs should be entitled to training and have access to courses, if appropriate. This is why the New Democrats are pushing for a lifelong learning strategy to be developed. This means having the possibility of continuing to contribute one’s talents, skills, energy and the wisdom one may have acquired at a certain age for as long as possible to Canadian society.
In my opinion, this motion does not talk about those workers who are fit for work and who could be retrained in some way or another. It must be recognized that workers aged between 55 and 64—which is the age bracket preceding retirement—have greater difficulties. It is not just a matter of taking a little course, as proposed by the Conservatives, to succeed in getting a job. What people get are casual, low-paying jobs, if they manage to get those.
As this motion proposes, older workers require a specific program that will meet their needs, providing them with extra income, rather than relegating them to welfare with all the stigmas associated with that. We are told that the economy is strong and the labour market has never been so flourishing. But even in such a context older workers who are laid off, regardless of their skills and work experience, find themselves confronted with a big challenge.
Victoria has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Canada and even at that, the food banks have never been so busy. I have had the occasion to visit the food banks and often I see workers in their fifties who are there without resources, often homeless. There is something indecent about this situation. It requires action, not more studies.
One woman came to my office in Victoria. She is 56. She has taken several retraining courses. She finds herself faced with unemployment and obliged to rely on welfare. I wonder what the government would tell that worker, that woman in Victoria.
In Canada we recognize the importance of allowing people who are aging to live in dignity. We provide the Canada pension plan, the old age pension and the guaranteed income supplement.
Parliament also passed an NDP motion to protect the rights of older people. Although the motion passed, the government has not taken any action to develop legislation. We must continue pressing the government to ensure that these people are also protected.
We are speaking today about a demographic group that does not reap these benefits: older workers who were laid off but are too young to retire and face serious difficulty finding another job. What do we do? Do we just ignore them when many have paid employment insurance premiums for their entire lives?
When the Liberals were in power, they tightened the eligibility requirements for employment insurance to such an extent that now only 60% of the people who lose their jobs qualify for benefits.
Prior to 1997, of course, there was an adjustment program for older workers that was instituted in 1988 and then abolished. It was administered by the provinces but 70% of the funding came from the federal government. This program enabled older workers between 55 and 64 years of age who had lost their jobs as a result of major layoffs to receive benefits. This program no longer exists. However, we know that the governments in Ottawa and Quebec are currently working on a pilot program to support older workers affected by factory closings in various parts of Quebec. This is an example of federal-provincial cooperation that is directly related to the needs of the province. The federal government is helping to ensure that vulnerable Canadians are treated fairly.
I believe that we should do the same in other areas, such as literacy, rather than slashing these programs as the Conservative government just did. We even heard the Treasury Board president say that it was a waste of money to invest in adults and we should invest in children instead. Investing in our children is a fine idea, but setting the needs of adults against those of children is complete madness. Adults have major literacy needs, and they deserve a program and funding.
The support program that I mentioned for Ottawa-Quebec workers is supposed to be only for people 55 years of age or older working in the forest and textile sectors.
The NDP believes we need a system for all older workers of all income levels coming from any region or any industry. We need a Canada-wide strategy for older workers that reflects their right to live in dignity. They should have an opportunity to continue developing their skills. I believe that Canadian society would have much to gain from their contribution.
By neglecting older workers, by standing still on this issue and by concentrating solely on what they can contribute to the economy and not to our society as a whole, we are missing the boat.
The government has blinders on when it simply wants to focus on economic value without considering the serious poverty issues that many of these workers face at that age. Many of them have spent a lifetime working, for whatever reason, and, in some cases, have had to leave school early to support their families. Whether they were involved in the fisheries or forestry, because of the problems in those sectors they find themselves unemployed and having a difficult time finding other jobs.
In many cases, there is the possibility of upgrading and skills training, but again we see the Conservative government abandoning and cutting many of the programs, certainly in Victoria where their transitioning or re-entry was facilitated through literacy programs and CAP. These programs have simply been put aside.
I would ask the government to reconsider the case of workers between the ages of 55 and 64 and support the motion before us.
Ms. Chris Charlton (Hamilton Mountain, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I am delighted to speak in the House today to one of the most urgent issues in the new Canadian economy, income support for older workers. I want to speak to this issue from two perspectives. First, as the NDP critic for seniors and pensions, and second, as the member of Parliament for Hamilton Mountain.
Let me begin by painting a picture of what is happening in my hometown of Hamilton. Most members in this legislature will think of Hamilton as steel town, a city that has built its reputation from a strong and vibrant industrial and manufacturing sector. Not so long ago that picture would have been accurate. However, members may be surprised to learn that the largest employer in Hamilton today is neither Stelco nor Dofasco, but rather the service sector and, in particular, health care.
Let me take moment to describe what has been happening in Hamilton. The old industrial manufacturing economy of Hamilton has shrunk to but a ghost of its former self. The two big steel companies that used to employ over 30,000 people now employ about 6,000. The whole steel sector, which, as I said earlier, was the backbone of Hamilton's economy, is now about one-quarter of its former size.
In the steel sector alone we have lost 3,248 jobs in just the past five years from 35 companies. Some of the losses were from bankruptcies and plant closures, while others are the result of continuous downsizing where there are still more losses to come as the nature of the industrial marketplace changes in the global economy.
Unfortunately, the job losses did not begin and end with the steel industry. We lost Studebaker, International Harvester, Westinghouse, Proctor & Gamble, J.I. Case, Firestone and hundreds of smaller plants. These are just some of the big names from Hamilton's past. Sadly, the list of losses is still growing.
More recent ones that pop to mind, again from just the past five years, are Siemens Westinghouse with 332 layoffs, and Camco where 716 lost their jobs when the plant closed and 284 more workers ended up on temporary layoff. The Tiercon plant closure saw another 700 jobs lost and there were bankruptcies and plant closures at Rheem, Philip Environmental, Hercules, Mak Steel, Frost Fence, Dominion Castings, Cold Metal Products, and ACI Automotives. New permanent layoffs are happening every month in the industrial manufacturing sector in Hamilton and there is no end in sight.
I started out by referring to the old industrial manufacturing economy in Hamilton and I did that for a reason. This is a sector of the economy that is not growing and is not creating jobs. For the most part, the companies in this sector are very old and they have a very senior workforce. Of the workers losing their jobs at these plants as they close and downsize, 60% or 70% of them are older workers and, in part, they have been displaced as a result of government policies.
Yes, technological changes had a profound impact on the nature of the workplace, but so have policies such as free trade agreements that were first put in place by the Mulroney Conservatives and then expanded under the Liberals.
One would think that successive governments might have assumed some responsibility for addressing the unique issues confronting older workers in Canada and, to be fair, the Conservatives did act on at least one aspect of older worker assistance in 1987 by introducing the program for older worker adjustment which gave income support to workers between the ages of 55 and 64 who had lost their jobs as part of a mass layoff. The program was not perfect but it did allow over 12,000 displaced older workers with poor re-employment prospects to bridge the gap between layoff and retirement.
Unfortunately, the Liberals dismantled the program in 1997 without offering in its place a better alternative. Essentially, the Liberals wrote off older workers as inevitable casualties of structural change in the Canadian economy. Today we have the opportunity to right that fundamental wrong and providing income support to older workers is an important step in that direction. However, it should not be the only step.
Many older workers who lose their jobs want or must continue to participate in the labour force. This is especially true in instances where job losses are the result of bankruptcies. In these cases, workers often lose not just their jobs, but also their anticipated pension benefits and back wages.
It is precisely for those reasons that I introduced Bill C-270, the workers first bill, earlier this year which would ensure that benefits owed to workers will take super-priority over all other creditors in cases of commercial bankruptcy. All of us in the House who take seriously the issue of income support to older workers, no doubt support this legislation. I look forward to my bill receiving full support when it comes to a vote in the House.
Many older workers need to find new re-employment, but they face a number of unique and serious barriers to their job search. Let me review just some of those barriers. First, there is a bias toward high skills in today's demand for labour. This is a huge problem for displaced low skilled workers especially those residing in parts of the country where opportunities for re-employment are very limited.
As a nation Canada has never had a culture of workplace based learning. This must change. If employers actually invested in the continuous updating of skills and education for their workforce, not only would they benefit from increases in productivity and profitability but our country as a whole would benefit by ensuring that displaced workers would have the skills necessary to participate in the increasingly high tech economy.
I am not suggesting that the onus for training should only fall on employers. The government too has an important role to play in promoting life long learning. However, instead of taking that role seriously, the government is actually responsible for many of the barriers that undermine skills training.
Just last week we saw the government cut funding support for literacy training. Yet, we know that 40% of working age Canadians have limited literacy and numeracy skills, and that even these skills atrophy from lack of use in some workplaces. This has had a profoundly negative impact on the re-employment prospects of Canadian workers.
Similarly, the government's employment insurance system does little to encourage workers to participate in skills upgrading. On the contrary, it sets up barriers.
If our public policies did more than pay lip service to help unemployed workers, we would be fast-tracking older workers to programs for skills upgrading, retraining or real career change options. Instead, the EI system forces them to go out and spend time doing a useless job search for several months in the same sector from which they have just been laid off and in which layoffs are continuing, just so that they can prove that they cannot be rehired in that sector with their present skill set.
Why are we putting the onus on workers to prove the obvious? While they are doing what the government demands, they are getting frustrated and demoralized, and even worse, they are using up a huge portion of their EI benefits in this fruitless process. When EI is finally ready to consider these older workers for some kind of retraining, it then makes the process such a bureaucratic nightmare that it actually drives workers away. Even those who stick out the application process find that the majority of them get turned down for training. Only a very small number of those interested in skills training actually get to proceed.
Clearly, EI reform needs to complement income support programs if we want to deal effectively with the displacement of older workers in today's economy.
Finally, we must look at the economy as a whole. I have already said that the free trade agreements have had a profoundly negative impact on high paying industrial and manufacturing jobs in our country. The current softwood sellout that is being so actively promoted by the current Conservative government will have the same devastating impact on the workers, families and communities affected in the forestry sector.
It is time that we stop making our economic decisions based on what is best for the United States. It is shameful that we do not have a steel sector strategy in this country. We desperately need an auto sector strategy. There is profound economic potential in developing a green industry strategy.
Instead of pursuing any of these initiatives with any real interest, we have had successive Liberal and Conservative governments throw up their hands and stand idly by as high paying industrial jobs are replaced with service sector jobs at half the rate of pay or less.
Those who suffer the most are those who built our country, the older Canadian workers, whose labour drove our economy and whose taxes built the social infrastructure like our health care system that defines us as a nation. Older Canadians deserve more from their government and they deserve it now.
I am proud to support the creation of real income support for older workers.
Mr. Paul Crête (Montmagny—L'Islet—Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup, BQ):
Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Brome—Missisquoi to speak to the motion of the Bloc Québécois put forward by the member for Chambly—Borduas, whom I congratulate.
The motion states:
|| That the House reiterate to the government the importance of implementing a real income support program for older workers that would apply to all older workers in all economic sectors, in all regions.
Today, I wish to speak for all those who are affected by this situation. I heard some Conservative members ask if these people had not found any work and why not. Today, these people are listening to us. Two years ago in my riding of Montmagny—L'Islet—Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup, the Whirlpool plant laid off at least 100 workers aged 55 and over. Some found work. The majority did everything they could to find work. There are jobs available, but the reality is that these people do not necessarily have the skills suited to the task. We know that you have to work with new technologies today. Very competent individuals who had a job at a company for many years are not necessarily able to automatically find another job. Furthermore, employers do not readily hire someone who is 58 or 60 years old, even if this person needs the income.
Today I speak on behalf of Gilles, Michel, Clément and others who came to see me the day after the 2004 election. They were the first group I met with in Montmagny, in the new riding I represented. I told them at the time that we would do whatever we could to ensure that a program for older workers is put in place.
On the one hand, it is a good thing to have programs that make it possible for people to find jobs. We should make it easier for them to do that. On the other hand, however, there is the reality that this government has so far consistently denied. No solution is being proposed for the people who cannot find new jobs.
This is not a problem in my riding alone. It is a new reality that has come with globalization and expanded trade. Great. We are all pleased to see globalization and expanded trade. If it helps economic activity, so much the better. There are winners and there are losers, however. The government’s responsibility is to ensure that there is an appropriate distribution of wealth. When we invest, when we increase productivity, when we give an investment credit or allow accelerated depreciation, often, when it comes to jobs, there are people who are victims. We have to find a solution so that those people get their share of the increased productivity and the profit. That is called an assistance program for older workers.
We started calling for this a long time ago. We called for it in the last election campaign. The leader of the Bloc Québécois came to Montmagny and made a commitment to make this a priority in Parliament. We have been on the government’s case since that time and we will continue to be until an appropriate program, a program that meets people’s needs, is put in place.
First, we had an amendment made to the throne speech so that it referred to the problem of older workers. Then we had a statement included in the budget saying that the government intended to act.
We have been told about feasibility studies. That was really not going far enough. The people affected by this situation have been living with it for six months or a year. They are experiencing hardship and they are having to deal with social problems. There have even been suicides. These people are anxious for the government to do something concrete. So far, we have not yet been given that commitment, but we are back on the government’s case today with a motion in which every word is important.
We are asking “that the House reiterate to the government…,” because the government has been aware of the need to act for a long time. We have seen the examples. Proposals have been made, particularly by the union organizations in Quebec, proposals that included very reasonable terms. We are not talking about having an open bar and making it so that everybody has access to this program if they have not done what they need to do to find a job. When the situation has reached the point that it has now, however, if there are people who are not able to find new jobs, then they really have to be given what they need to move on.
The program has to cover all older workers. We must not start segregating people. I challenge my colleagues in this House to give me a guarantee that in the next six months or over the next year there will be no plant in their ridings that is affected by closures connected with globalization, and there will be no workers who have devoted their lives to a business and brought up their families and now find themselves unemployed. All they are being given at present is a maximum of 45 weeks of employment insurance. These people have often paid into employment insurance for 20 or 25 or 30 years and when their 45 weeks are up they find themselves with nothing.
The program therefore has to cover all older workers, men and women, who are living in these situations.
The textile industry is a good example. At Saint-Pamphile in my riding, Industries Troie employed 150 women who had worked in this sector for a number of years. They worked for a vibrant employer, but imports from China came in like a tsunami.
Since the government had not implemented relevant measures, jobs were swept away. Among the workers affected by the job losses, some are older and are having a hard time finding a new job. They must be eligible for this type of program, no matter which economic sector they worked in.
Today the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology is addressing the issue of the manufacturing sector. Globalization is presenting Quebec and Canada's businesses in the manufacturing sector with an extraordinary challenge in that it has become very difficult to compete with all the products that come from abroad. We have to implement what we need to address this. When a company closes its doors, the workers who are victims of this situation, in all economic sectors, have to be treated fairly. That is the intention of the Bloc motion.
Deliberate leaks from the Conservative Party have indicated that this could affect the forestry and textile sectors. Nonetheless, we also have to think about the furniture sector as well.
Week after week, more plants announce they are closing and they are not necessarily all from the same sector. Will people in the Quebec City area who work in the shoe industry be excluded? Will we include a company from a region with low unemployment that has suddenly been hit hard by this type of closure?
The motion states, “— all older workers in all economic sectors, in all regions”.
It is important that this motion be passed today in this House and I hope it will be passed unanimously. If that is not the case, I hope it will obtain a majority of the votes. Then the government will know that the time for discussion is over. We can no longer tolerate waiting for this or that to be completed or for the proper figures or data to be released.
The minister should adopt the same attitude that she took during our recent battle on transitional measures for employment insurance, when we fought to maintain the five weeks of additional benefits for seasonal workers. Now, we are concerned about older workers. Let the minister do as she has done on other issues.After hemming and hawing she could give agree to a program that would affect all workers in all regions and in all employment sectors.
Our economy and the efficiency of our society can be measured by our gross domestic product, but also through the distribution of our riches. In that respect, our society does not often achieve a passing mark.
There are a great many reasons for making sure that we proceed. I will give you one example that caused me to reflect seriously and which left me with a heavy heart. Last week we learned that as of March 31, 2006, the surplus stood at $13 billion. Of that amount, $2 billion came from the employment insurance fund and had been used to reduce the debt.
In our ridings, the people who are dealing with this reality—estimated at $75 million for all of Canada—felt that instead of paying down the debt more quickly, it would have been better to devote some of that money to the program we are discussing today.
The creation of a program for older workers would have represented $75 million of the $13 billion surplus. Nobody would have noticed. People would have been better off. They could have been treated like workers who have done their share for society. Now that they are near retirement, they will be entitled to the old age security pension when they reach age 65. They will also be eligible for the Quebec pension plan. However, for the next two or three years it will be a painful struggle, because at the age of 56 or 57, they will be forced to make withdrawals from their RRSPs and to sell their assets. This will create a terrible injustice. Some people who are supporting a family may not be able to carry on.
Faced with this reality, it is absolutely essential that this House adopt this motion. The Conservatives must understand that this issue goes beyond statistics. If the Conservative members go back to their ridings, they will probably see people of 55, 56 or 58 years of age who, despite all their efforts to find new work and despite the low rate of unemployment, are not able to find a job. These people deserve the support of their government, which is what this motion calls for. For that reason, the Bloc Québécois motion should receive overwhelming support.
Mr. Christian Ouellet (Brome—Missisquoi, BQ):
Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. member for Montmagny—L'Islet—Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup for sharing his time with me and for giving such a fine presentation that really explores the problems facing older workers.
I would also like to thank my colleague from Chambly—Borduas who introduced this motion and so keenly defended it.
This morning, the minister told this House that Canada is experiencing a growth in employment and, as a result, we do not need to help older workers. It is completely absurd to link the number of jobs to the fact that older workers cannot find work.
The minister acknowledged that losing jobs also has a domino effect in the community. This is true, and we know that people who become impoverished at 57 or 58, and who have lost everything, cannot contribute to their community, far from it. Money given to people who have worked all their lives thus helps the entire community and even helps younger people find new jobs.
This morning, the minister said that people would retire more universally if there were a program such as POWA. On the contrary, people want to work. If they suddenly stop working and receive assistance from a program such as POWA, it would be because no other solution is available to them. People do not want to live off POWA. They would prefer to have a real salary. The minister must realize this.
I got the impression that the minister had not gone to see what was happening in the field. She does not know the people these measures are designed for. She is mistaken when she thinks that assistance programs for learning new skills will apply to these individuals. It is very seldom possible to retrain them. She is even talking about new careers. Come on. Men and women who have worked 18, 20, 25, 27 or 28 years for the same company have become experts at their jobs and cannot be readily retrained. They have skills, which they learned on the job. In general, workers in the textile, furniture, lumber and soon the rug industry—since the problem of the rug industry is getting dangerously close to my riding—cannot easily learn another trade or start another career, contrary to what the minister may imagine. Why? Because they have very little education.
My colleague from Montmagny—L'Islet—Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup has just said that people are often illiterate. They have lots of knowledge and have acquired extraordinary expertise. They are professionals in their job. But they have a grade two, grade three, or grade four education. Some have a hard time reading. So they cannot easily begin another career at an advanced age. How can anyone think that it is possible, when it is not?
I will take the example of my father-in-law, a typical man, who spent his life working for Goodyear, in textiles, and who became an expert. This man did not have an education. He had maybe gone to school for two or three years, and then he had to work after the war because he came from a large family.
In Quebec, there are still large families. Some people still leave the country to go and work in factories, where they get their training. They become open-minded and capable people who can help others. My father-in-law even became a foreman. But at age 57 or 58, he could not find a job elsewhere. It was impossible. He did not have the knowledge required.
Someone who changes jobs every five or ten years is mobile, and so is his head. He can easily find employment in other fields. As the minister said, he can enter an assistance program and possibly start another career. But people who have done the same job their whole life long find this hard to imagine and are not able to easily find another way of working and living.
For these people, POWA is therefore absolutely necessary. It cannot be replaced.
My riding has many workers. Unlike the minister, I meet with them and talk with them.
I meet with these people, I talk to them, and I know how much they would like to work, how much they would like to find another job. But this is impossible, because these people specialize in just one area, so there is less work for them, or else none at all.
For example, CSBS, the former CT Brooks company in Magog, is currently restructuring. Every week, it is laying people off or rehiring. Why? Because we are facing huge competition from China, a phenomenon that could be described as dumping. The definition of dumping is giving things to a company free of charge. In China, the government is giving companies land, not charging them tax on equipment, lending them money at preferential rates and giving them tax breaks. This is dumping, because the selling price is less than the production cost.
But the government has never done anything about this. With the WTO, it could have put up barriers over the past 10 years, as the United States has done. There was also NAFTA, and because we are big exporters to the United States, we were hamstrung.
CSBS is a textile plant that is experiencing huge problems, and it is not alone. This morning, the local papers in my riding reported that Consoltex, a textile company in Cowansville, my own city, wants to cut its employees' wages, vacation and benefits, because it is in financial difficulty. Just imagine, if the employees refuse a wage cut that will leave them with starvation wages, the company will close. This will be one more closure that will leave textile experts out of work. The younger workers will be able to find new jobs, of course, but those who are 55 or older will have a tough time finding work.
All the national unions in Quebec and the local unions support us. I have met with them personally, and they are all in favour of assistance for people 55 and over, because they know that these people cannot find new jobs, that they cannot embark on a new career as easily as the minister may think.
We absolutely must help manufacturing companies that are having trouble surviving and we must realize that this is a humanitarian issue. We cannot ask the international community to help our older workers aged 55 and over. It is up to the government to help them. I am convinced that the assistance requested is not an inordinate amount for the government and that it represents peanuts when compared to the total budget.
However, it is very important because half of Quebec's industries have lost 100,000 jobs over the past 10 years. In my riding, thousands of jobs are being lost. These workers cannot be placed as readily as we would like or hope.
Furthermore, we have opened our borders which has created even more difficulties. These conditions did not exist 20 or 25 years ago. They are new conditions and we now need a plan to directly and immediately meet the needs of those aged 55 and over.
We can be certain that older workers will prefer to continue to work or to find another job rather than to receive assistance under POWA.
POWA is like first aid or a safety net that will prevent workers from suffering psychologically and from having their health adversely affected. Money not invested in POWA will be spent to maintain workers' psychological and physical health.
The government can spend in one area or the other. I prefer to have healthy men and women who are no longer employed than to spend money on health care to keep them going to the end of their days. In my opinion, POWA must be established immediately.
Mr. Mike Allen (Tobique—Mactaquac, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, today I will be splitting my time with my colleague from Palliser.
I want to thank the hon. member for Chambly—Borduas for this proposal and I hope he realizes that our government is committed to ensuring that older workers remain active and have an important place in the working population of Canada.
I want to remind the member to start with that and remind the House about our 2006 budget where we made a commitment to the feasibility study that would review the current and potential measures aimed at addressing the challenges faced by unemployed older workers. I think that is recognizing the importance of implementing real programs that do support our older workers.
One element of that feasibility study will be the close examination of how we can assist our older workers going forward into the future. We have learned some lessons from the older workers' pilot program. I reflect back on the comments made by the minister this morning in her discussion and I want to point to three of those which really stuck in my mind about future programs being helpful.
One of those is that 100% wage subsidies were least effective. Second, relating to training, there has to be sufficient time for older participants to learn new skills and training must be practical and relevant. Third, a long term approach will allow for a more effective use of the funds.
Having efficient and effective programs for older workers will have a direct impact in my riding of Tobique—Mactaquac. For example, just in the last couple of years we have experienced the closing of the Nackawic Pulp & Paper Mill in a small, one-industry town. Thankfully, this past January that mill reopened, putting almost 300 people back to work. Thomas Equipment, a longtime equipment manufacturer in Centreville, New Brunswick, just closed mere weeks ago.
I have met and talked with a number of those individuals directly impacted by those events, and a great many fall in the category of older workers who I think is the key group that is envisioned by the member for Chambly—Borduas.
As a bridge to developing these new programs, we also have our temporary income support programs. We had a significant discussion on this with respect to our workers at Thomas Equipment in Centreville. One part is our pure income support that we offer from EI, which acts as a bridge between employment assignments. The second part is the additional benefits, such as training, work experience and support, in some cases, to become self-employed.
These programs give all people, including older workers, the opportunity, when out of work, to upgrade their skills to make them employable. There has been a tremendous amount of effort and a number of these people have benefited from the $1.4 billion in income benefits annually.
However, in addition to considering income support, we must also look at the range of options for helping people to be employable. I say the word “employable” because that is an important word. Personally, I believe making people employable is a responsibility that is shared, not only by the government but by corporations.
I go back to my examples of the closures in my riding. I think we are past the time when any organization can guarantee employment for life. However, as good corporate citizens, I believe we must ensure that people continue to be employable. That concept holds true for older workers who want to remain as active participants in the workforce.
The experience that older workers possess represents a great untapped resource to improve economic conditions in cities, towns and regions across the country. Brad Donnelly, of Manpower Professional in New Brunswick, recently stated, “Seniors are educated. They are alert and are an asset to the workforce. Why do we want to implement programs that would take them out of the workforce?”
The importance of older workers to the labour market and the economy in our country cannot be understated. We all know we have an aging population and it means that we are suffering significant labour shortages. We heard a number of comments on that point in the House this morning. The effects of those shortages are already being felt in my home province of New Brunswick where a recent Moncton Times & Transcript story stated that In more and more workplaces across the province, lengthy vacancies in positions that pay good salaries have human resources specialists scratching their heads.
We are also seeing this in our fall harvest season in the riding of Mr. Mike Allen (Tobique—Mactaquac, CPC) where older workers and even some seniors are playing a significant role in this year's harvest because of the shortage of people to bring in this year's potato crop.
However, we are not alone in facing these economic pressures. Other countries around the world are facing the same pressures and are looking at several options to boost labour market participation.
One of the strong recommendations is to remove incentives that would encourage workers to take an early exit from the labour market. In Canada, as we have all seen, older workers have become a principal source of labour force growth in recent years. As the Canadian population ages, encouraging the participation of older workers will play an important role in ensuring growth and rising living standards.
In short, programs that contain only income support are not the answer. They may be one part of the foundation of this new house we are going to build, but they cannot be the only part.
As Judy Cutler of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons observed, older people are much more active. They are ready to get at it and ready to get out working. I can point to my father-in-law, who constantly reminds me every day of the 20 times that he mowed my lawn this summer. He gets up in the morning and has much more energy than even his favourite son-in-law, which is what he calls me.
However, we recognize that older workers left jobless due to plant closures or downsizing in single industry communities do have greater difficulty participating in the labour market and face longer spells of unemployment. There are many causes of this, such as careers in declining industries, living in remote locations and lower rates of mobility. Any combination of these factors tends to magnify an unemployment rate for a single industry community. I can point to some of the small towns and villages in my community that are very reliant on the forest industry, which is very up and down at this time.
Clearly, a plan that assists older workers in improving their skills serves a dual purpose. It increases their potential for integrating into the workforce and also contributes to the country's labour market and economic growth. As others have mentioned, what is worth emphasizing is that increased participation rates among persons aged 50 to 64 should be a central objective of an older worker policy.
The member for Charlottetown commented about it this morning. He said that income support is not the answer and that we need to take a broader strategy. I could not agree more. That is why I believe this motion is much too narrow for the House to support.
We should be gearing programs to older workers with the tools they need to remain employable. They should not act as a disincentive to labour market participation, skills upgrading or relocation. These programs also need to be focused, including on communities that are one industry towns and villages. We will miss the mark if we put this in all regions and all economic sectors, because that does not reflect the reality of our current environment.
In conclusion, we are finding ways to make this happen. We are endeavouring to do this with a host of partners. It will be a partnership among ourselves, industry, and the provinces and territories to help older unemployed workers find and keep jobs in today's labour market. We are sensitive to the needs of older workers, as clearly evidenced by our many programs and our commitment to a feasibility study.
I can point to a situation in my home riding, where there is a significant multicultural component. Our settlement funding will allow many of the folks who have come in from South America to be productive workers in our communities in Tobique—Mactaquac.
While I appreciate and share the concern of the member for Chambly—Borduas for older workers, it would be premature to support such a broad motion. This government must look carefully at the complex economic and demographic environment. We must complete our feasibility study before taking long term action.
Rest assured, however, that we will continue to support our older workers through present programs. We do not want to make hasty decisions. We want to find the right long term solution for older workers while keeping in mind the current economic and labour market conditions at the forefront of this decision making process.
Mr. Dave Batters (Palliser, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to have this opportunity to respond to the motion presented by the member for Chambly—Borduas, which proposes the implementation of an income support program to assist older workers in all economic sectors and in all regions of this country.
I can assure the House that Canada's new government shares the hon. member's concern about the challenges faced by older workers in Canada.
As the Prime Minister emphasized recently, our nation needs older workers in the labour force if we are to maintain a strong and healthy economy. We recognize that Canadian workers have a great wealth of skills and experience to contribute to the labour market. It is therefore absolutely critical for the well-being of the nation and the well-being of older workers that we find ways to keep them in the labour force and maximize our use of their knowledge, expertise and diverse skill sets. Allow me to expand on why this is an increasingly pressing issue.
Like all OECD countries, Canada is facing the challenge of an aging population as a result of a declining birth rate and increased life expectancy. This resultant slowing of labour force growth means that we will be seeing skill shortages in key industries and occupations in regions across the country. I am sure all members know that these shortages could have a negative effect on GDP per capita growth and hence the standard of living of all Canadians.
If employment rates by age group and gender remain at current levels, Canada's labour force will increase by less than 5% over the next 50 years, compared to the 200% growth that took place between 1950 and the turn of the century.
It is a remarkable and revealing fact that older workers in Canada have become our principal source of labour force growth in recent years. Between 1995 and 2005, their participation in the labour force saw an increase of 11%. There is no doubt that this recent reversal of the long decline in the labour force participation rate for older workers is good news for them and for our nation.
Nevertheless, older workers' participation in the labour force is still far below the rate for so-called prime age workers. In 2005, the older workers' labour force participation rate was 58%, as opposed to 87% for prime age workers. The difference between the two rates represents a tremendous loss of skills and expertise from which our labour force could greatly benefit.
Looking to the future, we see that the potential of older workers is even greater. Between 2000 and 2020, the portion of our population aged 55 to 64 will increase by about 50%. Given the economic repercussions of a declining labour force, we simply cannot afford to let older workers' skills and experience go unused. This is an issue the government is committed to tackling.
We are very aware of the particular challenges that older workers encounter when they try to rejoin the labour market after an early exit, and certainly we are very sympathetic to their plight. We know, for example, that recent closures and layoffs in the textile and pulp and paper industries have affected a large number of older workers and that some older Canadians have difficulty re-entering the workforce. These are challenges we are working to resolve.
As this House is aware, under part II of the Employment Insurance Act, unemployed Canadians, including older workers, may qualify for active re-employment benefits to help them find and keep new employment. These programs range from training and skills upgrading to work experience and support in becoming self-employed. I am pleased to inform the House that over 80,000 older workers over the age of 50 participated in EI part II programs last year.
As I noted earlier, we believe, as the OECD suggests, that optimizing older workers' participation in the labour market is one of the best means we have to offset the decline in labour force growth that we and many other nations are experiencing.
It is for all these reasons that budget 2006 provided $400 million in funding to the forestry sector to assist Canadians affected by global economic adjustments. This is also why we are conducting a feasibility study to evaluate current and potential measures to address the challenges faced by displaced older workers. These challenges include such diverse options as the need for improved training and the possibility of enhanced income support. The feasibility study will also provide recommendations on how we can best assist older workers over the long term.
In the meantime we are continuing to address the challenges of unemployed older workers. We will continue to focus on offering laid off workers, including older workers, assistance such as opportunities for skills development and new work experience. As part of this process we will be building on lessons learned from government pilot projects specifically designed to meet older workers' needs. The older workers pilot projects initiative, carried out between 1999 to May of this year, showed us for example that the best outcomes were achieved through approaches that combined employment assistance services like job counselling and job placement services with training, marketing and job experience.
Participants in the older workers pilot projects made it clear that older workers wanted training that was practical and relevant. I believe that determination illustrates just how much older workers in Canada want to continue to contribute to our economy in a practical and concrete way that makes the most of their abilities.
The government is well aware of the many solutions available to mitigate the slowdown in labour force growth, such as increased immigration, but it appears that one of the most practical and viable solutions is to access the untapped potential of our older workers. If the participation rates for Canadians aged 50 years to 64 years were to increase on average just one-half of a percentage point each year, we could increase labour supply by 13% by 2030.
These statistics tell a story of tremendous potential that is critical to the future prosperity of the nation.
In summary, I am confident that the government's feasibility study will help us to arrive at the best possible solutions for ensuring the crucial potential of older workers is realized now and in the decades to come. For this reason, I am unable to support the motion presented by the member for Chambly—Borduas. Perhaps there will be some amendments. I look forward to members' questions.
Mrs. Claude DeBellefeuille (Beauharnois—Salaberry, BQ):
Mr. Speaker, I am going to be sharing my time with the distinguished member for Bas-Richelieu—Nicolet—Bécancour.
I feel very ambivalent about addressing the House today on the Bloc Québécois motion on its opposition day.
On the one hand, I am pleased to have the privilege of stating how important I feel it is to institute a real income support program for older workers that would apply to all older workers in all economic sectors in all regions.
On the other hand, I am disappointed to have to explain once again to the elected members of this House—especially the government members— how important and urgent it is to have a program like the one stipulated in the motion.
Maybe it is necessary at this point to tell the people watching us on television all they need to know in order to understand the relentless struggle that the Bloc Québécois and the workers and labour unions of Quebec have waged since 1997 to institute an older worker support program. Actually, it would be more accurate to speak of restoring the program.
Such a program used to exist and is not completely new. The 1988 program provided for benefits to be paid to eligible workers between 55 and 64 years of age who had lost their jobs as a result of major, permanent layoffs. In this way, the gap was bridged between employment insurance benefits and the pension plan. Under the Liberal reign, with the hon. member for LaSalle—Émard as finance minister, this program was terminated in 1997.
It was a shared-cost program: 70% was covered by the federal government and 30% by the participating provinces. Since its disappearance in March 1997, there has not been any income support program for older workers victimized by mass layoffs or factory closings.
The Bloc Québécois worked very hard on many occasions in the last Parliament to have a support program instituted for older workers.
I remember a motion introduced by the Bloc Québécois in June 2005 asking for a strategy to help older workers who lose their jobs, which would have included income support. The Liberals, who were in power at the time, did nothing.
In April 2006, the elected members of this House unanimously passed an amendment to the amendment of the Speech from the Throne, introduced by the Bloc, which had the same thrust as the motion of June 2005.
Since last spring, the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development has been telling us about a feasibility study whose results are still unknown. For several weeks, the minister has kept older workers in Quebec, who are in despair after losing their jobs, holding their breath by saying she will make an announcement shortly. A member of her staff, probably for lack of any substance, told that to callers to his office who have been waiting for good news. He kept them holding their breath by saying that announcements and programs were on the way. He encouraged them to be patient. His lack of professional ethics even led him to tell desperate workers in my riding not to be discouraged that he would be glad to join them for a coffee in Huntingdon to celebrate the occasion.
This situation cannot go on. It is inhuman. The Minister of Human Resources and Social Development must put an end to this horrible suspense. The government must, as the Bloc Québécois insists, introduce a real program of income support for older workers that will apply to all older workers in all sectors of economic activity in all regions, as set out in our motion.
I would like now to talk about the situation of people, residents, taxpayers, textile workers of the town of Huntingdon, in my riding, who lost their jobs through the closing of six textile plants on December 13, 2004. Those closings resulted in the loss of 800 jobs, affecting 70%—I repeat, 70%—of the working population of the municipality of Huntingdon. More than 100 older workers lost their jobs—in particular, workers age 55 and older—and today they find themselves with no prospects.
For the benefit of the people who are listening to us and watching us on television, it is important to emphasize that the textile and clothing industry is in a crisis. The industry must adapt to a trading environment that has changed dramatically in recent years. On December 31, 2004, the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing, which had been in force since 1995, came to an end. The end of this agreement meant that the borders of Canada and Quebec are more open to imports, especially imports from China, which are growing sharply.
I am not telling you anything you do not already know, Mr. Speaker, when I say that it is the federal government that is responsible for opening our borders.
And the United States, the most important market for Quebec exports, has signed a series of agreements to facilitate the entry into that country of clothing made abroad out of American fabric, resulting in a corresponding reduction in access for clothing manufactured using Quebec textiles.
I want to talk about the older textile workers at Huntingdon in particular, to show through these very concrete examples how urgent it is that the government do something. Concrete examples are good ways of illustrating that beyond our parliamentary debates, beyond the studies that are not being done, beyond the ready-made answers from the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development during question period—things that mean nothing to the people of Huntingdon—there are people, right now as I am speaking to you, who are living in a degrading and humiliating situation.
Those people, older textile workers, have been abandoned and they are now disappointed and disillusioned. They wanted to believe the Conservatives, who had promised them the assistance they were asking for, but they quickly changed their tune when they saw the real face of the government—a government that has abandoned older workers to their fate just as the previous one did. They have realized that the Bloc Québécois is the only party fighting for them, the only party that is making their voices heard in the House of Commons.
Since I was elected I have worked hard with the older textile workers of Huntingdon and with all of the stakeholders in the community, which has mobilized around the tragic situation of the people affected by the textile plant closures where they live.
These citizens, these older workers, are asking only to be able to work and to get their dignity back.
Large numbers of these textile workers made efforts to find new jobs. Some of them took training courses and some of them found work with other companies, but unfortunately a majority of the older workers have been unable to find another job, largely because of their age.
This is not a matter of paying people to do nothing. That idea is going around right now and it is very insulting to these citizens who have worked all their lives and who have contributed all their lives to the development of Quebec and Canada. We have got to realize that large numbers of older workers, workers who are 55 and over, are not employers’ first choice. How much frustration, disappointment and humiliation will they have to live with, because while they know that they have the experience and the desire, employers do not pick them, preferring the younger and healthier workers who are available over them.
I am sorry to say that it seems clear that in addition to being victimized by global agreements negotiated over their heads, older workers are being victimized by a kind of ageism as well.
This is a reality that does not seem—
Mr. Louis Plamondon (Bas-Richelieu—Nicolet—Bécancour, BQ):
Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate. First of all I would like to congratulate my colleague, the member for Beauharnois—Salaberry, who just made an exceptional speech providing a very good overview of the situation of older workers and clearly indicating the need for the POWA program.
I would like to look at the problem from a different perspective. But first I would like to indicate that there are high expectations for this program in my riding. For example, in a few weeks Norsk Hydro in Bécancour may close. The company has let it be known that it will shut down if the plant is not sold. Thus, older workers will be unemployed at the age of 55, 58 or 60 and, as my colleague has explained, will have little chance of finding another job.
Naturally, all manner of training will be provided, resumes will be mailed everywhere and the union, the company and Human Resources Canada will lend their support. Nevertheless, if it all leads to nothing, they will need the help of POWA. What shocks me about the attitude of the Conservative members on the other side is that this program had been implemented previously and had already proven itself.
I have seen the program in action in my riding. For example, I remember the workers at Marine Industrie. The program benefited 300 workers, at least 60 of whom had a grade three education. Try to retrain someone who has repeated the same actions in a factory for 30 or 35 years and ask that person to learn a new technology. That is what is so terrible. At the time, these people were able to receive support. The same happened at Tioxide and Beloit when those plants closed. In the riding neighbouring mine, Sidbec-Dosco suffered dramatic job losses, and POWA was implemented.
This program has been tested in other plants such as Soreltex and Kuchibel and in smaller companies in towns like Saint-Ours, Yamaska, Pierreville and Nicolet. And that is just in my riding. Other ridings have also benefited from POWA. For years, employers, unions, communities and municipal, provincial and federal politicians have clamoured for this program.
When I listened to the speech by the member for Mégantic—L'Érable this morning, what I heard was that they were going to study the data and set up more committees to look at which program would be best. What the member for Mégantic—L'Érable is telling the people who work in the mines in his riding is that the government could not care less about them; it is busy conducting studies. The government has forgotten about the workers in the textile plants in his riding who are crying out for this program.
These Conservatives from Quebec claimed that they were coming here and effectively representing the people of Quebec, the people in their ridings, by bringing in new ideas. They said that they were going to help workers in difficulty, that there would be initiatives and programs for them.
When they were in opposition, the Conservatives who had voted with the Bloc in favour of a motion on POWA said that they were going to grow in numbers. They said that once they were in power, they would be able to implement POWA. The Bloc could talk about it, but they were going to be able to implement it.
Today, the members from Quebec who made those claims are sitting with their heads down, not daring to say a word. Their way of exercising true power is to stay silent and abandon helpless workers who have lost their jobs.
I was shocked to hear the member for Mégantic—L'Érable say, head held high, that it was not necessary right now, and that we need to study the issue.
Where are the members for Lévis—Bellechasse, Louis-Hébert, Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, Lotbinière—Chutes-de-la-Chaudière, and Beauport—Limoilou? Where are the ministers from Beauce, Jonquière, Pontiac, and Saint-Laurent? Will they rise to speak on behalf of the workers, to say that yes, this is the right thing to do, to say they will implement a POWA program and invest a few million dollars to help those who need help?
They say we need consultations. Did the government consult anyone when it decided to spend $17 billion on military equipment?
Did it consult anyone then? Did it consult anyone when it decided to extend the mission in Afghanistan? It made the decision in a single motion, without warning, without consulting the population, without consulting the House and without debate. It was ready. But it has nothing to offer to workers who need help.
A few weeks ago, when the government cut a billion dollars from women's groups, when it cut a billion dollars from literacy—from those who need it most—did it consult anyone? Did it form committees? Did it conduct studies? No, it did not. Yet it is still studying the matter of helping workers and wants to take all the time necessary.
An hon. member: You are being cynical.
Mr. Louis Plamondon: Of course I am being cynical.
I call upon the 10 Conservative members from Quebec to tell them that they are breaking their promises. They claimed that they would address the needs of workers once in power, but are now silent. I see them across from me, with their heads down, not daring to rise, perhaps because they do not have permission from their party to do so. Rather, they are here to make cuts. They are here to allocate funding for military equipment and for all sorts of programs except for those to help those who need help. Above all, they are here to make cuts that affect the most vulnerable. But we will have more to say about this during the next election.
In closing, the income support program for older workers—so thoroughly explained by my colleague earlier—is not a luxury.
This does not constitute excessive spending. This is purely common sense: a government recognizes that its citizens who have worked 30 or 40 years in a factory did so in good faith and with all the goodwill in the world. It recognizes them by supporting them for a time, if, unfortunately, the economy goes through a slump. All the better if these workers find another job. If they cannot find one, the government will support them to age 60, and with the pension plan to age 65, so that these workers can continue to live with dignity.
That is the general idea of the program. When I hear Conservative members say that this is not urgent, that they are going to conduct studies, this reveals where their real priorities are.
Ms. Raymonde Folco (Laval—Les Îles, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I will split my time with the hon. member for Halifax West.
I am rising today to take part in the debate on the motion presented by the hon. member for Chambly—Borduas.
As was mentioned by the member who spoke before me, the Liberals support the underlying principle of the motion. The official opposition supports the motion, because we believe in the fundamental rights of all workers, and particularly the rights of Canadian workers who are over 55. These workers get laid off more frequently, their jobs may become obsolete because of new technologies, or they may find themselves out of work because companies are going bankrupt in some sectors of the economy.
Many workers who are over 55 face prejudice when they apply for a job, because employers feel they are overqualified. These workers are not hired because the experience that they have gained over the years works against them.
According to a study released by Statistics Canada in May 2005, 39% of workers aged 56 and over are less likely to find a job than Canadian workers in general. I know that the member opposite does not think that a 55 year old person is old, but many employers do. This anomaly can be explained partly by the fact that employers may discriminate against older workers and may prefer to train younger people, so that the investment made will benefit them in the much longer term.
Members from both sides of the House will agree that holding a job has a significant impact on people's dignity and self-confidence, particularly when they have a family. Being part of the labour force is important to an individual, because it allows him to understand his environment and, to a lesser extent, the world in which he lives.
That is precisely why, from 1999 to 2005, the previous Liberal government invested $55 million in initiatives involving pilot projects for older workers. This was meant to be the basis of what could have been an income support program that would meet the needs of a very vulnerable group.
The Liberal government undertook these national pilot projects because we discovered upon taking power that the programs were not very well thought through and unfair to older workers. The programs instituted by the previous Conservative government under Mr. Mulroney applied only to sectors in which there had been a lot of layoffs. The needs of the country as a whole were totally ignored because not all provinces and regions could access the programs, despite regional disparities in the supply of jobs for older workers.
Studies show that retirement may now be a thing of the past. Canadians may have to work until they are 70 years old, not because they want to, in some cases, but because the gaps in the workforce will be so large that employers will no longer be able to engage in the kind of discrimination against older workers that I was talking about earlier based on the fact that they may be overqualified or do not have the technological knowledge or the tools to function in what is increasingly a knowledge-based society. Older workers want retraining. That is why the Liberals had these pilot projects.
Innumerable men and women have knocked on my riding office door in Laval—Les Îles to tell me that they had been let go. In some cases, they held quite senior management positions. Now, unfortunately, they found themselves unemployed and did not know where to turn. They tried to retrain but still were not offered any jobs, even though they had a lot of experience.
Of the 125 projects across all of Canada, 74 were in Quebec. This means that 60% of all the subsidized projects for older workers were in my province. We got about $21 million of the funds allocated for new training and other employment needs. However, the Liberals did not just ignore the rest of Canada, as the Conservatives are doing, because we work for all Canadians, regardless of where they live.
Last year, the Liberal government allocated $5 million to extend the program until May 2006, for a total of $55 million. Now, unfortunately, this program no longer exists. The Conservative government also has not given any indication of how it is going to use the results of the Liberal pilot projects and put them toward longer-term projects, even though the Conservative government promised to do so in the last throne speech.
We on this side of the House still hope that the new Conservative government will undertake a well-intentioned study of these pilot projects before eliminating them. People do not want a program that will not meet the needs of all Canadians.
If I still have a few minutes, I would like to speak briefly about other Liberal investments in working people. Among other programs, I would like to speak very, very much—because it is so important—about the Canadian workplace skills strategy. The Liberal government instituted this strategy in 2004 to help working people upgrade their knowledge in order to keep up with a workplace that is constantly changing, we must admit.
In the 2005 budget, the Liberals added new credits of $125 million, over a three-year period. Today, the new Conservative government announced a $17 million cut in the funding for the Canadian workplace skills strategy, as part of its $1 billion budget cuts. And then, as the Bloc Québécois member pointed out, there is this other $17.7 million. This is that much less money available for literacy programs.
Earlier this week, I mentioned in the House that in Quebec, according to statistics, almost 50% of Quebeckers aged to 16 to 65 do not have the reading skills required to fully function in our society. This is despite the fact that the government has surpluses in excess of $13 billion. Once again, older workers may end up being ignored by this government.
Is this the Conservatives' idea of a responsible government? Is this the Conservatives' idea of standing up for these people?
I will conclude by asking Bloc Québécois members to elaborate on their vision of an income support program for older workers. While the purpose of this motion may be laudable, and I agree that it is, its wording is not specific enough regarding the workings of such a support program.