Evidence of meeting #16 for Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities in the 39th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was money.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

9:05 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dean Allison

We're still missing a few people, but we do have quorum, so we're going to start.

Pursuant to the order of reference of Tuesday, October 16, Bill C-265, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act in regard to qualification for and entitlement to benefits, I want to welcome today Mr. Godin, the sponsor of the bill.

Thank you, sir, for being here.

We're going to commit the first hour to this. So perhaps, Mr. Godin, you would like to go with your statement. We have members who are going to be coming in, and we're going to be pretty much filled up here, hopefully very shortly.

Before we get started, however, all the members will find in front of them a request for budget. This is some housekeeping we need to take care of. We need a motion to pass that. This is to deal with this particular private member's bill we have before us. You'll see in front of you the potential cost for witnesses. Keep in mind that whatever money is not used will be returned to the envelope, so this is just the highest-case scenario. Because we have some local witnesses, there may not be much cost at all, but we do need to present a budget.

If I could have someone move a motion for that, then we can have some consensus on the budget.

9:05 a.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

I so move.

9:05 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dean Allison

Thank you, Mr. Cuzner.

Is there any debate to this budget? No. Then I'll just call the question.

(Motion agreed to [See Minutes of Proceedings])

9:05 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dean Allison

Thank you very much. That was relatively painless.

Let's move on, then, to Mr. Godin.

Sir, the floor is yours.

9:05 a.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Thank you, Mr. Chairman and committee members.

It's a pleasure for me to be here this morning to discuss Bill C-265, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (qualification for and entitlement to benefits). I haven't prepared a brief because I feel I know the employment insurance question well enough to be able to discuss it for the next 10 minutes.

I would like to begin by saying that I'm proud that Parliament has voted to refer the bill I've introduced to our committee so that we can discuss it and see whether we can improve it.

In 1986, the Auditor General made some recommendations to Brian Mulroney's Conservative government. He recommended that the employment insurance funds be paid into the Consolidated Revenue Fund. In 1988, after the funds were paid into the Consolidated Revenue Fund, the government realized that the fund was becoming a cash cow. These funds had virtually become a tax. It saw the funds being paid into the Consolidated Revenue Fund and thought that, if it amended employment insurance and proceeded with cuts, it could make gains and apply those to the debt and balance the budget. That is precisely what occurred.

Mr. Chairman, I remember that, on July 31, 1989, L'Acadie Nouvelle reported that my predecessor, Doug Young, had asked all New Brunswickers to fight hard against the change made by the government because it would be a disaster for New Brunswick. At the time, he was speaking on behalf of New Brunswick, since he was only an ordinary opposition member. Around February 1993, when the opposition leader was the Honourable Jean Chrétien, a letter was sent to a group of women from Mouvement Action Chômage, in the Rivière-du-Loup region, stating that the government was punishing workers by making the cuts, that unemployment insurance was not the problem, but rather that the economic problem had to be solved.

Then, in the fall of 1993, the Liberals came to power and continued making changes to employment insurance. I'm not tossing balls around and making everyone angry. I don't want to prevent you from voting in favour of the bill. I'm setting out the actual facts that have been made public.

Once the changes were started, could we blame senior officials for getting it into their heads that unemployment insurance benefits had to be cut because giving people money made them indolent and lazy? After the Liberals came to power, an article in the Globe and Mail triggered comments in the Hamilton region. In that article, Doug Young was reported as saying that people from the Atlantic region were a lot of lazy and indolent people and that was why they wanted employment insurance benefits, but that he was going to change matters. He thought that the Globe and Mail wasn't distributed in the Atlantic region. It was in 1997—and Mr. Cuzner no doubt remembers this—that we realized that Atlantic workers had really reacted to those remarks.

People wonder why Yvon Godin wants to be so generous by lowering the number of hours required to 360, and think that makes no sense. You have to remember that, in those years, a person had to work 15 hours a week and accumulate 150 hours. You could say that unemployment insurance was generous, because it wasn't as hard to qualify: you had to work 15 hours a week and accumulate 150 hours. The 15 hours a week applied to male and female workers, especially female workers. A number of women worked 20 hours a week. Not everyone worked 40 hours a week. The 150 hours equalled about 10 weeks of work.

In the Atlantic provinces, we are lucky to live beside the Atlantic Ocean. We are lucky to live by the sea, which enables us to create a fishing economy. We also have forests. We could talk about this for a long time, since we're losing it as a result of the closure of the paper mills. I've said this many times in the House, colleagues: the Bay of Chaleur freezes along the coast in winter. In addition, the government imposes quotas.

It isn't employees who decide whether or not they can work year-round; it's government regulations. There are quotas.

For example, with regard to the crab industry, you can catch approximately 26,000 tonnes of crab. The fishery is over in less than six weeks. What do people do then? No one ever decides on Friday morning that he won't go to work on Monday and thus have his wages cut in half. I don't think so. I've never seen anyone from the Atlantic who is indolent, lazy and doesn't want to work.

You need only look at the number of people taking a plane and going to work for the oil industry in the west. These people like to work and work hard, but our industries are seasonal.

Statistics Canada has conducted some studies. The government argues that 85% of people eligible for employment insurance are receiving it. That's what the government says. The government today takes the same line as the previous Liberal government. It's senior official speak.

In the first report published following the major changes made to the employment insurance system in 1996, it was said that only 42% of people who contributed to employment insurance could receive benefits. Perhaps I'm mistaken, but I believe that's what was written in the first report. That hit hard, and everyone said it made no sense. So they took a different tack and said that 85% of people eligible for employment insurance were receiving it.

The question was asked here in committee meetings. I myself was present when questions were put to officials from Human Resources and Social Development Canada. The question was clear.

People are contributing to employment insurance, but don't qualify for it because they haven't managed to accumulate 910 hours of work, or 840 hours of work in certain regions. It takes 910 hours of work to qualify for employment insurance the first time. University students contribute to employment insurance, but don't qualify for it because they don't have enough hours of work. There are also all those people who work part time in Canada and who can't accumulate 910 hours of work during the year.

Here's another example. In 1999, Minister Pettigrew said that the problem only affected the Atlantic provinces, that it didn't affect the rest of Canada. I said to myself that I should go and visit the rest of Canada, and I did a national tour. I also sent out copies of my tour report. I visited all the provinces of Canada. I went to 22 regions, I attended some 53 public meetings, and I wrote a report.

I met one lady from Nanaimo who had been in a coma for 10 days. When she came out of the coma, she went home. She wanted to receive health insurance and employment insurance, but she was short two hours of work. In three years of work, she had never been able to accumulate the required 700 hours of work. She had accumulated 698 hours of work. So she was only two hours short of being eligible for employment insurance. The 420 hours required, or more depending on the region, represent a number that is too high for newcomers, because of the industry they work for, not because they leave their jobs in order to go home.

The act is clear: if a person voluntarily leaves his employment, he does not qualify for employment insurance. In that case, the person doesn't leave his job; it's the employer that says that it can't offer him employment because it has reached its crab and lobster quotas, that the lobster fishery is over, and so on. In Prince Edward Island last year and the year before, there weren't enough people to work in the fishing industry. Workers even came from Russia to work when the unemployment rate was 20%. People have gotten to the point where they prefer to live on welfare because, that way, they feel better treated. When you've gotten to that point, I think there's a real problem.

Here in Ottawa, when we talk to our colleagues about the employment insurance problem, some suggest that people affected should move out west, where there's enough work. Excuse me, but we don't want to move the entire Atlantic region and northern Ontario out west. There are major industries, including fishing and forestry, in Vancouver as well, where I went. Some employers in major industries should have a system that can help them.

The qualification requirement must be lowered to 360 hours to give everyone an equal opportunity. If someone loses his job, whether it be in Rivière-du-Loup, Timmins, Nanaimo or Fort McMurray, he's still an individual who has lost his job. Employment insurance should be used to compensate for that loss of employment by supporting the families of those individuals until they find another job. Everyone should have equal access to this system, which is funded by them, not by the government. It is employers and employees who contribute to the system. The system should therefore enable those individuals to access their own insurance system rather than make it so that the funds are diverted to pay down the debt and to achieve a zero deficit. We've seen that the $7 billion surpluses each year have been diverted from the Employment Insurance Fund for that purpose. It's really through this fund that the government has paid down its debt and balanced its budgets. The fund should enable the most vulnerable citizens to access this program, which they themselves fund.

In addition, we should focus on the best 12 weeks of the year. The employment insurance program already collects a percentage on these people's wages. If they work for minimum wage or $9 or $10 an hour, telling them that they will only receive 55% of their earnings if they don't look for a job is one way of urging them to look for one. I'd like the percentage to be 66%, but it's currently 55%. These people are doubly penalized under the divisor of 14 policy, which only applies to certain places. But, in reality, who are we punishing? We're punishing the family, man, woman and children. It's not for no reason that 1.4 million children are hungry in Canada. In my opinion, the changes made to the employment insurance system by successive governments have really caused this problem.

I still sincerely believe that all Canadians are stalwart individuals. If we attack the economic problems and create employment, people will be proud to get up on Monday morning to go to work. They will go home at night with a paycheque that they have honestly earned. It is the Government of Canada, not the workers, that has come to depend on the employment insurance system to pay down its debt. These are the two changes that I have requested in the context of this bill. I am prepared to answer your questions.

9:20 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dean Allison

Thank you, Mr. Godin.

I want to remind members, because it's been a little while since we've had some questions and answers, that in the first round you will have seven minutes each. We will start with the Liberals, followed by the Bloc, the NDP, and the Conservatives. We'll probably have a round or a round and a half today.

Mr. Cuzner, you have seven minutes, sir.

9:20 a.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

I want to thank my colleague for his presentation and for coming forward with this bill. Having had the opportunity to work with him and Monsieur Lessard on a past study, I know that some good recommendations were put forward through that study. Some good provisions and good measures were taken. I know that the elimination of the divisor rule and the “black hole” provision were important to workers. We made some strides in those areas anyway. I certainly respect my colleague's commitment to this issue.

It speaks to a larger issue. It's not just about EI, but about rural communities and sustaining a critical core of people, a critical mass of people in these rural communities where we harvest the fish and harvest timber for our mills. There has to be a way that we're able to keep these people in the communities they want to be in, in those industries that are seasonal in nature.

As Mr. Godin has mentioned, they're not seasonal workers, they're workers who are employed in seasonal industries. Many work in a number of those industries. They'll go from the fishery to forestry, or they'll move into tourism for a period of time.

In speaking with some groups and individuals on this particular thing.... There's a caution. I want to ask if Monsieur Godin has affixed a cost to the program in regard to dropping the number of required hours. The concern I've heard from some interventions that were directed to my office was that if we open it up, if we don't specify the areas of higher unemployment, if it becomes too costly and if it's right across the board, then overall the number of hours will continue to creep up. There would be no preferred requirement for the areas of higher unemployment. They see that down the road it may be a concern, and uniformly the required number of hours will be increased to the disadvantage of those areas that have the higher levels of unemployment.

I'd like your views on the costing and whether you think this is a concern.

9:20 a.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Maybe our analysts could find out the cost through human resources. This has been beaten left and right and pounded on for so many years. When we look at the 360 hours.... I believe the costing was already done, and it's less than $1 billion. I think it's around $300 million per year. It was already done in the past. I don't have the number with me here today, but I believe it would be easy to find.

When you're talking about the increase for the numbers of hours that could happen, we have to remember where we came from. We used to have only 15 hours a week and 150 hours. The only thing that I know, that I believe, is that the increase that happened is that the government has put $57 billion in the general fund. Nobody seems to be worried about that. I didn't hear anybody screaming over that--taking the money, not from the taxpayer.... And there's a difference.

For the taxpayers, the people who go in and work in the morning, get their paycheques, there's the gross on their paycheque. Then there's CPP for when they take retirement, so they'll have a little pension plan. One is called employment insurance, and that one is so when you lose your job, you'll get something. That's what it means. Then you have income tax. The income tax is to pay for everything that we collectively want--hospitals, education, etc. And for the debt, they call it the GST. They created the GST to pay the debt. It seems to me that the debt could not be paid with the GST, so now we're going to steal from workers, because the workers cannot defend themselves.

What I'm saying is that if we feel that the cost could come up, the only way to resolve that is by creating jobs. New Brunswick alone lost $270 million per year in benefits for employment insurance. For the labour market, they have put in $100 million per year for training programs. So there's $170 million that just went to the general fund that maybe could have created jobs.

9:25 a.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

I know my colleague will recognize that over that period of time, from 1993 on, the unemployment rate came down from 12.5% to 6.5%, so there were fewer people pulling out of the EI fund and more people paying in. I know you'll recognize that.

Let me ask you something. I appreciate that we represent very similar types of ridings. How are the older workers retraining programs being received in your communities by the workers?

9:25 a.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin Acadie—Bathurst, NB

How are they being received?

9:25 a.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

How are they being received? Are you finding the fish plant workers are seizing the opportunities and taking those retraining programs? Are you seeing that within your communities?

9:25 a.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin Acadie—Bathurst, NB

I'm talking about the fish plant. Let's be honest, who do you have in the fish plant? You have women most of the time. On the oil rigs in Alberta, they don't hire women. They hired a few to go to the camps that they live in. Even if they have the retraining, they don't have the jobs created to give them a job.

Then what they have to do--let's be honest--is put them in school, because if you don't go there, you don't get anything. They learn and they learn and they learn, and we're spending the money training them, with no jobs. That happens in many cases.

9:25 a.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

But the resource is going down. Specifically in the fisheries, we know the resources.... The numbers and the quotas have gone down, and the numbers aren't there anymore. We've seen some positive results in the older workers program. We're seeing a bit of a shift, and we're getting some of them involved in IT. They're mainly the younger workers from the fish plants, the last generation to enter the fisheries.

I'm just wondering how it's going in your area.

9:25 a.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Well, we have those training programs going on, and another program just came out last week with $6 million to $8 million for training, but as I said, we have to be careful. You don't try to take a person who has grade 8 and make him a grade 12 when he's 58 years old.

You're talking about older workers. Maybe we should look at a different program and say, okay, the industry is going down. We had programs called PATA before, and PATU. Then we said we'd give early retirement to those people, and then concentrate on another group on a voluntary basis, and then look at the others and ask how we can train them, and we have that program. But I still have so many people coming into my office saying they'd like to qualify to go in the programs, but they're still not qualified. They want to learn and they cannot qualify.

I think we should be more open. For example, we started by training people who had grade 8 and were able to collect employment insurance and paid some of the program. Then they switched them from grade 8 to grade 10. If you were on the grade 8 level, you could not get it anymore; you had to go and study at night.

Then there could be more money used to train people from the younger generations who didn't have the opportunity to go to school. That's what happened in the fishery. For the ones who know the history of the fishery, it was easy to get a job in there. You didn't need much qualification, and they thought they would have a job forever. Then they got into the fishery, and when the fishery closed down, they ended up with no education and no job. I think we should admit more people to that part of the training program.

9:30 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dean Allison

Thank you very much, Mr. Godin and Mr. Cuzner.

We'll move to Mr. Lessard. You have seven minutes, sir.