House of Commons Hansard #2 of the 37th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was program.

Topics

Employment Insurance Program
Private Members' Business

5:45 p.m.

Bloc

Sébastien Gagnon Lac-Saint-Jean—Saguenay, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to congratulate my colleague from Charlevoix for this very important motion, particularly for the Quebec regions.

In Saguenay—Lac-Saint-Jean, two important sectors could be affected by such a motion, the softwood lumber and the tourist industries. The present system does not take particular situations into account. I will give an example to illustrate what my colleague has said. The blueberry industry is very important in our area, but unfortunately, blueberries do not grow at minus 25 degrees Celsius.

Considering the important prerogative that forces us to send $560 millions in taxes to Ottawa, the government could decompartmentalize its program and that could have important consequences for the area. The government would have to adapt to the regional contexts.

Could my colleague give us examples supporting this motion for the importance of the Quebec regions?

Employment Insurance Program
Private Members' Business

5:45 p.m.

Bloc

Gérard Asselin Charlevoix, QC

Mr. Speaker, in Saguenay—Lac-Saint-Jean, as in my area of Charlevoix, the regional economy looses $4 million per year because of the cuts in the employment insurance fund. This is money that will not be spent in our corner stores, our groceries and our gas stations, and that is true of all regions. The situation is the same in my colleague's riding. For each dollar lost, jobs are lost.

When the seasonal workers' status is recognized, it will be beneficial for the employee, but also for the industry, because if I cannot count on employment insurance benefits year after year, I might well try and find a job somewhere else. The company has to keep on training people to be able to count on highly skilled and qualified employees who will provide service as hospitable as that of the people of Saguenay—Lac-Saint-Jean, very well represented in the House by their member of Parliament.

Employment Insurance Program
Private Members' Business

5:50 p.m.

Ahuntsic
Québec

Liberal

Eleni Bakopanos Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development (Social Economy)

Mr. Speaker, I would like to take part in the debate on the motion tabled by the hon. member for Charlevoix, proposing to grant specific status to seasonal workers under the employment insurance legislation.

As hon. members know, today's debate is of particular importance, since it deals with a program that has been very helpful to workers who cannot continue to work because they were laid off, because they are suffering from a serious illness, or because they must care for a young child. The employment insurance program is more comprehensive than it was when we came to office 10 years ago.

Recently, in January, we also implemented—as most members in this House know—a new compassionate benefit for Canadians who work and who must take a leave of absence to look after a member of their family who is seriously ill. A quick look at the 2002 monitoring and assessment report on employment insurance shows just how effective this program is.

During the period in question, over 1.9 million people submitted new claims and in excess of $11.5 billion was paid in benefits.

The numbers on access to employment insurance were very positive since 88% of those who contributed to the program would have qualified for benefits if they had lost their job.

Active re-employment measures helped workers improve their employability. Indeed, the $2.1 billion invested under these initiatives allowed us to help 570,000 claimants.

Making the rules to qualify for special benefits more flexible and increasing parental and maternity benefits have allowed many claimants to cope with serious illnesses and to better fulfill their family responsibilities.

However, while EI's overall performance is good, there are some workers who face special challenges, to which the hon. member has referred, due to the nature of their work and the industries in which they are employed.

Seasonal workers are one such group whose work is key to a number of industries and regions, as the hon. member mentioned in his speech.

Recognizing this, EI contains many features that benefit them. For example, its hours-based eligibility system is well suited to the special characteristics of seasonal work, which often involves a large number of hours per week. This means clients can use every hour worked in calculating their eligibility and benefits. Every hour counts, which is contrary to what there was before 1996. In the past a worker had to work a minimum number of weeks, which excluded some workers.

We have also established, as a government, economic regions to make it easier for EI to respond to the higher unemployment rate seen in some parts of the country. Simply put, as the unemployment rate increases, the number of hours a person needs to work to access EI goes down. This takes into consideration the difficulty experienced by some workers in finding jobs when unemployment is high in their region.

We also extended the transition period for the regions of Bas-Saint-Laurent/Côte-Nord and Madawaska-Charlotte which will allow many seasonal workers to qualify with fewer hours and receive benefits longer.

Then there is the EI's family supplement, which tops up the benefits of many low income seasonal workers who have children.

The small weeks provision also provides seasonal workers in all regions with higher benefits and helps them keep their skills up to date.

Active re-employment measures help seasonal workers improve their employability and increase their chances of finding year-long jobs. Consequently, those who claim benefits frequently on a regular basis, 80% of whom were submitting claims according to a “seasonal” pattern, received nearly $3 billion in regular benefits between April 2001 and March 2002.

Workers with a seasonal pattern of EI claims received an average of $329 a week, 7% more than recipients in general receiving regular benefits and fishing benefits.

However, no system is cast in stone. As we said, several changes have already been made in our system. Some recent changes have been to the benefit of seasonal workers. Among other things, the intensity rule was abolished, the revenue threshold for short weeks was raised and so was the level of refund for people receiving benefits frequently or for long periods.

Even if the employment insurance plan can help, it is only part of the solution. We must also find a way to strengthen the communities and stimulate local economies in order to promote the creation of full-time and year-long employment.

That is exactly what the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development and other federal departments are doing, in partnership with regional development agencies, employers, community groups and trade unions.

We want to consider what the overall impact might be on EI, other clients and our labour markets generally.

The hon. member has in fact raised a valid point. We are seeking input from all our partners and basing our decisions on the best data available to show us where we are going and what changes may be needed along the way. It is for this reason, since this is an ongoing consultation, that I will be voting against the motion and would encourage other members to do likewise.

Still, I want to congratulate the member for caring about seasonal workers. The government shares his concern for their situation.

I encourage the member for Charlevoix and all the other members, since a number of them have raised this issue over the last few years, at least since I have been a member of this House, to help the government in its search for comprehensive solutions to the problems of all workers, including seasonal workers.

It is only through a joint effort that we will find sustainable solutions to the social and labour force problems faced by a great number of Canadians.

Employment Insurance Program
Private Members' Business

5:55 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Diane Ablonczy Calgary—Nose Hill, AB

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to the motion today. I congratulate my colleague from the Bloc for bringing it forward. I know it is motivated by concern for Canadians who sometimes are in difficult circumstances because of seasonal work.

The motion would modify the employment insurance program to establish some kind of specific status for seasonal workers regardless of the EI economic region in which they live.

The EI program, as the member from the government just mentioned, has been broadened considerably in the last 10 years under the Liberals.

The first question I think Canadians will want to ask is: What is the purpose of the EI program? If the purpose of the EI program is to serve many masters, retraining, compassionate leave, parental leave, seasonal workers, a lot of different purposes, then we are on the right track. Why not add one more? We have already added a, b, c, d, and e, so what is the rationale for not adding three or four more in the program?

Another way to look at this program is the way the Forget commission looked at it when there was a comprehensive review of EI, called UI at that time, by a very distinguished commission. The commission said that unemployment insurance should be insurance. People pay a premium and if they have an unexpected and unforeseen job loss they have the means to pay their mortgage and feed their kids. The purpose of an insurance program is to insure people against an unforeseen loss.

Under the Liberals, the program has been broadened to cover all kinds of things, but it is not insurance. It is not insurance at all. If someone is involved in regional work or if someone decides to become a parent, then that is not an unforeseen circumstance. Yes, there should be programs to cover those circumstances, but do they properly belong under unemployment or employment insurance? That is a question that we sometimes forget when we are talking about this program. It is a valid question. What is the purpose of the program?

If the purpose of the program is insurance against unexpected job loss, which certainly happens all too often in our changing economy, then that is a program that we can define in that way. However what it has become is a slush fund for the government.

The member from the government just said that 88% of people who pay premiums into the insurance program are entitled to insurance. That means that more than one in ten people paying premiums into the program have no entitlement to any benefits, to any insurance. The member herself admitted that. What kind of an insurance program is that, where I have to pay premiums with no hope of receiving any benefits?

My colleague from the Bloc pointed this out. Why should regional workers have to pay premiums under a program that does not benefit them? That does not make a lot of sense does it?

Another thing the government is doing, which it knows full well, is taking far more in premiums into the program than is being paid out under the program. In fact the chief actuary of the program, a special actuary who designs the program to make sure it is properly run and that the money is being put in so that people who need benefits can be sure of getting them, said that the government was charging far too much in premiums than it needed to pay out the benefits.

What has the program become for the Liberal government? It has become an enormous cash cow. In fact, since the government took office it has taken into the program $45 billion more than is needs to run the program.

Can anyone imagine what Canadian workers and employers struggling under the tax load of the government could have done with $45 billion in their pockets? There are $45 billion in this last 10 years that workers and businesses could have had to work with, but no, it went into the pockets of the government, which is now crying poverty when it comes to important programs like health care.

This motion says we should add one more thing to the EI program. Should we do that? We do not know because this program has been expanded in so many ways that it is hard to know what the rules are. Is it an insurance program? We do not know. It certainly is not operating like an insurance program. Is it a program where certain defined premiums are paid out for defined benefits? The answer is no. The member himself admitted that there are people paying into the program that are not entitled to benefits. There are some fundamental questions here.

There is another fundamental question. What is a seasonal worker? Is a seasonal worker someone, as my colleague said, working in the ski industry? Is that person entitled to have an income once the ski season is over? Is someone who is building roads for oil companies in the north entitled to income when the road building season is over because of the spring thaw? What constitutes a seasonal worker? I asked my colleague that question and he gave some examples, but how does one define that? If a person decides to work in a seasonal occupation, under what circumstances is there an entitlement to income when not working?

My colleague from the Bloc says that there are some industries where this is necessary because there is no other work to be had once that particular product or activity is over for the season. How is that defined? We need to decide that before we move forward.

It seems to me that if we are going to start tinkering with the EI system piecemeal, it is not going to be a very sensible way to approach a very important program for Canadians. Canadians do not want to wake up in the morning to find out that their jobs have been terminated for whatever reason and they are bereft of the resources to look after their families. It is a good program to ensure oneself against that, but is it a program where a lot of these other things should be added on?

I remember some years ago when this program was funding a thing called TAGS, which was to retrain people in the fisheries who were no longer able to fish because the Liberals had mismanaged the fish so badly that there were none left. This TAGS program paid out billions of dollars and had a pathetic record of actually helping displaced fishers find a new occupation that could support themselves and their families. Is this the proper use of an insurance program? Those are valid questions.

I would invite my colleague to answer these questions before we adopt a program that has a very important function for Canadians and start loading it up with other uses and abuses--particularly by the government which abuses it--and put extra, unnecessary and, by the way, unlawful money into the federal coffers. The law governing this program says we should only have premiums that will allow us to ensure a certain level of benefits, but the government has violated that consistently year after year.

There are some good questions raised by this good motion. It is a motion that has compassion for people. It is a motion that wants to do the right thing with a program. However, unless some fundamental questions are answered about the purpose of this program, about the definition of who is going to be encompassed in changes to the program and questions about what the government is doing using this program as a slush fund at the expense of workers and employers, I do not think we should go any further.

Employment Insurance Program
Private Members' Business

6:05 p.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak on the motion of the member for Charlevoix. This is a very important motion that is being introduced here in the House of Commons.

It is important to read this motion once again:

That, in the opinion of the House, the government should modify the Employment Insurance (EI) Program to establish specific status for seasonal workers, regardless of the EI economic region in which they live.

This is indeed an important motion. It also goes to the heart of the problems we have here in Canada. I know that the member for Charlevoix spoke about Quebec, but this is not only about Quebec, this is also about Canada. He recognizes that this is a problem everywhere in the country.

This employment insurance program was introduced by the federal government in 1940. It was aimed at taking care of workers who had lost their jobs.

I would like to digress for a moment, because the Quebec Appeal Court now says that the federal government is interfering with Quebec's jurisdictions through the federal compassionate care program or the parental leave program.

However, let us remember that, in 1940, there were perhaps only 5% of women who were in the workforce in Canada. This program did not apply to women who were in the workforce. Now, we must take into account today's workforce and be able to have respect for it.

That said, if I have understood correctly, the member for Charlevoix has just said that some $4 million annually was being lost in employment insurance benefits in his region.

I have said before that it is nice to be Number 1. Yes, being chosen as Number 1 is a source of pride. But I can tell you that I am not proud of the fact that my riding is Number 1, because it is tops in Canada as far as its rate of unemployment goes.

That is not what the people in my riding want. They want to work. In my area, the losses are not $4 million in benefits, but $81 million annually. The annual figure for New Brunswick is $274 million. That is why I find the motion by the hon. member for Charlevoix appropriate and feel it is a good motion.

The parliamentary secretary says that we should work together to find solutions. I accept his invitation. The reality, however, is that the Liberal government has used employment insurance for political gain.

I have sat on the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities with parliamentarians from all political parties. Even the LIberal members, along with all the members from other parties, recommended changes to employment insurance. The Liberals even voted on the suggested changes to EI.

For example, the problem in southeastern New Brunswick. The federal government sent out investigators to see whether people were cheating on their hours. These people have been waiting for a year for the federal government's decision. The Liberal member for Beauséjour—Petitcodiac has even said that, since the arrival of the new Prime Minister, there has been more satisfaction than during the last ten years, under the reign of the previous PM. This is unbelievable. But these people still have had no response, so I do not know what kind of satisfaction we are talking about.

These people are in a panic. They do not know if they are going to end up owing the federal government $10,000, $15,000, or $20,000. Imagine the panic among the families in the Cap-Pelé area. Imagine the panic in Bouctouche.

I can empathize. Every day I receive between 50 and 100 calls at my office from people who are being punished by the employment insurance system.

Today, I must say, the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development was not hypocritical. He told the truth. There is no more money in the EI fund. Yet, on paper, there is a $45 billion surplus. Today the minister stood up and told the truth. There is not one red cent because the government boasts a zero deficit. They balanced the budget on the backs of these poor workers who lost their jobs. They created a surplus on the backs of this country's seasonal workers.

Whether you come from New Brunswick, Charlevoix, Rimouski, Timmins, Ontario, Prince George, British Columbia, the Yukon, Edmonton, Alberta, when you have a seasonal job you are a worker. This is not a social program. It is a program that Canadians created for workers. It is Canadians and companies that contribute to it. It is not there for the government to spend the money on other things, to pat itself on the back for having a zero deficit and a balanced budget. The only way they balance the budget is on the backs of the poor.

It is unacceptable to see that only 33% of women qualify for employment insurance in Canada.

It is a shame when the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development says that there is not a penny left in the employment insurance fund because the government balanced its budget. It has created a zero deficit on the backs of those women who lost their jobs.

It is a shame that 800,000 people in our country do not qualify for EI but pay into it. It is a shame that 1.4 million children are hungry in our country because their parents do not qualify for EI. It is a shame that in my riding I get calls from people who want to take their lives because they cannot afford to feed their families due to the lack of employment insurance.

How could the government be proud of itself when we will not see anything for EI in the budget and we did not see anything about employment insurance in the throne speech.

The federal government gets $7 billion annually in profits from this program, and it is not even mentioned in the throne speech.

Yes, the government says that a new vision is needed and that we must be able to create jobs. How can it say that it can create jobs when it did not create them during its past decade in power? We now have a Prime Minister who was Minister of Finance and who rejoiced when he took money from the workers.

Whether these people are from the mines in Cape Breton, Halifax, Yarmouth or Chéticamp, they needed that employment insurance. The government took it. Today, it admitted in the House of Commons that there is not one red cent left except—but only on paper—that $45 billion belongs to Canadians. It taxed the workers. It taxed those who lost their jobs.

That is why each time I talk about this I am very passionate about it. The reason is simple: I see that the Liberal Party has hurt families and caused divorces but most of all, it has created child poverty.

I challenge the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and the parliamentary secretary. If what the minister says is true, then the committee just created by the Liberals to approve everything in Canada, should be dismantled and replaced by a multi-party committee.

The Prime Minister says that there is a democratic deficit in Canada. If he wants to set an example and cooperate, he should strike a committee so we can study the real problem. We will be able to find solutions.

This employment insurance fund belongs to the workers. It is not a social program. For mothers taking maternity leave or fathers taking parental leave in order to care for their children, it is not a social program. They no longer have any income, and this program belongs to the workers and those who contributed to the fund.

Employment Insurance Program
Private Members' Business

6:15 p.m.

Bloc

Suzanne Tremblay Rimouski-Neigette-Et-La Mitis, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am truly pleased to be able to speak today about this motion, M-475. This motion asks for a change in the Employment Insurance Act to create a specific status for seasonal workers. Like my colleague, I wish to read the motion again, because it is very important that the people listening know exactly what we are discussing. The motion by the hon. member for Charlevoix reads as follows:

That, in the opinion of this House, the government should modify the Employment Insurance (EI) program to establish specific status for seasonal workers, regardless of the EI economic region in which they live.

Some hon. members from other parties have already spoken to this motion, including the hon. member for Calgary—Nose Hill, the hon. member for Ahuntsic, who is also a parliamentary secretary, and the hon. member from Acadie—Bathurst, who is his party's employment insurance critic and who, ever since he first entered this Chamber, has always defended this issue with passion.

We seem to be reaching unanimous agreement on the fact that EI needs real reform when it comes to seasonal workers.

Even the parliamentary secretary congratulated my hon. friend from Charlevoix. Still, she seems to be telling us that her party will not be moving ahead on this motion and will not support it, even though she congratulates the hon. member, even though she recognizes the work we have done in favour of this motion and in favour of the EI program, since we began sitting in this House in 1993.

What is surprising is that the Liberal Party campaigned in the elections of 1993, 1997 and 2000 on the promise that it would reform employment insurance. The new Prime Minister, when he dropped in at Baie-Saint-Paul last year, promised once more that as soon as he became Prime Minister he would reform EI. He would really reform it.

Every time, there is a minister who comes into the ridings where the people are suffering the most from EI and tells the people to stop demonstrating, to be quiet, that everything will get fixed up as soon as they take power, that they will do it as soon as the election is over.

Many times over the past decade they have fooled the Canadian people. I hope that in the next election the people will remember once and for all that the Liberal Party of Canada can no longer be trusted when it comes to employment insurance.

Since the past is an indication of what the future holds, we cannot expect anything more from this party. They changed the Prime Minister, they changed the leader, but the situation is still the same, if not worse. As my colleague from Acadie—Bathurst indicated, there was not a single word about employment insurance in the Speech from the Throne, not a word about the softwood lumber problem, about the forests or about the difficulties of seasonal workers.

When will the government understand that it is not the seasonal workers themselves who are seasonal? Their situation is due to the structure of some industries in certain regions.

When one lives in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver or Victoria and is a hotel employee, one can expect to work 12 months a year because there are tourists all year round in those cities, plus there are business people who travel and attend conventions for example.

However, in Sainte-Luce-sur-Mer, let me tell you that, at this time of the year, a stay at the hotel would come cheap because the hotel is closed; it is a summer resort. People there start working towards the end of May and finish at the end of August.

That is the nature of seasonal work. Even if we tried to give work to hotel workers 12 months a year, we would have to send them to Montreal or Quebec City after the season in Sainte-Luce. There is no hotel open year round in Sainte-Luce.

In the Gaspé Peninsula, maybe there is a hotel in Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, one in Baie-Comeau, one in Sept-Îles and one in Godbout. In Rimouski, there are one or two, maybe three, but we cannot give work to all those who want to work in the tourism industry and only in hotels. It does not work that way.

In my region, fishermen do not work all year. Forestry workers do not work 12 months a year. It is the same thing on farms. Will someone in this government finally understand that, that it is the industry itself that is seasonal?

It is not the people who do not want to work. My colleague from Charlevoix said: “If there were jobs 12 months a year, our people would work. They are not crazy”. Who likes, these days, to live on $300 or $400 a week in employment insurance benefits? Who likes that? Nobody.

The cost of living is high for everybody, in case you did not know. And it is often higher in remote areas than it is in big cities. They are further from everything. That is why we should help people. We will have to finally understand that this is a real problem.

The Minister of Social Development said. “When Canadians ask for something, it means we can do something”. I hope someone tells her I quoted her. For 10 years, Canadians have been asking the government to stop fooling around with the EI plan. Canadians throughout Canada have been asking that. The situation is the same everywhere.

But this government needed a surplus. It has deceived the Canadian public by saying, “Give me money and I will put it aside in a fund and help you out when you lose your job”.

If an insurance company had done the same thing the government did, it would have gone bankrupt long ago. It just does not make any sense. We cannot go on ignoring the problem of seasonal workers. This cannot be done in Canada anymore, unless we are completely stupid.

We have to understand what is going on, we have to face reality and we have to find a solution. We will sit down. We will talk. There are many solutions. One solution is clear though; we could ask what could be done to help those people.

Committees have met. One committee sat and found solutions in my riding, in the Lower St. Lawrence. The committee proposed solutions, but nobody is listening. With arrogance, 38% of the vote and a majority of seats, this government brought us to where we are today.

I think that next time it deserves to be in the opposition. This is where the government is now. It has to go to the opposition benches because it does not deserve to keep on governing the country. It does not understand anything. In fact, it did not understand anything about the employment problems. It has to go to the opposition benches for a while to better evaluate all the problems that it created for the public.

Employment Insurance Program
Private Members' Business

6:25 p.m.

Liberal

Robert Thibault West Nova, NS

Mr. Speaker, first, I would like to congratulate the hon. member for Charlevoix for having raised a very real and significant issue that is affecting every region in Canada.

I am not sure however that he has come up with the ideal solution to this problem. I think the debate we are having is important and that we need to find a solution.

It is unfortunate that the expression “EI fund”, is so widely used. Benefits are paid out of the consolidated revenue fund of the Government of Canada. If people meet all of the criteria, they get benefits. These criteria need to be reviewed. We have to examine how we meet the needs of seasonal workers, whether they work in the farming industry, the forest industry, in fish processing plants, in the tourism sector or elsewhere.

It is unfortunate that we seem to want to make comparisons between Quebec and Atlantic Canada or Western Canada or Ontario. People are facing the same problems everywhere in Canada.

The problems we are now facing come from the changes that we needed to make. In my riding of West Nova, there was a time when our young people chose EI benefits as a source of income. Their career goal was to get EI benefits. It was quite sad. The abilities and capacities of these people were lost, and it is not something we want to go through ever again.

However, with the solutions that were applied, there are still people who find themselves in a black hole. It is often women and single parents who do not have the opportunity to develop other skills, to go back to school, to retrain, to reorganize themselves, to move, or to take advantage of the whole socio-economic system.

These people find themselves in a black hole. They work alongside people who come from other Atlantic regions in the processing plants that are in operation in my area. In their geographic regions these people need fewer hours of work to qualify for employment insurance benefits. They go back to their province, their region. Women in my riding collect employment insurance benefits because the riding is doing rather well from an economic point of view. It is also associated with urban centres such as Halifax. These people do not meet the criteria.

It is very difficult for these people. It is very difficult when we see the people from the Beauséjour—Petitcodiac region being confronted with the problems generated by the fish processing plants that must comply with the rules.

I congratulate the hon. member for raising this issue. We must continue to work with the task forces, to make recommendations while working within the boundaries of the existing legislation to meet the needs of seasonal workers.

House of Commons
Private Members' Business

February 3rd, 2004 / 6:25 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

Before we conclude the day, I want to make mention of a little historical note.

The mace that is on the table today is not the usual mace. It is a replica of the mace and it adorns our chamber once a year, on the anniversary of a sad day in our history, February 3, 1916, the day of the great fire. This replica was the one that was handcrafted while a more permanent one was prepared for the chamber. The wooden mace adorns our chamber one day a year, February 3, the anniversary of the great fire.

The hour provided for the consideration of private members' business has now expired and the order is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the Order Paper.

It being 6:30 p.m., the House stands adjourned until tomorrow at 2 p.m., pursuant to Standing Order 24(1).

(The House adjourned at 6:30 p.m.)