House of Commons Hansard #29 of the 37th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was budget.

Topics

The Budget
Government Orders

5:15 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

All those opposed will please say nay.

The Budget
Government Orders

5:15 p.m.

Some hon. members

Nay.

The Budget
Government Orders

5:15 p.m.

The Speaker

In my opinion the nays have it.

And more than five members having risen:

The Budget
Government Orders

5:15 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

Call in the members.

(The House divided on the amendment to the amendment, which was negatived on the following division:)

The Budget
Government Orders

5:40 p.m.

The Speaker

I declare the amendment to the amendment lost.

It being 5:44 p.m., the House will now proceed to the consideration of private members' business as listed on today's Order Paper.

The House resumed from February 3 consideration of the motion.

Employment Insurance Program
Private Members' Business

March 25th, 2004 / 5:45 p.m.

Bloc

Michel Guimond Beauport—Montmorency—Côte-De- Beaupré—Île-D'Orléans, QC

Mr. Speaker, it gives me great pleasure to speak to this motion put forward by my colleague, the hon. member for Charlevoix. I shall take this opportunity to congratulate him. The fact is that, with the redrawing of the electoral map, he will have to abandon half of his riding, but I do think he will be the new member for Manicouagan in the next election. And as for me, I have the pleasure, the honour and the good fortune to have been chosen as the Bloc Quebecois candidate in the new riding of Charlevoix—Montmorency.

I think it would be appropriate to read the motion again. It says:

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.

First of all, I would like to recognize the battle that has been fought for a number of years by a group from Charlevoix, from La Malbaie in particular. This movement has spread all over Quebec and has apparently spawned another 14 groups. I am talking about the Sans-chemise movement, in Charlevoix, and its coordinator, Danie Harvey, from La Malbaie. With scarce resources, they have done a fantastic job of public education. The common denominator of this battle is to obtain real reform of the employment insurance program.

The structure of the current system is totally unsuitable for workers in seasonal industries. I think this needs to be changed. We are used to talking about seasonal workers, but these people are working in seasonal industries.

Even if we wanted to install a huge dome over the Charlevoix and North Shore regions, so people could wear flip-flops and shorts all year round and we could keep the temperature at 21

o

C, this is not possible. The reality is that Quebec has winters.

In Quebec, particularly in the regions I just mentioned, there are workers in industries that are extremely active in the summer and spring. I can name a few. For example, there are all the forestry workers. I am sorry but in forestry, clear cutting and tree planting are impossible under four feet of snow. So this work has to be done in late spring, summer and early fall.

There is also the fishing and shellfish culture industry. This is also done in late spring and summer. There is tourism. In reality, our regions have lots to offer but unfortunately our tourism season is not year-round. There is winter tourism. Of course, more and more Europeans come for the snowmobiling in the Charlevoix region, the North Shore, Lower St. Lawrence and the Gaspé. However, this is still a very small market that is insufficient to allow workers in the seasonal tourism industry to work year-round.

There is a problem. Obviously the people in Charlevoix and the Upper North Shore want to work. We must destroy the myth that they are content to be unemployed on a regular basis. If they could work all year, they would prefer that to being unemployed. I want this to be quite clear. Unfortunately, there are a number of misconceptions about workers and the unemployed. We must set people straight.

The employment insurance system is currently ill-adapted and unfair to workers. I would like to remind hon. members that on June 11, 2003, the current Prime Minister, who was a candidate for the Liberal leadership at the time, met with two representatives of the Sans-Chemise movement at Le Genévrier campground in Baie-Saint-Paul. He made a promise to change the employment insurance system.

When parliament resumed on February 2, the Speech from the Throne did not include one line or word about reforming the employment insurance program. In the budget brought down on Tuesday, March 23, there was not a single mention of employment insurance. The member for LaSalle—Émard said one thing on June 11 when he was a Liberal leadership candidate, and now that he is the head of the party and this government, he refuses to make solid commitments.

The people of the North Shore and Charlevoix have had enough; they are fed up. When people are disenchanted they can be easily tempted to bend the law. The Upper North Shore has seen its fair share of road closures. I know that when roads are blocked it hurts the trucking industry. Often truckers are paid by the trip. This is the way the workers stand up for themselves. They have occupied employment insurance offices and demonstrated in front of every federal building on the Upper North Shore and in Charlevoix. They are exasperated.

I would also like to commend the people from the Action-Chômage movement, particularly on the Upper North Shore. I would like to acknowledge the work of a woman named Lyne Sirois. She is a woman of ideas, a woman who is not easy to convince, but a woman of conviction and commitment. She is currently leading this debate with the members of this committee. They are fed up with the promises made by this government.

I would like to say one thing. Let the government not get the idea, with an election looming, that it can buy votes with this. This may explain why there was no mention of it in both the throne speech and the budget. It thinks it can turn up, on the eve of an election, with some cosmetic measures, stop gap measures, just like it did prior to the 2000 election. Once again, it wants to extend the transitional measures, just like the former justice minister, now member for Outremont, did. In October 2003, he extended them for a year as a temporary fix, to try to buy some time and win some votes.

Among the people I wanted to mention is Manon Scalienne, who is involved with the forestry industry on the Upper North Shore. She too is what I would call an activist, a woman with a heart, a women with a mind, and one who is also engaged in this battle.

I want to make it clear that the people will not be taken in. This government must follow up on the promises made by the Liberal leadership hopeful, now Prime Minister. What the people want is to meet with the Minister of Human Resources in order to explain the seasonal work issue to him. The Bloc Quebecois is onside with the “Sans-chemise” on this.

I want the government and the public to know that this will likely be included in the Bloc Quebecois election platform, once one has been adopted for the next election. What we are calling for is a self-sustaining employment insurance fund, so that the government cannot dip into it again and then boast about its balanced budget, its lower deficit and the fact that it has even generated a surplus.

Last year, the employment insurance fund generated a surplus in the order of $3 billion.

That $3 billion went into the consolidated revenue fund, while workers, unemployed workers, could have benefited from improvements to the program.

As a result, the Bloc Quebecois is calling for the creation of a self-sustaining worker and employer administered fund, because we have already told the Prime Minister these contributions do not belong to him. “You have no business helping yourself to them”, we said.

Although my time is up, I must add that there is much more I could have said.

Employment Insurance Program
Private Members' Business

5:55 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Reed Elley Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Mr. Speaker, I said in an earlier speech that I thought it would be my last speech before retiring, but here I am again. I am sort of like a dirty penny.

It is with pleasure today to join in the final hour of debate on Motion No. 475. For clarification, the motion reads:

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.

In effect, as I understand the previous debate on this motion, the hon. member who introduced it is seeking to establish this special status for seasonal workers regardless of where they happen to live in the EI economic regions across the country. In effect, this would create special eligibility requirements for all seasonal workers.

I believe that in order to fully debate this kind of motion, it would be profitable for us to take a step back and review the employment insurance program overall. That will set the context by which we can adequately look at the workings of Motion No. 475.

As we all know, the employment insurance program, or unemployment insurance as it was once known, was originally intended to provide temporary assistance to workers who found themselves unexpectedly out of work. Its original and intended objective was that both employees and employers would contribute to an insurance fund that would provide workers with the short term means to continue to meet their financial obligations in the event that they were laid off.

Unfortunately, however, past governments, and the Liberal government in particular, have used and abused the financial and political implications of the EI program much to their own advantage, regardless of the implications to the individual workers and employers.

In the November 2003 Auditor General's report, with which I am certain all Liberal members are now very well acquainted, there were several crucial points brought forward. The unfortunate point is that while the Auditor General has been able to confirm the numbers, the official opposition has brought forward many of the same points in the past, only to be ignored by the government.

Here are just a few of the points that came out of the November 2003 Auditor General's report. In 2001, 15.1 million Canadians contributed to the employment insurance benefits program and 2.4 million actually received benefits. The EI account surplus has reached $43.8 billion. This is money that has been wrongly taxed from working Canadians. This is money that should have remained in the taxpayer's pocket. This is money that the current Prime Minister, when he was finance minister, used to balance the budget. He simply balanced it on the backs of working Canadians.

Furthermore, and this is nothing new, the Auditor General has brought this same issue to the attention of Parliament since 1999.

Another point from the Auditor General's report of last year is that the current surplus is about three times the maximum reserve that the chief actuary of HRDC considered sufficient in the year 2001. Three times is a 300% overrun collected from employees and employers. That is money that could have been used by the employees for personal expenses, put toward their child's education or to enjoy a well deserved family holiday. That is money that the employers could have used to hire and train new staff, to replace old equipment or expand their market share.

In 1996, the Employment Insurance Act went through a series of changes. Unfortunately, neither the Canada Employment Insurance Commission nor Human Resources Development Canada have reported on what savings have resulted from these changes. It is indeed unfortunate that HRDC is so selective with its own performance measurements.

In her closing remarks of chapter 7, the Auditor General made several recommendations concerning EI. Among them were the following: First, that HRDC ensure performance targets are met across the country and that the causes of performance problems be further assessed. This seems like an obvious target. Unfortunately, the EI program has not always been properly monitored and acted upon.

The second recommendation was that HRDC should design and implement an evaluation plan for the EI income benefits program.

The third recommendation was that CEIC should ensure that all changes to the EI Act are monitored, assessed and evaluated.

Unfortunately, the EI program has been used by this very tired old Liberal government as a regional and industry subsidy for many years now. Due to these past actions, different benefits go to different groups of people. I agree with the motion's attempt to ensure that the EI program is consistent all across Canada. Unfortunately, the motion seems to be a bear bones type of motion that lacks many key components and much information which we would use to make an intelligent decision as to how to vote.

Simply put, we must ensure that the EI program provides adequate income protection for Canadians in all regions in the event of unexpected income loss, all the while ensuring that there is a fair eligibility requirement and payments into the fund.

Clearly, the original intent of the program was to ensure that the payments by employee and employer alike were reasonable to maintain it as an insurance fund, rather than to be used by the Liberal government to simply balance the budget. I believe we need to return the program to its original goal.

While I respect the intent of the motion, I am concerned with the vagueness of the terms used. “Specific status” does not really describe for us as legislators what is included. It would appear that there are financial implications involved in the motion. However we currently are unable to determine what those implications and those options may actually be.

The real story behind the EI program and something which needs to be addressed far more than the motion is not seasonal workers, but the abuse that the Prime Minister and the failing Liberal government have inflicted upon the program and the payment mechanisms themselves.

Once again Canadians are being overtaxed by the government. Once again we see the Liberals using $1.5 billion to serve their own needs. Once again we see a tired Liberal government that simply needs to be replaced with a government that will provide a vision and will provide hope, not only for workers but for every Canadian.

I suspect that in the coming weeks Canadians will decide that the government will be the new Conservative Party of Canada.

Employment Insurance Program
Private Members' Business

6:05 p.m.

NDP

Wendy Lill Dartmouth, NS

Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to rise tonight to speak to Motion No. 475. It states:

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.

I am pleased to support the motion. We need to modify the EI system to recognize seasonal workers. Our EI system needs a major overhaul as our colleague from Acadie--Bathurst has said many times in the House.

The Liberals have created a system that only protects workers who match a long gone version of what employment is: the same job from high school to retirement with two weeks vacation every year and a bonus at Christmas. We all know that is no longer the model we are working under.

There are fewer and fewer workers who match this definition of employment today. Most people will have a new job every three to five years. Many will move in and out of traditional employment as they raise their family or care for an ill relative, as they go back to training or school to improve their skills, and as they use those skills to become entrepreneurs and create more jobs.

The EI system created by the Liberals does not protect seasonal workers or casual workers. It does not protect women. My own personal criticism is that the system does not protect workers who work for themselves, particularly artists who cobble together a living with contracts, royalties, and part time jobs.

Yesterday, the NDP caucus had the opportunity to speak at length about EI with Mr. Ken Georgetti and several other representatives from the Canadian Labour Congress. We had a very interesting conversation about the issue of seasonal workers.

What we must realize is that seasonal workers are spread across the entire nation. This comes right from the CLC which represents hundreds of thousands of workers in Canada. It represents a huge percentage of Canadian workers at this point in time in such industries as forestry, fisheries, tourism, and agriculture. The motion speaks to that very important point made by the CLC yesterday.

Another point that the CLC made which I find horrifying is the fact that 66% of unemployed workers, people who have been working but are now unemployed, never had the opportunity to collect on the money they paid into the EI system.

The whole concept of insurance is the fact that it is there when it is needed. That is why it is called insurance. There is something wrong with any insurance program which most workers pay into but never benefit from. That is how this plan has changed and metamorphosed over the last 10 years.

The EI account has built a premium surplus of close to $50 billion since 1994. The system started to change in 1994 and the government started cutting back on the number of people who were able to collect on claims that they felt were legitimate.

Our economy depends on the work of all of these seasonal workers, people in the tourism industry, agriculture, mining and fisheries. If there were no tourism industry, Canada would lose $55 billion industry that contributes over $9 billion in taxes to the federal government. It is time to pause and think about the impact of these so-called seasonal workers. They are fueling one of the biggest industries that we have in this country.

Without the men and women willing to work part time in the fishing industry, there would be no seafood restaurants, no canned fish available, and no fish oil supplements.

Public safety and health crises like the SARS outbreak in Toronto, hurricane Juan in Nova Scotia, and the avian flu epidemic in B.C. have all affected workers in a negative way. There is no provision for EI to cover short term breaks in employment and, at the present time, to cover these kinds of extreme crises that have arisen over this last year in our workforce. Even in areas of relatively low unemployment like Toronto, workers need that safety net that EI is supposed to provide but rarely does.

The most frustrating aspect of this for many workers is that they pay for this protection. Seasonal workers still have to pay EI premiums even when it is clear from the start of their jobs that they will not be able to make a claim when their employment ends. When they hear that the surplus in the EI account is $45 billion, or whatever incredible figure we are hearing now, these workers know that the Liberal government does not care about them.

I heard an expression the other day which I found pretty funny in a way but it is also pretty pathetic. It is a new syndrome called COWS. It means Canadian outraged workers' syndrome. Thousands of Canadian workers pay into the EI system knowing full well that they are not going to be able to collect when their jobs come to an end. It is kind of a catchy expression, but it is a pretty chilling idea.

For communities, the surplus comes down to the difference between the money its residents pay to the EI fund and how little its residents receive back. We hear about these huge surpluses ballooning in the EI fund but what does it really mean to our communities? I can tell members quite clearly what it means to my community.

In my riding of Dartmouth we lose $30.3 million to the EI surplus every year. In Vancouver East the residents lose $48 million. This is money that used to go to unemployed workers in our communities at an earlier time when this system was working for workers as opposed to against workers. When they were without work, they were able to access this money. It was coming into Dartmouth or Vancouver East. It was fueling the economy. It was going to pay for groceries, school supplies, and clothing for our kids and medicine. That money was part of our economy. It is now collecting within the surplus in the federal coffers and it is not going back into our communities.

It is even more shocking in rural areas like Acadie—Bathurst where the residents lose $81 million annually. No wonder our rural areas are hurting. If those hundreds of millions of dollars had stayed in the community, the spinoff benefits would have been enormous.

More sales in stores result in more jobs. More opportunities for skilled training keep local schools busy, more money spent on community charity initiatives improve local conditions, and more entrepreneurs starting up businesses keep residents living in their community. All of these are the spinoffs and are the direct result of having that money being channeled into the communities.

A few weeks ago I spoke on how the problem with the equalization formula for have less provinces has left me less optimistic about where we are at now in the Maritimes. The numbers that the Canadian Labour Congress provided us with regard to the money that is being taken out of our community saddens me even more.

How can we keep our young people from going down the road if the federal government siphons money out of our provinces through the EI surplus? How can we keep our small communities strong if we punish citizens for living there? That is what the EI system does. It punishes people for working in seasonal industries and it punishes people for working on a part time or casual basis.

Those communities lost hundreds of millions of dollars because the EI system did not protect the majority of workers, especially casual, part time and seasonal workers. We need a revolution in thinking about employment that recognizes that many workers have episodic employment and that they should be supported between those jobs.

We all benefit from having a workforce that is able to respond when we need them to take on jobs that will only last a few weeks or will not be full time. That is the reality of industries today. That is where our productivity suffers because we do not support the workers we need to keep our industries and communities strong.

I want to thank the member beside me for bringing forward this motion. It is an important step in trying to fix this system that is a lifeblood for our employees in the country. We will be supporting it.

Employment Insurance Program
Private Members' Business

6:15 p.m.

Bloc

Paul Crête Kamouraska—Rivière-Du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise today to address the motion moved by the hon. member for Charlevoix and seconded by the hon. member for Rimouski--Neigette-et-la Mitis. I will read the motion again, because I think its wording says a lot:

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.

Seasonal workers are people who work in nurseries such as the ones in Saint-Modeste and Rivière-du-Loup, in peat bogs, in the tourism industry, in the forestry sector or in the agricultural industry. These people work between 12 and 20 weeks per year at these jobs. From year to year, they do the same type of work and accumulate roughly the same number of weeks.

The part of the motion which says that we should “establish specific status for seasonal workers, regardless of the EI economic region in which they live” is important. Indeed, we found out that, when the unemployment rate goes down in a region, workers are asked to work more weeks to qualify for the employment insurance program and they get fewer weeks of benefits.

This may be acceptable for someone who works in a thriving economic sector, provided it is not a seasonal job. However, in a sector where work is seasonal, the number of weeks of work remains the same, even if the economy of the region improves. In fact, economic growth has a reverse effect on these seasonal workers. Indeed, it reduces the quality of their living conditions, because they are asked to work more weeks to qualify for employment insurance.

These people are often unable to qualify. Either they get fewer weeks of benefits and must go through the dreadful spring gap, or else they work 12 weeks in the summer, collect benefits for about 30 weeks and suddenly find themselves without an income for the other 10 weeks.

Imagine the case of two persons from the same family working on a seasonal basis at the Saint-Modeste nursery. Suddenly, for 10 weeks of the year, there is no longer any money coming in to pay rent, make car payments and provide for the children. These people must find an alternative.

This type of situation is unacceptable because the employment insurance system has generated astronomical surpluses over the past 10 years. The current government owes $45 billion to employers and workers who have contributed to this system and not been paid.

Meanwhile, as with any other insurance plan, this is a very specific situation. The government allocated this money to a completely different category of expense, using it to pay down part of the debt, reduce deficits and cover increased federal government operating expenditures. Paradoxically, here in the central federal system, there were higher operating expenses, but the money came directly from regions already affected by tougher EI criteria. It is vital that this be corrected as soon as possible.

In the past we managed to get rid of the intensity rule. Hon. members will recall the 1994 reform. It was terrible. Anytime someone used 20 weeks of employment insurance benefits, 1% of their benefits was eliminated. This was truly unacceptable and we managed to fight this and win. Now, we want seasonal workers to have special status, regardless of the economic activity, in order to be protected and given an appropriate number of weeks.

Will we win this battle? In 2001, the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development presented a unanimous report to make 17 amendments to the employment insurance system. It was soon after the election in 2000, and the Liberal candidates had all promised to make changes in the employment insurance system. Do the hon. members know how many recommendations the government accepted? Not five, not four, not three, not two, not one—zero. None of their recommendations were accepted.

The EI program has been the cash cow for Mr. Chrétien's Liberal government and the cash cow for the Minister of Finance who today says to anyone who will listen that he has put the fiscal house in order. He has done so on the backs of workers, employers and the unemployed, who have seen their benefits drop substantially.

In 1994, they began to decrease the amount of employment insurance benefits. The weekly benefit amount went from 60% to 55%. In the second phase, they tightened the screws. People must now work more weeks to qualify and they receive fewer weeks of benefits. Ever since then, when election time comes, I get nervous.

I have seen it again. The candidate who will be running against me for the Liberal Party of Canada, the Liberal Party of sponsorships, has said that something will have to be done to help the seasonal workers and that it is important for the election campaign. What I tell the people is that if they truly want change in the regions affected by the problem of seasonal work, then they absolutely must elect the smallest possible number of Liberals.

The last time, if there had been a house-cleaning in the Maritimes—if we had eliminated them the way we did in the Quebec ridings—there would not have been enough Liberal MPs to form a government. Rest assured that they would have listened to us more and taken this result into account. If the Liberals are re-elected because people think there might be something for the seasonal workers, we will not have won.

A month ago, we had a throne speech. Tuesday, we had a budget speech, with nothing in it about this. If the government wants to do something, it may have just a few weeks to do so. So it better move quickly, pass some concrete measures to make sure, before the election, that something is place for our seasonal workers, our seasonal industries, which they can count on.

This has an impact not only on individuals, but on whole industrial sectors. In my region, they are having a great deal of trouble getting workers for the tourist industry, hotels, inns and restaurants, because they barely get enough weeks to qualify for EI. They need to go elsewhere, Montreal for example, to accumulate enough hours, and then, they do not come back.

So we train workers and familiarize them with this kind of work, and then, in the end, we lose them. This has a very negative impact on the economy in our regions. Tourism is an important industry, which generates revenue and, moreover, provides people with affordable and enjoyable holidays. So, there must be continued solidarity.

I call upon all members of this House to support the motion of the member for Charlevoix. He represents an area where there are many seasonal workers. A number of important initiatives have come from that region. As well, the present PM made certain commitments when he was running for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada, commitments he did not keep in the throne speech or the budget.

Today, in voting on this motion, we need to know that there will be real money forthcoming from the government, not a year or two down the road, but right now. We need our seasonal workers to have the status they deserve starting with the 2004 season.

For people working in a sector where there is a finite number of hours of work in the year, they need assurance that they will be able to make ends meet. These people need an employment insurance program that will really help them have enough to live on when their work has run out. That is what the motion is about and that is why I call upon all members of this House to support it, so that we may have a concrete recommendation, a concrete action to improve the situation of seasonal workers.

Employment Insurance Program
Private Members' Business

6:25 p.m.

Bloc

Mario Laframboise Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, QC

Mr. Speaker, it is an obvious pleasure to speak today on this motion by my colleague from Charlevoix, seconded by my colleague from Rimouski--Neigette-et-la Mitis. This motion 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.

People always think that problems with employment insurance occur in very specific regions, such as the North Shore and the Gaspé, or areas where workers live off the fishery and other industries.

I represent a riding on the opposite side of the Ottawa river; it starts on the outskirts of Gatineau and ends at the outskirts of metropolitan Montreal, and it is bordered by the town of Saint-Eustache and highway 15. In my riding of Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, the economy is based on three main industries: agriculture, tourism and forestry. Clearly, these industries use seasonal workers.

Everyone knows what can happen in Quebec as a result of our beautiful seasons. Agriculture, forestry and tourism are not easy industries to work in. Everything depends on the weather. When it rains a lot in the fall, the tourism industry suffers. When farmers do not get good weather, the harvest is shortened.

All these industries depend on the workers that support them. This kind of work is seasonal. It is not the person, the man or woman working, who is seasonal; it is the kind of work available. Without seasonal workers, the forestry, agriculture or tourism industries would be in serious trouble.

Industries such as farming need workers to provide food to the people of Quebec and Canada; industries such as forestry need workers to build homes; and industries such as tourism need workers to provide recreational activities. These kinds of industries need these workers.

Obviously it is increasingly difficult, considering the fact that the work is dependent on the season and considering the system established by the Liberal government. It was the government that set up the EI structure. We must stop thinking the way we have been. Many listeners think that it could not happen that a government would help itself to the money of workers and employers. Since 1996, the government has not put one cent into employment insurance. It runs on the premiums paid by workers and employers. Such is reality; that is the way it is.

This is a kind of test question which I offer to the citizens listening to us. Ask the following question of all the candidates in the coming federal election, “Does the federal government put money into the employment insurance fund?” The answer is no. In 1996, a choice was made by the Liberal Party led by Mr. Chrétien, when the current Prime Minister was finance minister. The federal government decided in 1996 that it would not put another cent into the employment insurance fund, and they changed the method of paying benefits, in order to pay out as little as possible, so that the premiums, which they had raised, would cover the costs of the system.

However, what happened was even worse: they turned a profit on the contributions. We are talking about $45 billion. This is not something we made up because we are the Bloc Quebecois; this is reality. Those who follow economic news can read it; economists are saying that it is true the federal government is building up a surplus with the employment insurance fund.

The problem is that this sum is in the government's consolidated revenue fund. When we question the Prime Minister, or when we questioned the finance minister at the time, and told him he was taking money from workers, he said no, that it was in Canada's consolidated revenue fund.

The reality is that every year for the past few years, $3 billion—it has been more than that, it was as high as $7 billion a year—of the employment insurance fund is put toward a surplus that the federal government can use to eliminate the debt.

However, the problem is that in the meantime, seasonal workers are no longer receiving benefits. To give a simple illustration, one has to work at least 20 weeks to try to draw benefits for 30 weeks because there are 2 weeks of penalty as well. Those who work in seasonal industries and do not work 20 weeks in the year come up short. If a person works 12 weeks, they go 10 weeks without benefits. If a person works 16 weeks, they miss 6 weeks.

Given that the large majority of seasonal work is done in the summer, it is this time of year, the spring, that people no longer receive benefits or any income and they have difficulty putting food on the table. Some will say, “That is the way it goes”.

Except that it is extremely difficult to accept the fact that, during this time, the federal government has been socking away billions in taxes and saved benefits. So, it is extremely hard for families in need to accept this.

The Bloc members and my colleagues here in the House have had an opportunity to see what is being done with the contributions by workers and employers, and it is hard not to get up in the House and do what we are doing today by telling this government, “Stop! Restore the funding to the system to resolve the problem affecting workers in seasonal jobs in tourism, agriculture and forestry, so that they can earn income all year and maintain a decent standard of living for their families”. That is all we are asking.

Obviously, my colleague from Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques mentioned this earlier. The Standing Committee on Human Resources Development produced a unanimous report to try to resolve this problem. A unanimous report means that the Liberal members on the committee voted along with the opposition members in favour of the recommendations. That is what a unanimous report means.

The government, believe it or not, did not respect the committee's recommendation. It did not want to implement any changes. Despite the fact that, during his leadership campaign last June in Charlevoix, Quebec, the member for LaSalle—Émard and current Prime Minister met with the Sans-Chemise, and promised them that he would resolve this problem—we heard the throne speech and the budget—he has done nothing to resolve the problem facing seasonal workers.

The Bloc Quebecois, through the member for Charlevoix—quite understandably—has introduced a motion in the House to resolve this specific issue.

Why now? Because now is when men and women have no income, now is when the famous spring gap occurs, when they no longer have benefits following their seasonal employment because obviously their 30 weeks are up since they did not work the required 20 weeks. They are coming up short. That is why we are moving this motion. I am proud to discuss this position today, and I support the motion by my colleague from Charlevoix.

Employment Insurance Program
Private Members' Business

6:35 p.m.

Bloc

Marcel Gagnon Champlain, QC

Mr. Speaker, I cannot help but congratulate the hon. member for Charlevoix on triggering this debate to which I want to add my voice.

Yesterday, I participated in a television program in my region, looking into how this government could be made to be a little more sensitive to the immoral situation that prevails. We just talked about people who are unemployed during part of the year and who do not qualify for employment insurance benefits. Yet, the government is using the EI fund to pay off its debt.

But who should pay for this debt? Is it the workers who earn $20,000 or $25,000 per year or, rather, those who do not even contribute to the employment insurance program? I would have liked to have more time to elaborate.

I am always outraged when I see that those who contribute to the EI program are the workers who earn $39,000 a year or less. This means that the EI contributions of a seasonal worker who makes $20,000 or $25,000 annually are based on his full salary. And, in the end, this worker does not even qualify for benefits when he loses his job.

The motion of the hon. member for Charlevoix is so logical that I would like, as a minimum, to extend my assistance to him. This is not the end of it. We will likely soon be campaigning for an election, and I promise we will raise the subject everywhere. It is very dishonest to take people's money and use it for a purpose other than the one it was contributed for.

When workers buy insurance, it is for help during hard times. If we insured our homes against fire, for instance, and, after a fire, learned that the government had taken the money to use for something else, there would be a major uproar. But that is what is happening to 61% or 62% of workers. The money that was put into a fund to help them out during hard times is being taken out, and only 39% of contributors qualify for help when they do lose their jobs.

Some solution must absolutely be found. I am asking you how this government could be made more aware, more honest. What can we do to make them react and give people at least part of what they are asking for, that is, more honesty in the administration of money that is theirs, and not ours?

This motion is so clear that I feel it should not even need discussing to gain it virtually unanimous support in this House. Again, I point out that, if nothing is done right away, I fear that, during the campaign, the Prime Minister will again be travelling around the regions making promises, as was done the last time. I am sure that the workers will remember.

Let us hope for changes. Let us hope for a unanimous vote in favour of this motion.

Employment Insurance Program
Private Members' Business

6:35 p.m.

Bloc

Gérard Asselin Charlevoix, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise, on behalf of my constituents in the riding of Charlevoix, and speak to the motion I introduced, which was seconded by the hon. member for Rimouski-Neigette-et-la Mitis.

There are seasonal workers in every region of Quebec—on the North Shore, in Charlevoix, in the Lower St. Lawrence, and in Saguenay—Lac-Saint-Jean—who are experiencing the employment insurance problem. As has been explained, if there are seasonal workers, it is because jobs are seasonal.

With your leave, I wish to pay tribute to all the men and women in Charlevoix, the Upper North Shore and the Manicouagan area, especially in Baie-Trinité, who have supported the Sans-Chemise and Action-Chômage committees.

While the shirtless, the Sans-Chemise, are out on the street, the heartless are in this House. They are sitting on the Liberal side; it was they who passed this reform in 1994, a reform that they have never corrected or amended, despite the demands from seasonal workers, the Bloc Quebecois and all other opposition parties.

There is nothing in the throne speech or in the budget on this issue. This leads us to think that the promises made in Baie-Saint-Paul by the Prime Minister will not be acted on. When he was a candidate, the Prime Minister made promises, as did Martin Cauchon when he came to Charlevoix. He came to tell us that he would change the transitional measures, that his government would look after seasonal workers. Even though Mr. Cauchon was a minister and was from Charlevoix, he never did anything to change the employment insurance program.

Motion No. 475 is very simple. We hope to get the unanimous support of the House. We hope that the Liberals will support it. This motion seeks to finally recognize the status of seasonal workers, regardless of the economic region in which they live. There are seasonal workers in my riding and in all the ridings of Quebec and Canada.

Every member, including the Prime Minister and the ministers, will have to rise in this House on Wednesday, March 31, and I invite the public to follow the debate and to see who will vote against a specific status that would give seasonal workers the money that belongs to them.

This is the only place in the parliamentary system where people have to work more to have less. We no longer believe in transitional measures. We know that reform is increasingly harsh. Before, a worker had to work 420 hours to be entitled to 30 weeks of benefits. With the measures to come, they will have to bank 525 hours to receive 24 weeks of benefits.

We think that by improving and recognizing seasonal worker status, the government can give them better conditions. This would not take anything away from the budget, since the money comes from the fund that is normally generated by the employee and the employer. We are asking for a maximum of 360 hours for a person to be eligible for 38 weeks of employment insurance benefits.

I will give an example from the municipality of Baie-Trinité. On February 1, some 90 workers in the softwood lumber industry, fishing, tourism and agriculture became unemployed. We are talking about 90 seasonal workers who are unemployed in a small municipality like Baie-Trinité. It is a catastrophe.

The employment insurance fund runs at a surplus of $6 billion per year, which means that $43 billion has been accumulated since the EI reform. That is money that has not been paid out to seasonal workers in my riding of Charlevoix. That is a loss of $10 million to the regional economy. That is only the regional economy; this is money not spent in corner stores, supermarkets, gas stations and, very often, not even spent on basic needs.

Let us not wait for the 2004 election. I invite the people of Quebec to support the Sans-chemise committee, go see the seasonal workers and the campaigning Liberal candidates, and demonstrate at their electoral offices.

We must make these candidates take firm and precise positions. I do not know if they should be trusted; they have never kept their word.

Next Wednesday, March 31, when the House votes on Motion No. 475, I hope that the Liberals and all the MPs in opposition will recognize that seasonal workers are real workers, whatever economic region they live in.

Employment Insurance Program
Private Members' Business

6:45 p.m.

The Speaker

It being 6:45 p.m., the time provided for the debate has now expired. Consequently, the question is on the motion.

Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

Employment Insurance Program
Private Members' Business

6:45 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.