House of Commons Hansard #49 of the 37th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was workers.

Topics

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4:40 p.m.

Liberal

Stan Keyes Hamilton West, ON

Mr. Speaker, let us deal with the last question first. The hon. member from the Bloc asked what we would do with the surplus funds.

The surplus funds, as he well knows and as everyone in Canada knows, go into the general revenue fund to help fund our programs, our valued social programs. He understands too that even as recently as just a couple of months ago when the Auditor General made her report, she said that it was a completely acceptable accounting practice to put these surpluses into the general revenue fund. The hon. member has his answer. I suppose he would have known that answer all along but he just wanted to see if I knew the answer.

The member then mentioned something about Transport Canada. Yes, I was on the transport committee with the hon. member. In fact I was on the transport committee when I was first elected in 1988. That was a great time. We were in opposition and we had all kinds of proposals on the table, including for example the high speed rail project.

We examined that. We went across our country and across Europe. We looked at the different modes of transportation, the different high speed projects that are found throughout the world. It was pretty clear that while it was a great proposal, there were factors such as the population densities. In France, for example, the population densities are great. In the United Kingdom the population densities are great.

Here in Canada of course we have a population that is spread out for miles across the country, tens of thousands of kilometres. It makes it a little less viable when it comes to trying to pay for a system by the passengers paying a toll, so it becomes a responsibility of the government. When we started to price that project, we were talking about billions, with a capital B , of dollars of investment in order to make a project like that work.

At that time, and at this time, when the government is being fiscally responsible and money is tight, it can be rather difficult to convince Canadians of that. We are trying to ensure that we have a viable health care system in this country. We are trying to ensure that there is lifelong learning for our children. We are trying to ensure that there are extra child care spaces, and we announced some 48,000 child care spaces in the last budget. We are trying to ensure that our economy is stable, that our interest rates are low and that a person can go out and buy a car or a refrigerator tomorrow and not have to worry about whether or not they are going to have a job the next day in order to pay for that refrigerator or that car. That is called fiscal responsibility.

Do we have options on the table? Absolutely. Do we want to build a high speed rail project? Let us do it, except it is going to cost billions of dollars that may otherwise be spent on projects and on our social foundations which are the priorities of Canadians today. Those are the priorities.

We are interested in the priorities of Canadians. We are interested in the priorities of those who find themselves out of work and need the assistance of employment insurance. We want to make sure it is there for them. It is there for them. It will continue to be there for them. Of course those rights that are charged for Canadians for that program are always going to be fiscally sound in order to ensure that Canadians are not paying $3.29, or whatever it was back in the Tory days, but $1.98, what it is now down to, because we are being fiscally responsible.

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4:45 p.m.

Bloc

Mario Laframboise Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, QC

Mr. Speaker, I see that the minister has a selective memory. I asked him the question about air transport, knowing about Air Canada's terrible results. All of the committee's recommendations on air transport were rejected by the government. And now we see what shape the airline industry is.

On employment insurance, the minister has given us the answer. Obviously, the government is doing something else with the surplus in the EI fund and that is what the Bloc Quebecois deplores. Men and women are at home. Families live through 8 to 12 week gaps every year, when there is not enough income for a worker in the fishery, in farming, tourism, resorts or forestry. These are proud people who want to remain in their own region.

Canada is not only urban Canada or urban Quebec; it is rural Quebec, regional Canada, regional Quebec. That is the problem the minister should be solving with the money of the workers. He tells us candidly that he takes this money and puts it into other programs.

The problem is that, when workers pay their contributions, on their pay cheques, it says, “employment insurance contributions”. This money was never paid over to the government for any other purpose. Today, as we speak, during the spring gaps, there are men and women who have a hard time making ends meet and get poorer by the day. Some self employed workers are not eligible for benefits. These are the families the Bloc Quebecois has in mind, unlike the Liberal Party, which thinks only of taking this money and investing it elsewhere, although we know full well that it would be better to invest it in the EI plan, in the interests of the men, women and children who need it.

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4:50 p.m.

Liberal

Stan Keyes Hamilton West, ON

Mr. Speaker, I was pretty sure the member was sitting in his seat when I made my remarks, because the question relates directly to what I said in my speech. I am sure the hon. member heard it. Maybe it did not sink in.

We have made provisions to the EI program to address the very issues to which he is speaking. We have removed the clawback. We made improvements to the small weeks provisions so individuals who found themselves out of work could still go back to work and then augment their pay with EI benefits. It is there for them.

These are the constant adjustments to the program that the government has made time and time again. It listens to Canadians and makes adjustments to the program. Canadians are much happier because now the program fits some of those circumstances in which Canadians who are out of work find themselves.

We are prepared to do anything it takes to listen to Canadians and to make the adjustments necessary so Canadians get a fair response to their issues and particular problems in every region of the country, and it is working. Canadians have told us this time and time again, in the 1993 election, the 1997 election and the 2000 election. Whenever the next election happens to be, they will tell the government again that it is has done the right things for them and that they trust the government to ensure an EI program will there for them tomorrow.

I am not quite sure if the EI program will be there tomorrow, if the hon. opposition leader is put in charge of the country. He is not too fond of programs that help disadvantaged Canadians or Canadians who find themselves at a disadvantage because they do not live in the big city of Toronto, or Montreal, or Quebec City or Vancouver where everybody can look around.

I will just end by saying the government is doing a terrific job on this file. Canadians support us. I am certain Canadians will say that the government knows what it is doing and that it will be there for them in the future.

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4:50 p.m.

Bloc

Monique Guay Laurentides, QC

Mr. Speaker, I want to congratulate all my hon. colleagues who have spoken today. This is an issue that has already rallied unanimous support from all political parties in this House. I get the feeling today that the tide has turned, and that the will expressed in 2001, when the committee sat and presented 17 unanimous recommendations, is no longer there.

I have been in this place since 1993. I too was sent here by my constituents in 1993, and again in 1997 and 2000. That must mean that we are doing a good job. I have colleagues here whose path has been similar to mine and who are seeking a fourth term because our constituents want us to do so to represent them in this House of Commons. It think that is because the Bloc Quebecois is doing a fine job.

In committee, it is not easy to achieve unanimity on a report. I know because I have been sitting on committees for ten years. It is difficult for all the parties to come to an agreement on recommendations. That is why I believe that the work of this committee and its 17 recommendations—I will come back later to specific recommendations—deserve respect and consideration.

The report was tabled three years ago. As is often the case, reports tabled in this Parliament are simply shelved. My impression is that this one has been gathering dust for three years. We have been waiting three years and no response has come.

Earlier, I heard the minister talk about self-employed workers. If we take no initiatives, nothing will ever happen. There does exist an association of self-employed workers in Quebec. Of course, self-employed people do not all work in the same field. There are some in fisheries and some in other industries. They would be ready to have a plan. But it could not be an across the board plan. Their jobs vary widely in nature and origin. Therefore, any plan would need to be somewhat flexible.

Bear in mind that 17% of Quebeckers are self-employed. That is quite a large number of people. They enjoy no protection whatsoever. If we bothered to set up a committee, to sit down and try to find solutions, I am sure we could help them and include them in the plan.

We have a surplus in the billions of dollars. That is where we have a problem because these billions of dollars are not being used to help self-employed workers.

I am looking at the figures. In 2001, only 39% of unemployed people received benefits compared to 60% in 1993. For women, it is 33%. Do you know why? Often women work part time and earn low wages. It is difficult for them to accumulate enough hours to get employment insurance. They are penalized.

For young people under the age of 25 it is even worse, it is 16%. Do you know why? Again, they need 920 hours of employment in order to qualify for employment insurance. Quite often it is impossible for them to accumulate enough hours at their first job. These young people end up on the street without work. They will take any other job they can get in order to live. If they do not find work, they end up on welfare. Imagine the situation. You are young, under 25 and on welfare. That is a nice start in life. Yet, while that young person is in between jobs, employment insurance could provide him with transitional income, but no, that idea gets ignored.

The Bloc Quebecois has always been extremely close to workers and sensitive to their needs. We are not the only ones. The labour unions are very close to workers and we work together with them. There are groups we work with as well, such as the Sans-Chemise, who also do work in this area. They speak on behalf of all the unemployed. As members of the Bloc Quebecois, we try to offer good solutions, possible solutions, because the government has money and a surplus.

There is a $45.5 billion surplus we could use to help those people.

Let me talk about my riding, Laurentides, which is in the spring gap. I am experiencing that gap right now. The ski season is over and the summer season has not started yet so the people in the tourism industry are in limbo.

People come to see me. I do not know if the minister gets visitors in his Toronto riding but in Laurentides, people come to see me because they are in great distress. They are going through the spring gap and have no income. It is very difficult because in the tourism industry, people are paid minimum salary. They are also trying to accumulate a given number of hours. So they work for very long hours when there is work, in order to make it through the spring gap.

These citizens have no quality of life. The government could easily solve that problem because the solution was there in our recommendations; however there was not the will. That is why we introduced this motion today. We want the government to show the will to change things, but not bit by bit. We do not want a piecemeal approach. We do not want a cosmetic change, but a radical change. We want a real change. We do not want changes made with an election in mind. We do not want to see changes just because we are heading into an election and they have to come up with an announcement quickly to satisfy people, saying, “We are giving you this for now and we will give you more later”. Meanwhile, nothing is happening. Nothing has happened since 2001. And now, the situation is getting worse.

I am willing to pay for insurance. I want to negotiate it and I want to be able to choose a good insurance policy. However, I want something in return. If my house is destroyed by fire, I hope that my insurance is going to reimburse me, because I paid my premiums. Employment insurance is no longer insurance. It is an investment for the Liberal government. It is money that we send to the government, which takes the surplus to invest where it wants, instead of putting it into the employment insurance fund. That is the reason why we asked for an independent fund so that if there is a surplus, it could be reinvested in the fund and we could find solutions for self-employed workers.

I will give an example of a measure that we could take and which is not costly. I introduced in the House a bill to allow the preventive withdrawal of pregnant or nursing female workers. I am speaking about small amounts of money to allow women, in sectors under federal jurisdiction, to avail themselves of a maternity leave equivalent to what is offered in Quebec. This has been offered in Quebec for years. It is not a very costly initiative. We worked out the costs. When we come up with recommendations, do not think that we do not work out the costs. We do not just turn up with any old thing.

In fact, if there is a consensus, you can be certain that people have done the math. If we had a surplus in a independent fund, we could take part of it to help women. Giving birth to a child should be the most beautiful event in the life of a woman.

If people have financial problems, they cannot avail themselves of a preventive withdrawal, even if their own health and the health of their baby is in danger.

I was on board a plane leaving Montreal for France and I spoke to a young flight attendant. She was six months pregnant. I told her, “You are pregnant and as far as I can see, it won't be long before you give birth”. When I asked her how far along she was, she told me that she was six months pregnant. I asked her why she did not avail herself of preventive withdrawal. She answered: “Madam, I cannot do that because I work in a company under federal jurisdiction. If I avail myself of preventive withdrawal, I receive only 50% of my salary. If ever I needed money, it is now”.

This is a very small initiative. It has been talked about in this place for years and I myself have been talking about it for the last 10 years.

This measure is still in limbo somewhere and we are still waiting. We are presented with resounding studies but we are told that such a thing is not possible. With an independent employment insurance fund, any surplus could be reinvested for the benefit of workers, which is not the currently the case.

Fortunately, the Bloc Québécois is here to introduce bills that are in the interest of workers. Otherwise, no one would speak on their behalf in this place. Apart from us, no one else brings up these issues, except for the NDP. There seems to be no interest on the government side for measures designed to benefit workers.

One of my colleagues introduced a bill against psychological harassment. It was rejected out of hand. One time, after a speech I made here on the same subject, as I was walking down the hall, a woman who works here came up to me and told me she had cried as she heard me speak because she herself had been harassed for two years at one point.

There are initiatives that need to be taken in this House. However, the will is lacking. We would like to see these 17 recommendations adopted. They have just been sitting there, gathering dust for three years.

There is a surplus in the EI fund. The government has a surplus. This year it is up to $3.5 billion or $4 billion. With that money, we could do the right things, things which would benefit the unemployed.

As for regions, my colleague from Charlevoix brought forward a motion dealing with certain measures that could be taken to help seasonal workers, among others. But the motion was defeated. If they always vote against such measures, how can they assure those of us who have been fighting for this for ten years that they will make changes because of the upcoming election?

That is not a realistic and honest way to do things. We must put forward real measures and not make promises during an election campaign, and forget all about them after. That is was happened in 2000. Big promises were made, but they were broken. This time around, they should make promises that they can realistically keep. We believe that it is possible.

The program for the elderly is also important. We have discovered what happened with the Guaranteed Income Supplement, and we have worked hard on this issue. Adjustments were made, but it was not enough. They do not want the legislation to be retroactive. That would affect the poorest in our society, and they do not want to give it to them even if they have incredible surpluses.

We keep saying how great a country Canada is, but making the Canadians poorer does not help this country. Poorer Canadians end up with health problems, and health care costs go up. Why is that? We harm our society when we make it poorer. In the meantime, the government is piling up money and setting up megadepartments. This cannot go on forever.

We need to be more realistic and go back to basics. We should make sure our recommendations are implemented quickly. Otherwise, we will be left once more with empty promises.

One thing I can tell you is that the people are fed up with this. Great promises are not funny anymore. When they have a problem with the employment insurance program and come to us, we try to help them, but we cannot always do it. Just 33% of women and 44% of men can get EI benefits. We are their last chance.

When we cannot help them, we tell them that the decisions are not up to us, but to the government. We make suggestions, but they are ignored. We have to explain that.

We tell them they need to make representations to have the rules changed and make sure that, when they contribute, they can get benefits if they need them. Nobody sets out to be unemployed. It just happens. I do not know too many people who lose their job on purpose.

In seasonal industries, people lose their jobs all the time. All of the workers know they will experience what is called the gap. Let us try to help low-income families go through these difficult times.

I know of couples where both spouses work in the tourist industry. They make $7 or $7.50 an hour. They can work 60 hours a week at peak times. However, when things slow down, they have a hard time. Then, people are laid off.

I know some employers who make considerable efforts to keep their employees as long as possible, trying not to harm them and not to condemn them to poverty so that they can keep on feeding their children, paying their rent and making their car payments. In an area like the one I live in, everybody needs a car. Some employers are doing all they can to help. However, it is still difficult.

With just a little bit of goodwill, we could easily solve this problem here. You could have the full support of the Bloc Quebecois. However, it has to be a real solution. Empty promises and half measures introduced as a temporary solution just before election time are not acceptable. We need real and sustainable measures. We can also sit down and look at the way things are done. We have never said that things are cast in stone.

My colleague from Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques sat on this committee and worked on this report. He spent many hours on this. We all saw him at work. He really tried, with all the colleagues here in the House, from all parties, to propose measures to improve the situation of workers with regard to employment insurance. It is a reform in which he believes. He used to believe in it and still does.

I wish that we would really take this into account and move this cause forward. We must put an end to partisanship. This is about the life of workers who, at some point in time, find themselves in a difficult situation and need employment insurance. We do not have the right to penalize these people. We must help them to make it through. I wish that we would be more sensitive. We must get out of Parliament, go in the field to see our people and realize that we have things to change, especially when we know that we have billions of dollars in surpluses in our pockets and that we are putting that money elsewhere instead of helping these people in need.

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5:10 p.m.

Bloc

Gilles-A. Perron Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, QC

Mr. Speaker, first, I would like to commend my colleague, the member for Laurentides, who will be, I believe, I am even sure, the future member for Rivière-du-Nord. Indeed, she will have a new riding that will be called Rivière-du-Nord.

I see that my colleague knows quite well the problems that are directly related to unemployment and seasonal work. In her region, the majority of workers are seasonal workers in tourism, ski resorts and other sectors. However, there is an issue that my colleague forgot to talk about. In her riding, as in mine, there are not many large industries. There is a huge number of self-employed workers who have to fend for themselves. I would like to know if my colleague has solutions for these self-employed workers who are not eligible for employment insurance.

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5:10 p.m.

Bloc

Monique Guay Laurentides, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for his question. I know there are self-employed workers and seasonal industries in his riding. We share the same concerns.

It is very simple. Workers have to sit down together. We have to be able to create a committee that will study their situation. I am convinced of that.

There already is such a committee in Quebec. We should find out if other provinces have similar committees. In Quebec, this committee could expand in order to allow self-employed workers to sit and try to find solutions about their employment insurance premiums, since this is what is missing. They should be covered by some rules, like other unemployed workers, in order to eventually claim benefits if they become unemployed.

It must be explained that a self-employed worker is his own employer. He does his work alone. Self-employed workers are often contractual workers who may at times find themselves without contracts. When that happens, they have nothing ahead of them.

When business is slow or when they go through difficulties, if they have been contributing to an employment insurance plan and they meet the eligibility criteria, as anyone else has to, they could claim benefits.

I am convinced that those people are ready to sit together to deal with that. This industry is diverse. We should get together and try to find a solution for them. The solution could be establishing small groups. Considering the fact that the industry is diverse, each group might have its own rules. Nevertheless, it is possible to find a solution.

What is missing here is the will to act. In this case it is not important. In our case, however, self-employed workers represent 17% of the population and it is increasing. We are very concerned about that. It is high time we looked at the situation of self-employed workers and found solutions for them.

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5:15 p.m.

Ahuntsic
Québec

Liberal

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

Mr. Speaker, I know that the member shares my concerns regarding women and female workers. On that point, there is no doubt. We both want to make sure that government programs meet the needs of female workers.

We also know that nowadays women make other choices in life. They want to spend more time with their family. They want to make sure they are still entitled to certain benefits and advantages.

For instance, we have increased parental leave to one year and extended it to men. This is a benefit made possible thanks to their contribution and thanks to the programs put in place by the government. I do not believe that anybody would disagree with that.

We also know that often women choose to work part-time. Currently, 55% of women are eligible, a rate higher than that of men in part-time jobs, which is 41%. The eligibility rate is higher for women than for men.

One thing that I feel very strongly about was not mentioned. I presented a motion, seconded by my colleague, regarding the family income supplement. Now, 80% of low income families are entitled to it.

We are still pursuing our efforts. This is the kind of things we are probably saying on both sides. We look at how EI can help people whose family situation is changing or whose job situation is changing. Nobody on this side is opposed to benefits meeting continuously changing needs.

I would like ask a question of the member. In view of the fact that the labour market is evolving, in view of the fact that the options available to part-time workers are probably better for some workers, and in view of the fact that the EI eligibility rate is greater for women, would she not agree that we have taken steps to ensure that more part-time workers are covered by EI?

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5:15 p.m.

Bloc

Monique Guay Laurentides, QC

Mr. Speaker, while I recognize the social conscience of my colleague over the way, it is too little, too late.

As the hon. member is aware, women are still discriminated against when they return to the work force. Things still need changing. Not one of the 17 recommendations made to the committee in 2001 is to be found; not a single one has been implemented. I said too little, too late, because it is not enough.

There are still so many things that have to be improved, and my speech has listed them. The member was there and heard the list. It is true that some minor measures have been implemented, but they are not sufficient.

When we see the surplus in the EI fund and what could be done with it, we see that action could be taken quickly. Several of these measures could be applied immediately, and I am sure the hon. member is as aware of that as I am.

We on this side would like to see the matter settled, would like to see action taken, the recommendations implemented. The purpose of our motion was to initiate a debate, have the recommendations re-examined, and an attempt made to implement them.

It is not true that it cannot be done. It can be done, but it must not be done to win votes. It must not become part of anyone's campaign platform.

What is disturbing just now is the prospect of all those fine promises and then nothing coming of them. I do not know when the election will be held, but if it is June 28, then from that time on no one will remember the fine promises made. What I would like to see is concrete action and fast action, not just promises of pie in the sky.

We have heard empty promises in three election campaigns in a row now. This time the actions ought perhaps to come before the election, so as to make sure that what was promised to people during the last campaign at least gets accomplished during this mandate. As a result, the jobless could at least keep their pride, and when they are unemployed will have access to the protection of real insurance.

Message from the Senate
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5:20 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

I have the honour to inform the House that a message has been received from the Senate informing this House that the Senate has passed a bill, to which the concurrence of this House is desired.

The House resumed consideration of the motion.

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May 6th, 2004 / 5:20 p.m.

Liberal

Claude Duplain Portneuf, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to be speaking this afternoon. Given that what we say is often misinterpreted here, let me say at the outset that I will be speaking about the report entitled “Beyond Bill C-2.”This is not to say that everything has been done and that there is no more to do. I would be the first to say that a lot remains to be done and it so happens that we are presently at work on a number of issues in this regard.

I am nevertheless pleased to have the opportunity to speak to the issue of employment insurance, specially with regard to the report entitled “Beyond Bill C-2.”

I will read some brief notes to make sure people are properly informed. It must be said in fact that information given or discussed here is sometimes so skewed, so misinterpreted, that people may be somewhat baffled as to what is going on here.

This government greatly appreciates the work of the Standing committee on Human resource developmentand has examined carefully the recommendations contained in the committee's report. We have always been willing to change to meet the need, as we have shown time and time again with regard to employment insurance.

However, at the outset, I think it is important to mention that the employment insurance program is working for a majority of Canadians. It is there for people who need it and it will remain in place, as it has for 60 years.

Employment insurance is a reliable program that is meeting the needs of Canadians. In times of economic uncertainty, workers can count on employment insurance to help them re-enter the labour force.

It is also a flexible program. Of course, certain regions and certain groups of workers—those we have been talking about these past few weeks—such as seasonal workers, can have to face special challenges on the labour market, which is not always easy. The establishment of employment insurance economic regions ensures that the employment insurance program takes into account the high unemployment levels in some parts of the country, so that all workers have equal access to the program.

The present government has pursued a flexible approach to adjust the employment insurance economic regions in such a way that the workers living in parts of the country where work is mainly seasonal can continue to collect employment insurance benefits.

Let me give a few examples. Workers in the Lower St. Lawrence and North Shore area of Quebec need 70 hours less than do workers in areas with low unemployment to qualify for EI benefits.

The plan has been designed to adjust quickly and automatically to changes in the labour market. The variable entrance requirement is reviewed every four weeks on the basis of the latest unemployment statistics. In other words, if unemployment goes up in any area, the requirements are automatically adjusted to permit easier access to the program. Therefore, people in areas with higher unemployment need fewer hours of work to be entitled to benefits over an extended period of time.

Access to EI is easy. The Monitoring and Assessment Report indicates that 88% of Canadians who are salaried employees could eventually be eligible if they lost their job.

Moreover, the switch in 1996 to an hour-based system and first dollar coverage means that each hour of work is included in the EI coverage. This change has meant easier access to the plan for seasonal workers, part-time workers and those with multiple jobs.

The employment insurance is a system that is in constant evolution. When we adopted the EI reform in 1996, we made a commitment to control and evaluate the system. We have kept our word. We were and still are committed to ensuring that EI continues to serve the needs of all Canadians. Whenever changes were justified, we have made them.

Since the EI reform, we have made various adjustments, including the improved parental benefits and the integration of the small weeks provision which is now permanently included in the employment insurance system and applied nationwide.

There is also the abolition of the intensity rule, the change to the payback provisions, changes to the rule on undeclared earnings, the introduction this year of a new six-week compassionate benefit for eligible workers who will be looking after a seriously ill parent, child or spouse.

Many of these adjustments were brought specifically in response to the needs of seasonal workers, part-time workers and multiple job holders.

The passage of Bill C-2 illustrates the adaptability of the EI program. This bill speaks to the day to day realities of Canadians.

For example, the intensity rule was designed to discourage the use of employment insurance from one year to the next. We realize that this rule was ineffective and, frankly, punitive; so we abolished it. Seasonal workers were often among these recipients that the intensity rule was affecting. Over 900,000 Canadians received retroactive payments following the abolition of this rule.

We also changed the rule relating to people returning to the workforce. Recipients who leave the workforce and re-enter it are often parents who must balance professional and family responsibilities. Before Bill C-2, these people were considered as new entrants in the workforce, which meant that they had to accumulate more insurable hours of work before being eligible for benefits. Now, parents are eligible for regular benefits, as other workers, when they re-enter the workforce after an extended absence during which they were raising their children.

On the most important measures that the government has taken since the EI reform to respond to the concerns of seasonal workers is the small weeks initiative.

Since it came into effect, this initiative has made the workforce more effective by encouraging Canadians to accept part-time and temporary work, which has helped to make up for short-term manpower shortages that employers had to deal with, particularly in the seasonal employment sector.

The short week provision also helps part-time and seasonal workers to retain their connections with the job market. Our evaluation shows that claimants worked an average of two extra weeks. Across Canada, more than 185,000 Canadians benefited from the short week provision.

We have improved the short week characteristics to better harmonize them with the realities of job market. A combination of regular weeks and short weeks might reduce the rate of benefits the next time a claim is made. By increasing the short week threshold from $150 to $225, we provide workers with greater flexibility to accept short weeks without a reduction in their future benefits rate.

These measures taken by the government clearly show that we intend to adjust employment insurance to the reality of the job market. We will continue to make the necessary changes.

That said, while it is important to understand the unique challenges faced by seasonal workers, it is equally critical to recognize that employment insurance is only a part of the solution. Canadians told us that they do not want to claim employment insurance benefits. They want to have jobs. The answer to that is to develop community capabilities and to strengthen local economies, in order to offer sustainable employment opportunities.

Our goal is to encourage Canadians to work and help them rejoin the workforce. True income security starts with a job. We established local committees in Quebec and in New Brunswick to consider ways to help workers affected in those regions. With our partners, we are pursuing several approaches to address the issues concerning seasonal workers, based on the recommendations made by local committees.

The employment insurance program is effective and is there to help workers in need. We continue to implement control and evaluation measures of the program to make sure that it continues to answer the needs of Canadians.

In conclusion, I will say that committees who travelled across Canada are still doing a lot of work to make a recommendation to bring new faces and to give an up-to-date picture of what is happening in the regions of Quebec and in all of Canada. We must bring about changes to make the situation even better.

Some opposition members say that we are delaying calling an election while others say that we want to call the elections too fast. I for one think that now is the time to help those in need in the regions of Quebec. They are expecting specific measures. I do want these measures to be taken.

We could do as the Bloc is asking and do an in-depth study of EI. We will not have time for that. The fact is that the changes must be made by regulation and we will not have time to make extensive changes. Things are being done however. We can act now while at the time taking a closer look at what could be done.

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5:30 p.m.

Bloc

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

Mr. Speaker, I listened to the previous speaker both with interest and in amazement. Let me start by the end.

How can someone say that we do not have time? We were elected three and a half years ago and the mandate of the government runs until the fall of 2005. If the government really wanted to change the EI plan, it could very well introduce a bill in the next few days and you could be sure that the Bloc would give its full cooperation to get the changes made. In fact, the report was tabled three years ago.

I would like to give some clarification to the hon. member because he does not seem to understand. There was a vote on Bill C-2. The report was tabled after Bill C-2 and included a recommendation approved by everybody, including the Liberal members, namely the member for Gaspé, a member from Laval, and the member for Madawaska—Restigouche, who said that Bill C-2 did not go far enough and that there were 17 other changes to make to the plan. Apparently, these were important changes. But the government did not follow through on the recommendations.

During those three years, the federal government accumulated a surplus of $11 billion in employment insurance premiums. It collected $11 billion more than it paid out in benefits. Could it not have taken half that money and given it to improve the situation of women, to eliminate discrimination between men and women and young people so that the same eligibility rules would apply to everyone? Could it not have set up a program to help older workers? Could it not have improved the situation of seasonal workers? No. It preferred to squirrel away the $11 billion taken out of the pockets of some of society's most disadvantaged.

Should, finally, our colleague not realize that what we have on the table are unanimous recommendations? These recommendations were made three years ago and the government has not followed up.

Why not wait until the Employment Insurance Act is voted on before holding an election? I think that would be the best move this House could make in order to restore some balance, distributing wealth, rather than sharing poverty as has been the case. In a period of very rapid economic growth, the gap between rich and poor has grown as well, which is absolutely unacceptable.

How can the member defend this position, which stands in opposition to that of his own Liberal colleagues who were members of the committee?

Supply
Government Orders

5:30 p.m.

Liberal

Claude Duplain Portneuf, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am sometimes at a loss for where to start. The Bloc Quebecois will never form a government. Bloc members can therefore afford to say any odd thing, make any odd statements, whenever they feel like it, because they will never have to be accountable.

Those who say that anything can be done turn a blind eye to the time and money involved. They do not even bother to check the rules to see if indeed it can be done. They accuse us of not doing enough, of not acting. One need only look at how much energy we on this side are putting into our work, looking for solutions to specific problems.

The Minister of Industry was here this afternoon. She is working. Does anyone think that the minister has nothing better to do than sit here all afternoon? Some ministers work seven days a week on finding solutions. We have three ministers working back here, in the lobby, this afternoon, while half of the Bloc members have left already. They are on holiday.

Supply
Government Orders

5:30 p.m.

Bloc

Benoît Sauvageau Repentigny, QC

I rise on a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Supply
Government Orders

5:35 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

Order, please. If the hon. member for Repentigny does not mind, the Chair would have a comment to make. If it does not address the hon. member's concern, it can then be addressed.

First, I wish to remind the hon. members that mentioning the presence of a minister or member is allowed, but mentioning the absence of a member is not. Is that clear? Those are the rules.