House of Commons Hansard #75 of the 38th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was religious.

Topics

The House resumed from December 8 consideration of the motion that Bill C-278, an act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (improvement of the employment insurance system), be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

11 a.m.

Bloc

Yves Lessard Chambly—Borduas, QC

Mr. Speaker, it is an honour for me to rise in this House today in order to debate Bill C-278. This bill is the initiative of my colleague from Trois-Rivières, who has made a timely presentation illustrating the need to pass this bill quickly.

What is the urgency? People are deeply hurt, on a personal level, by the fact that they are being denied the employment insurance benefits to which they have contributed for their entire lives and to which they are entitled.

It is also a welcome initiative because we know that the federal government definitely intends to maintain the status quo and continue to dip into the EI fund, which is totally unacceptable.

There is the occasional serendipity or somewhat disturbing coincidences. Today, April 4, is the 70th anniversary of the relief camp workers' strike in British Columbia. These workers went on strike to demand a number of working conditions and measures that would provide them with income if they lost their jobs. This happened on April 4, 1935, and the strike began at 11 a.m., just as my speech this morning was scheduled for 11 a.m.

In a fortuitous and also very unusual coincidence, at 11 this morning, an initiative by the Mouvement des sans-emploi called “En marche” was launched in Montreal and other places throughout the province. It calls upon the government to substantially improve employment insurance. Coincidence? Perhaps, but it is certainly a nice reminder to this government that the Bennett government was defeated in the 1935 election, after adopting a position and measures quite similar to those adopted by the current government on the unemployed and people facing employment difficulties.

This government could very well meet the same fate. Currently, the problem for people in Canada—but which does not exist in Quebec—is that there is no viable political alternative with which to replace this government. That is the only thing missing. Otherwise, this government would have been defeated in the last election on June 28.

There must be a viable political alternative even with regard to employment insurance. I invite the Conservatives, today, if they want to improve their image, to vote in favour of Bill C-278; otherwise they will be tarnished with the same brush as the Liberals.

Obviously, the unemployed are the ones affected, but so are their families and their children. We know that, in Canada, the quality of life of children has deteriorated, because children have gotten poorer. And children are getting poorer because parents are poor. One factor contributing to family and child poverty is denying the unemployed what they are owed, despite the fact that they have an insurance fund guaranteeing them benefits should they have the misfortune of losing their job. Unfortunately, the Liberal government has used this insurance fund for other purposes.

This is the same Liberal government that tightened up EI eligibility criteria in order to finance or to balance its budget on the backs of the workers. The Bloc's position is to start by creating an independent fund and an independent commission so that the government can no longer get its hands on it.

In ten days or so, we will be looking at Bill C-280. The government needs to pay back, over ten years, the money it has got its hands on, and that is what is in our Bill C-278, along with having the commission set the contribution rates. The commission must have a balanced representation of employers and workers because they are the ones who contribute to it. As well, the entire employment insurance system needs to be improved.

The position of the present government, the public needs to be reminded, is devious and dishonest. Why so? Because, having pillaged the fund, the Liberal Party made the commitment in the 2000 election campaign to fix what it had destroyed. It did not do so. In 2001, Liberal Party representatives on the Standing Committee on Human Resources and Skills Development, which was addressing the situation with EI, voted unanimously in favour of correcting the situation. Not only was that not done, but as well the Liberals have continued to betray the public by dipping into the fund for other purposes.

Speaking of devious and dishonest, in the last election, barely a year ago, the Liberal government again made a commitment to remedy the situation. Not only did it not do so, but this House, on the initiative of the Bloc Québécois last November, recognized unanimously that the employment insurance fund must not be used in future for any other purpose than unemployment, because it is contributed to by workers and employers and no one else. One might then have expected the fund to be left untouched. But no, the government continues to help itself to money for other purposes. Even the Auditor General pointed this out in her report last November. Liberals on the Human Resources and Skills Development Committee voted unanimously to remedy the situation, based on the set of measures set out in Bill C-278. Since then, the Liberal government has again been doing everything it can to get around these recommendations and enact measures that are contrary to that recommendation.

I want to go back very briefly to the measures proposed in Bill C-278. We have to ask ourselves if we have the money to implement these measures. We do and that money is in the fund. As I said earlier, what needs to be done to restore sustainability, not for the fund but for families, is first to give special status to seasonal workers by setting a single minimum qualifying period of 360 hours for all those who contribute to the fund. We must remove the existing discrimination caused by the disparity in the number of hours required, eliminate the gap by extending by five weeks, from 45 weeks to 50 weeks, the maximum benefit period, and provide special benefits for older workers under POWA, which is a program to help older workers who lose their jobs.

We should also amend the Employment Insurance Act so that persons related to each other are no longer treated as if they had cheated—if somebody cheated, it is definitely not workers. We should also increase the training fund to 0.8% of all insurable earnings; abolish the 910 hour rule for those who become part of the labour force or who rejoin it; increase from $2,000 to $3,000 the threshold of insurable earnings to qualify for benefits; increase the rate of benefits from 55% to 60%; and increase the maximum yearly insurable earnings to $41,500.

In conclusion, all these measures could easily be implemented with the surpluses that the fund will generate again this year, which are in excess of $3 billion, while the proposed measures would only cost $1.8 billion.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Don Boudria Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to participate for a few minutes in the debate on Bill C-278.

First off, the hon. member talked of this fund—as he called it—as if it was an independent employment insurance fund with an accumulated surplus or something like that. Of course, that is quite ridiculous. There is no separate fund. There has not been one since 1986, following a report by the auditor general of the time, who called for the abolition of the independent fund and its replacement by a system under which amounts paid in would equal amounts paid out each year, essentially. As we know, there were lean years under the Conservatives, when there was a deficit. As we all know, too, there were other, better years—after our party took office.

There were the occasional surpluses, of course, from that time on, but, significantly, there were also sizeable reductions in the amount of contributions by employees and employers as well. Initially, contributions were about $3.30—or at least that is what was announced. They have been reduced to under $2. Since we have been in office, we have cut contributions by a third. I am not talking about contributions to the fund, because there is no separate fund, as the hon. member knows. After 19 years, it is a little late to claim that the fund still exists. In fact, almost a generation has passed since this approach was abolished by a Conservative government and not a Liberal government.

Now that I have set things straight, I would like to speak to Bill C-278 a little more.

Let me begin by saying that all parties of this House continue to recognize the employment insurance system in Canada as being very important in the lives of Canadians and they recognize its vital role in Canada's labour market. No one is advocating abolishing the system or anything like that. We all recognize what the system does and we recognize the necessity of having a regime like the one we have.

Our citizens know that they can count on EI to be there for them in the event of a job loss or an illness that prevents them from working. This component of having employment insurance available during illness or in other periods of time is something that is newer in the system; it has made the EI system much better over the last number of years, just like the pregnancy leave provisions and so on. Of course they were not part of the original employment insurance system; they are additions and they have made it better. Canadians can also count on this program when they need time off for a critically ill family member as well as the care of a newborn child, as I have indicated.

Our current EI system flows from the reform measures that our government implemented close to 10 years ago. That time, they were the Liberal government's improvements.

When considering what is being proposed in Bill C-278 to change the employment insurance system, it is instructive to first look back at the earlier efforts we undertook as well as those we are continuing to implement today. Let me remind the House that in 1996 we introduced the Employment Insurance Act, the most comprehensive reform in 25 years of Canada's system of support for unemployed workers, so it is not as if this private member's bill is the only change to the system offered in recent times.

The reforms that were introduced in 1996 made the system much fairer. They reduced dependency and provided help to claimants in low income families with children. No one is talking about that any more. We all take it for granted. The reforms brought about measures to help Canadians prepare for and get back to work. That is the training component and how useful that has been in the constituency that I represent and elsewhere.

Those were important changes. They were not easy to implement but they were necessary. Now many Canadians are reaping the rewards.

Let me talk a little bit about the legacy of the Liberal government reforms. Over the past 10 years the Canadian labour market has improved significantly. We rebounded from a jobless recovery to a period of strong employment growth. Over the weekend I listened to the news about the difference between Canada and the United States. Last month the United States was hoping for some growth at last in terms of employment. Again, unfortunately for the United States, and perhaps for us too in a way, that improvement was not forthcoming.

In our own country, although the growth was slower, it was still by our standards considerable growth in terms of employment in the month of March, which, traditionally, is one of the lowest months of the year for employment. This is just as we are ending the winter and people are not yet back to work on the summer construction and all those other jobs that come on stream once the weather improves.

Our labour market is the envy among G-7 countries. Over 2 million jobs have been created since 1993. This is the net increase. It is not 2 million jobs to replace other jobs that were lost. It is a net gain of 2 million jobs since 1993.

There has been a remarkable increase in the pace of job creation this year alone, more than 25% higher than in the previous 14 months. This information was contained in a speech given by the Minister of Finance in November 2004. Canadians have seen 10 consecutive reductions in EI premiums.

The Conservative Party across the way, which is just starting to heckle here, should be very careful heckling EI premium reductions. Need I remind the House that when the Conservatives were in power EI premiums were always increasing, unemployed Canadians were increasing, the deficit was increasing and the accumulation of national debt increased. We all remember those terrible Conservative years, much unlike the years of prosperity that we are enjoying under the very successful Liberal government.

Canada's unemployment level of 7.1% in 2004 has not been this low in 30 years. This is the kind of successful administration that our party has been giving to this country. Our labour force participation rate, particularly for women, is at an historic high.

I know all this good news is a little hard to take for the Conservatives across the way, particularly those who were around when the Conservatives were in power. I think that given the case I need to recite a few more of them with the indulgence of the House.

It was reported that the labour force participation rate for women of 67.4% in 2004 and the productivity performance has improved significantly in recent years. From an average annual growth of 1.1% between 1980 and 1996, it has nearly doubled every year since 1997.

I have several pages of more good news about how the employment system has been improved under the Liberal government. Perhaps I could invite other colleagues to continue and share this news with the House for the benefit of hon. members, given that my time is about to expire.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

NDP

Pat Martin Winnipeg Centre, MB

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to represent the NDP during the second reading debate on Bill C-278. I want to recognize and pay tribute to my colleague from Trois-Rivières for bringing the issue of employment insurance to the House of Commons where we can debate it. I would also like to recognize and acknowledge the contribution that my NDP colleague from Acadie—Bathurst has made in his tireless advocacy on behalf of an employment insurance system that works instead of an employment insurance system that clearly is broken, dysfunctional and fails to provide its core function, which is income maintenance on behalf of unemployed workers.

I am here to tell everybody here that the current employment insurance system does not work any more. It is not an insurance system at all. It is another tax on workers because they have to pay into the program but it is almost impossible to collect any benefits should they become unemployed.

The current employment insurance system is a cash cow for the Liberal government. It was designed that way and, believe it or not, and it is almost unbelievable to me the more I research it, it was yielding $750 million a month more into the coffers of the Liberal government than in benefits being paid out. The Liberals could have fixed that but they chose not to because they were harvesting the money. They were reaping the money out of the employment insurance system and on the backs of unemployed people.

I want to point out that just in my own riding of Winnipeg Centre the cutbacks to eligibility caused $20.8 million less per year in benefits going to people in my riding; $20.8 million a year sucked right out of the heart of my riding. It has pushed more low income people into actual poverty because they have gone from unemployed wage earners to being cut off the insurance program that they paid into in good faith.

To deduct something from a worker's paycheque for a specific purpose, income maintenance if one is unemployed, and then to use it for something completely different, such as tax cuts for the wealthy, is, at the very best case scenario, a breach of trust and, in the worst case scenario, out and out fraud. That is what we have been faced with for the past decade of the current employment insurance program.

When the member for Trois-Rivières tries to bring some integrity into the employment insurance system, I am here to thank her, applaud her and celebrate that action.

I cannot believe the comments from the member for Glengarry—Prescott—Russell when he tries to sell this as an improved employment insurance program. Nobody qualifies any more. They take and take off people's paycheques but if people are unfortunate enough to become unemployed they will not be eligible for any benefits. What kind of an insurance scheme is that?

What would we think of a house insurance scheme that makes it mandatory to pay premiums but if our house burns down we would have less than a 40% chance of collecting any benefits? We would not call that an insurance program. We would call that a rip-off, a fraud and a lie.

The government has been harvesting money out of the employment insurance system for a decade and incrementally rationing little improvements back up to where it once was. It was once operating as an employment insurance system.

I am a carpenter by trade. I have been on EI probably 10 times because it was designed to help people who, because of the nature of their work or other reasons, were simply unlucky to find themselves unemployed. That is what it was for. Well, I wish everyone good luck in qualifying now. I will not even have time to go into the gender bias. It is completely unfair to women in that women are more likely to be in part time employment situations and the least likely to qualify. Does anyone know what the percentage is of women in part time jobs who are eligible for EI? It is 25%. If we factor in Canadian youth who are unemployed, it is 15%.

Who would design such a program? It is clearly not designed to provide income maintenance to unemployed people. It is designed to be a cash cow for the Liberal government so it can use it for its priorities, one of which has been tax cuts for the wealthy. Talk about a perverse form of Robin Hood; rob the poor to give tax cuts for the rich.

As members can tell, this program has infuriated me ever since 1996 when the government implemented these changes and gutted the UI system.

The member for Glengarry--Prescott--Russell pointed out that the government has to assume the responsibility if the fund goes into arrears and therefore it is justified to go into surplus. If we add up the total accumulated deficit ever since the program was implemented in 1948, it has been $11 billion. It has fallen into arrears by $1 billion, $2 billion, $5 billion now and then in times of high unemployment, for a total of $11 billion to $13 billion, depending on how we add it up, but the current surplus in the fund is $50 billion. It is almost five times higher than it needs to be, which is what the Auditor General keeps pointing out. The government is stockpiling money like crazy, except it is not stockpiling it. It is spending it.

As the Prime Minister has pointed out when questioned on this, there is no EI fund, there is no pile of $50 billion of our money waiting there. The government spent it. It was taken off our paycheques. The unemployed were promised income maintenance and then the government spent the money on something completely different. That is not fair to Canadians.

Let us point out again that this is not the government's money. In the 1980s the federal government stopped contributing to the EI fund. It used to be a tripartite venture: employer, employee and the government paying into it. It ceased to be that. Now it is just employee and employer. The government does not pay a penny into the EI fund other than to administer it. Therefore it is not even the government's money. It has no right to the money, except that it passed the prerequisite enabling legislation where it says that it has the right to deduct that money off our cheques and use it for whatever it sees fit.

I have to mention one of the most galling changes the government made. As a carpenter I deal with carpenter apprentices in trade school. The government began assigning a waiting period for apprentices when they leave the job to go to trade school. They are not unemployed and they never had that problem before. Income maintenance for apprentices in trade school was one of the designated uses allowed under the old Unemployment Insurance Act but the government started applying a waiting period, so for the first two weeks of their trade school they do not get any benefit at all.

It is a lousy $80 million a year savings when the government chose to do this but the calculated effect that it has had is that 11,000 apprentices have dropped out of trade school because they could not afford to be without income for that period of time.

The government is showing a surplus of $750 a month by gutting the income maintenance for apprentices at trade school. It is saving $80 million but 11,000 tradesmen are leaving the trade because of this incredibly flawed policy in dealing with employment insurance.

I am looking at Bill C-278 as an opportunity to restore some fairness back into the employment insurance system and get the qualifying period down to where people will actually be eligible and qualify for benefits, and to increase the benefits, not wildly but back to where they were which was at 60% of our income, which is what my hon. colleague from Trois-Rivières is proposing.

She is not proposing a grossly luxurious plan. She is proposing that the EI program be put back to where it was before the Liberals cut it back to 55%, to do away with the waiting period for apprentices when they are in trade school, and to deal with the incredible gender inequities and imbalance. If the government is supposed to have a gender screen or gender analysis to any legislation it puts forward, somehow this missed the analysis and the screen all together.

I will be voting in favour of Bill C-278 in the interest of fairness, in the interest of giving people what they paid for and in the interest of ending this travesty that the government calls the employment insurance system, but which has really been the biggest rip-off in recent Canadian history.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

11:40 a.m.

Bloc

Mario Laframboise Argenteuil—Mirabel, QC

Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to speak this morning on Bill C-278, introduced by my hon. colleague from Trois-Rivières and so aptly defended earlier by my hon. colleague from Chambly—Borduas, the Bloc Québécois critic for human resources.

Before outlining the benefits of this bill for the workers, and the unemployed, I will take a moment to reply to the Liberal member for Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, who said earlier that the Bloc Québécois should get up to date because there is no independent EI fund any more. I would just like to remind the member for Glengarry—Prescott—Russell and all the Liberal members in this House that we are well aware of that. In fact, Bill C-280 will be introduced to restore the independent EI fund. We are well aware of the fact that it was abolished by the Conservatives.

The Liberal member for Glengarry—Prescott—Russell neglected to say, however, that since 1996, the Liberal Party of Canada has been skimming off the surplus in the contributions paid by employees and employers to finance other initiatives. Since 1996, the Liberal government has skimmed off nearly $54 billion from the program surplus to use this money for totally different purposes.

I do not wish to get too carried away this morning, but the Gomery commission is exposing some of the purposes for which the Liberal Party skimmed off the money. I can understand why the unemployed and the workers in Quebec as well as Canada are angry: since 1996, part of that money has been used to finance the sponsorship scandal. That is totally unacceptable.

That is what happens when people use money that does not belong to them. That is what the Liberal Party of Canada has done: it has taken money paid into the independent EI fund by the employees and employers and used it for other purposes. We can see the result. It has used this money that did not belong to it for all sorts of inappropriate purposes. Now, the Liberal Party will pay the price for that, as it did in the last election.

Why has the Bloc Québécois introduced Bill C-278 in the House? It is so we can finally restore order to the entire employment insurance program. The name says it all: this is insurance for workers in the event they lose their jobs. That is the reality.

They are paying for insurance; however, since 1990, the federal government has not put a single dime into the fund. It is completely independent; in other words, even if it does not exist, the employers and employees contribute to it, so they can benefit from such a program.

All the Bloc Québécois wants to do is return control of the EI program to the workers. To ensure that it is truly insurance, my colleague from Trois-Rivières is proposing, seconded by my colleague from Chambly—Borduas, a series of measures that I will list for the House. It is worth reviewing them one by one.

The first measure reduces the minimum qualifying period to 360 hours of work regardless of the regional rate of unemployment. Currently, it depends entirely on the region in which workers live and on whether it is the first time they have contributed to EI. The threshold varies between 420 and 910 hours of work. A total of 910 hours of work represents over 20 weeks of work.

However, regions such as mine, Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, depend heavily on agriculture, tourism or forestry. These are seasonal industries. The workers are not seasonal, the jobs are. Given the local climate, agriculture, tourism and forestry are industries providing seasonal employment. It is not the fault of the men and women working in these industries; these are seasonal jobs. When these workers pay for insurance, they deserve to be compensated during periods of unemployment.

The Bloc Québécois is proposing a single threshold of 360 hours of work. It is not complicated. This is one of the unanimous recommendations of the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills Development, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities.

Second, Bill C-278 proposes increasing the benefit period by five weeks. With regard to the most disadvantaged regions with the highest unemployment rates, we are asking that this five-week increase be universally applicable.

So the system would continue to pay EI benefits for a variable number of weeks. There would be variations among regions, but there would be a five-week increase. In the most disadvantaged regions, where the rate of unemployment is at its highest, people were entitled to collect benefits for 45 weeks. This arrangement created a gap. The effect of the additional five weeks is to enable seasonal workers to fill the gap. Employees and seasonal workers, especially, have been asking us for this for a decade now.

Earlier, the hon. member for Glengarry—Prescott—Russell mentioned that the Liberal party had cut contributions. That was not what EI contributors were asking for. They wanted something in order to avoid having times of the year when they had to turn to social assistance in Quebec. Both employees and employers were calling for this. There was no call for a reduction in contributions.

Workers and employers called for a review of the plan. The Liberal party, however, decided to cut contributions with an eye to getting good press and some of the windfall produced by the plan. It has always talked of money, while the workers were talking about the conditions of the plan. This was established by two unanimous reports of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills Development, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities

The third measure involves increasing the rate of weekly benefits from 55% to 60%. Currently, benefits paid represent 55% of the previous salary. What we are saying is that the unemployed deserve indexing, and their benefits could be increased from 55% to 60% of the salary they were earning. That is what they would receive as EI.

Under the fourth measure, the waiting period would be repealed. This is probably the only insurance in the world with a two-week penalty period. That is what was done, and it was called a waiting period. Ultimately, though, everyone who lost their job faced a two-week penalty period. They were not entitled to remuneration in the first two weeks.

Considering that the program belongs to them, it is high time, as the hon. member for Trois-Rivières and the Bloc Québécois are proposing, that the two-week penalty period, the waiting period, be abolished.

The fifth measure seeks to eliminate the distinctions between a new entrant and a re-entrant to the labour force. Of course, this refers to the difference between 420 hours and 910 hours of work to qualify for employment insurance benefits. These people are workers. Whether it is their first, second or fifth job, they must work a minimum of 360 hours to qualify for employment insurance benefits.

As the hon. member for Chambly—Borduas said, the cost of all these measures was calculated and, given the contributions made to the fund by employees and employers, there is enough money to implement what the Bloc Québécois is proposing.

We are not exceeding any limits and, unlike the federal Liberal government, which used the money of employers and employees, we are not spending any additional government money. We are not doing that. The money that is in the fund would allow us to implement these standards and new conditions.

The sixth measure eliminates the presumption that persons related to each other do not deal with each other at arm's length. In other words, when persons working in a company hire people they know. If they work as an employee, they are entitled to employment insurance. In seasonal, agricultural, tourism, or forestry work, or any other sector that offers seasonal employment, the employer's close circle of friends or relatives should not be penalized just to create work for public servants.

The seventh measure increases the maximum yearly insurable earnings from $39,000 to $41,500 and introduces an indexing formula. The maximum insurable earnings are $39,000, or currently 55%. We want the maximum to be increased to $41,500 and for it to be indexed.

We need this more and more. Many plants have had to close because of globalization. We have talked about this in this House. The Bloc Québécois has always decried the Liberal government's policy on job losses in light of other global market economies. More and more people go from having good jobs with good pay to being unemployed. That is why we want to increase maximum insurable earnings from $39,000 to $41,500.

We also want to require the Employment Insurance Commission to pay out, as workforce support measures, at least 0.8% of the insurable earnings—as estimated by the Commission—of all insured persons. We want to have a true workforce support policy. Like all the parties in this House, we want all Quebeckers to have employment.

The problem is that because of Liberal policies, the unemployment rate in Quebec is still between 8% and 8.5%. It is the same in the rest of Canada. We have to be able to help those who need help the most and that is what my colleagues from Trois-Rivières and Chambly—Borduas are proposing on behalf of the Bloc Québécois.

I hope that all my colleagues in this House will show a little respect for the unemployed and vote in favour of Bill C-278.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

Bloc

Marcel Gagnon Saint-Maurice—Champlain, QC

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for recognizing me. I am not rising for a question. I believe there is time left to participate in the debate, is there not?

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Marcel Proulx)

The hon. member will note that there is no question and comment period. The 10 minute period is for debate only.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

Bloc

Marcel Gagnon Saint-Maurice—Champlain, QC

Mr. Speaker, it is with great pleasure that I take part in this debate. I wish to commend my hon. colleague from Trois-Rivières for her work on this issue. I would like to limit myself to trying to convince the Liberals of something of which I will probably not be successful in convincing them. As members know, they can hardly show their faces these days. When they attempt to explain to the public, the workers who are denied a right, that all in all what they have done with the EI program was good, things get a little ugly.

I would like to invite the Liberal member for Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, who spoke earlier, to come and travel across my region of Haute-Mauricie, where people have lost their money to the EI fund. I do not care whether the Liberals call it a fund or not. They must know how to write, because they wrote it somewhere. It is clear that they took money that did not belong to them. The member said they were kind because they reduced the premiums. Not one worker asked for lower premiums. What the workers wanted was to be able to rely on this insurance should they lose their job. The Liberals may laugh now, but they will not laugh when they face an election in the future.

Imagine someone taking out fire insurance on his house. It burns down with all his belongings in it, and the insurance company tells him that the bad news is that it will not be giving him any money. The good news, however, is that his premiums will be lower in future. Does that make any sense? That is the reform they are trying to sell people on, the reform they carried out in order, as my colleague has already said, to get their hands on as much money as possible. Soon we will be finding out even more about this government's dishonesty. I find it shocking that they are trying to put things over on people once again. I think they will take it just as far as they can go.

They have taken the money of about 38% of workers who contributed to EI in order to have some security. I keep hearing from people in my offices in La Tuque, Grand-Mère, Shawinigan and elsewhere in the riding “Mr. Gagnon, I have just lost my job and I am not entitled to benefits although I paid into it for years.” It is the same all over Quebec. Why? Because the Liberal Party took the money in order to do favours for its little friends. They claim that not only have they paid down the debt, but they have acted as good administrators because they have reduced it by $65 billion. Of that amount, $54 billion came from workers, and $3 billion from seniors. As many palms as possible were greased, and now they are boasting about paying the debt down by $65 billion. It pains me to see that they are capable of defending such things.

It is no surprise that, in raising such issues—and I know we are not allowed to comment on who is or is not present in the House—I will certainly not get any ovations on my speech from the people across the way. I am quite sure of that. The public has had enough. A couple of weeks ago, a mother asked me whether I could possibly go around to the schools to tell people it is still possible for politics to be honest. She found it depressing to hear our young people coming home from school talking about political scandals. I plan to do that, because a country survives because of politics, is administered by politics.

Since I am not allowed to use the word “lie” in the House, I will say that people are fed up with never being told the truth. Earlier, someone said that the government did everything to help workers, that it reduced premiums. Come on. This is not what workers want. They want their due. They do not want a reduction of their premiums. Whether they pay $3 or $2.95 is of little importance, but if they lose their job and cannot provide for their family even though they are insured, that changes everything.

The government is using nice rhetoric about poverty and how sensitive it is to child poverty. But can children be well-off when their family is poor? Can children enjoy what they are entitled to as children, including education and so on, when their working parents lose their jobs and do not qualify for benefits, even though they contributed to the employment insurance program?

Let us stop being hypocrites. Let us begin administering the fund like intelligent and honest people. The hon. member for Trois-Rivières is proposing an honest piece of legislation. Workers are asking for this legislation. Let us adopt it.

If the Liberals are opposed to it, I invite them to come to my riding and tell workers that they did their best to protect them. They will see the workers' reaction for themselves. The last election held in Quebec was quite telling. The next one, which may come sooner than some think, will show that we no longer want such corruption. We want to manage our own affairs in Quebec, we do not to be lied to anymore, and we will probably make the appropriate decision at the earliest opportunity.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

Noon

NDP

Brian Masse Windsor West, ON

Mr. Speaker, I would like to stand here today and support Bill C-278. It is an important bill and I would like to commend the member for Trois-Rivières for bringing this forward to the House of Commons.

This is an important issue not only for persons who have to collect employment insurance in times of need but also for those they support in their families, whether it be their sons, their daughters or other members of the family. They require a direct income in their households to provide food on the table, to ensure their kids go to school and that they will get the transitional support necessary to get back on their feet again because something has happened in the workplace that has dislodged them from an opportunity or from an employment situation that they had.

It is important to recognize at the outset that what we are talking about here are modest improvements to return the system back to what it was intended to do. It was intended to support workers and their families, and to ensure that we had a national strategy for people who are out of a job to get back on their feet and be productive again.

That is what it was about and those workers paid for that. They paid on a daily basis into a system for insurance, so that they could have the decency and integrity of chasing the Canadian dream to ensure that their families would be well taken care of and progress. They paid for that. It is not something that was handed to them on a plate. It is not a handout. It is something that people and workers paid into, and employers as well, because we all recognize the need to have the supports necessary when people lose their jobs, especially in this day and age when we have more transitional employment than ever before.

We have workers who are paying for upgrades at schools, putting out thousands of dollars in education because a lot of workplaces do not do it anymore. They have to pay that debt back at the same time that there are fewer opportunities to find employment that will be sustainable, consistent and support them in a decent lifestyle.

The government has stolen from them. It is as simple as that. People pay every single day that they work into a fund that should be there for them in a time of need. It is important to recognize the situation that happens when workers lose their employment and they end up having--

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

Noon

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Marcel Proulx)

May I suggest that the hon. member be very careful in the choice of words and expressions please.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

Noon

NDP

Brian Masse Windsor West, ON

Mr. Speaker, the government has been a little bit reckless in its appropriation of funds related to workers.

I want to move the debate to the repercussions. It is very important to recognize the connection between employment insurance and child poverty. We know that women workers in our country face many difficulties. They often represent transitional employment. They often represent occupations that do not have full time employment and because of that, they often do not qualify for this system despite the fact they pay into it. At the end of the day, when it is supposed to be there for them, they do not benefit from it. That has to stop.

The fact of the matter is that less than 40% of women can actually collect from a system that they are forced to pay into. That is not acceptable and it has to change. This is a simple, modest, and practical way of dealing with that situation that is also going to assist child poverty. It will also assist communities because that money will be used to pay for groceries, rent, and the cost of heating homes. In Ontario, for example, our electricity rate is going up despite promises that it would not. The workers in my community of Windsor West have a higher unemployment rate because of the transitional employment there. They could benefit from this modest improvement.

It is really important to recognize that this country does not have a national employment strategy. When workers lose their jobs, they are left on their own. They have very little support any more in terms of having the practical assistance to ensure that we move to new types of technology and training. The government is not involved in that. It has left it up to people to do that. It requires money to go back to school. It requires maybe a mortgage to be paid or helping kids go to school. These are modest improvements to ensure that integrity is going to be there for them.

It is amazing that at the peak of this program, there was a $750 million per month surplus that the government was raking in off the backs of workers. Once again, this is not the government's money. This comes from people's paycheques, so that they can have something if they lose their job. Workers do not mind paying even if they never collect as long as they know it is going to be there.

Imagine our house or car insurance where we would only get a rate of return of 40% after paying into it, that there would be only a 40% chance if we had an accident or our house burned down. It is unacceptable. This type of fraud has to stop. The money is there. In the budget, the government just passed another $5 billion corporate tax cut. It comes off the backs of working people and it is not going back to the workers where it should be.

I invite all hon. members to answer their constituents on this and explain why corporations, when they have record profits and earnings, need an additional $5 billion in corporate tax cuts. Ordinary Canadians should be receiving the same benefits they have had in the past with a decent and modest improvement to our system.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

12:05 p.m.

Bloc

Paule Brunelle Trois-Rivières, QC

Mr. Speaker, in introducing Bill C-278, I have simply borne witness to the problems suffered by the working men and women in my riding and many other ridings all over Quebec and Canada, and to the present need for a discussion of social justice and equity.

As we know, there is no justice in the employment insurance system at this time. There are many workers who, having paid EI premiums all their lives, cannot draw EI benefits. That is unacceptable. We are seeing that the social fabric is wearing thin and poverty is everywhere. We have problems with health and there are costs associated with that. We are laying the foundation for a very difficult future. It is a very short-sighted policy not to provide even such minimal protection to the working people. The people, therefore, have asked for help in getting the government to recognize their rights.

All our lives, we work hard to pay for life insurance so that our families will not have money worries when we die. I do not see why, then, when we die, anyone would refuse them the right to collect those benefits. How can it be that only 38% of workers are able to collect benefits?

From another point of view, the government has handled its transfers from big business to small and medium businesses so badly that, in my riding among others, we have seen a dramatic rise in unemployment rates, because of the closing of the textile mills and the problems in the paper mills due to the still unsettled softwood lumber dispute.

As a consequence, on one hand, the economy is being allowed to wither away, and on the other, no support is being provided to the working population.

We have also seen, in the Canadian Labour Congress's economic analysis, that under existing rules, women and new entrants to the labour force are the ones affected. We know that women heading single-parent families are the poorest in our society. Thus, Canadian children are poor and malnourished, and that is a very difficult problem.

Coverage for young people is also truly discouraging. We know that from 1990 to 2001, it dropped from 52% to 16%. Therefore, it is really necessary to help our young people. That is why this bill has five major principles.

The first principle, obviously, is to protect the workers, so that all can benefit from coverage.

The second principle consists in making eligibility criteria more flexible, so that people can qualify for employment insurance after 360 hours. That is really reasonable. It would solve the problem women workers have when they return to work after a pregnancy. It would also solve the problem of young people starting out in the work force. What kind of a society are we preparing for them? They need to be integrated as part of our work force.

The third principle is extension of benefits so that workers in seasonal industries—suffering from what my colleagues have referred to as the seasonal gap—and workers with precarious employment can have proper coverage. It is a matter of adding five weeks on to the period to which people are entitled to benefits.

The fourth principle is more generous benefits. This is relatively minor. Going from 55% to 60% is not any great generosity, when these people are the ones who paid into it. Why then can they not get benefits back? This is a real injustice.

The fifth principle is helping new entrants. It is a matter of helping make it possible for everyone to live in a society where there is inequality between the rich, the big businesses, which will also be saving on contributions, and the poor. Equality between them is needed.

I therefore call upon all of my colleagues in this House to vote in favour of improved employment insurance. This bill is nothing more than a reflection of reality, of what the people in our ridings are asking for. It will be a change for the better from all points of view. Particularly where politics are involved, people very much need to see that the administrators here share their concerns and are at last helping the least advantaged members of our society.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

12:10 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Marcel Proulx)

The time allocated for debate has expired.

The question is on the motion. Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

12:10 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

12:10 p.m.

Some hon. members

No.