House of Commons Hansard #108 of the 39th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was hours.

Topics

The House proceeded to the consideration of Bill C-265, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (qualification for and entitlement to benefits), as reported (with amendment) from the committee.

Speaker's Ruling
Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

11:05 a.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Royal Galipeau

I will first make a ruling by the Speaker on Bill C-265, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (qualification for and entitlement to benefits). There are three motions in amendment standing on the notice paper for the report stage of Bill C-265.

Motions Nos. 1 to 3 will be grouped for debate and voted upon according to the voting pattern available at the table.

I will now put Motions Nos. 1 to 3 to the House.

Motions in Amendment
Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

11:05 a.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin Acadie—Bathurst, NB

moved:

Motion No. 1

That Bill C-265 be amended by deleting Clause 1.

Motions in Amendment
Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

11:05 a.m.

Bloc

Yves Lessard Chambly—Borduas, QC

moved:

Motion No. 2

That Bill C-265 be amended by restoring Clause 3 as follows:

“3. Subsections 7(1) to (5) of the Act are replaced by the following:

7. (1) An insured person qualifies if the person

(a) has had an interruption of earnings from employment; and

(b) has had during their qualifying period at least 360 hours of insurable employment.”

Motion No. 3

That Bill C-265 be amended by restoring Clause 4 as follows:

“4. Subsections 7.1(1) and (2) of the Act are replaced by the following:

7.1 (1) The number of hours that an insured person requires under section 7 to qualify for benefits is increased to

(a) 525 hours if the insured person accumulates one or more minor violations,

(b) 700 hours if the insured person accumulates one or more serious violations,

(c) 875 hours if the insured person accumulates one or more very serious violations, and

(d) 1050 hours if the insured person accumulates one or more subsequent violations

in the 260 weeks before making their initial claim for benefit.”

Motions in Amendment
Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

11:05 a.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, I welcome this opportunity today to address Bill C-265, and the proposed amendments to it, which have now been grouped. I am glad the Speaker of the House found all three motions in amendment to be in order.

A number of years ago, in 1996, a change was made to employment insurance. This was the most significant change to EI and affected workers across the country. Some would have had us believe that the intention behind changes to unemployment insurance was to get people off employment insurance, to reduce their dependency on it. According to them, most people would rather receive EI than go to work. I can say that, everywhere we have gone, we have seen that this is not the case, and colleagues from across the country could say the same thing.

I would argue that the government is the one dependent on employment insurance. The surplus has been accumulating ever since the EI fund was created and now it totals $54 billion. Last week, theft from the employment insurance fund was made legal by a vote in the House of Commons. Ironically, when we finally vote on Bill C-50 tonight, that will seal the deal, and that will be that.

Bill C-265 seeks to re-establish the situation—I am not sure that that is the right word—in other words, it seeks to make employment insurance a little more humane.

People who receive employment insurance benefits get just 55% of their salary. Imagine what that means for people earning minimum wage. That is not at all uncommon in seasonal industries and tourism, for example. People working in the tourism industry earn little more than minimum wage, and most of those jobs are seasonal.

I have done the math, and it turns out that in most cases, 55% of minimum wage is much less than social assistance benefits. I should add that these employment insurance payments offer no benefits, such as a drug card—no benefits whatsoever. As such, that is a very low wage.

What does Bill C-265 seek to do? Employment insurance can be pretty complicated with all the formulas and so on. For example, some pilot projects use the 14 best weeks, but others do not even take that into account. That means the factor is 14. Consequently, for an individual who worked 12 weeks, the benefit calculation is still based on 14 weeks at 55%. That reduces the employment insurance benefit even more. This bill would see benefits calculated based on the 12 best weeks.

Some parts of the bill were not quite right, so that is why the amendments were made. When the committee members were studying Bill C-265 on employment insurance, they discussed the 12 best weeks and the 360-hour minimum for eligibility. The Conservatives proposed an amendment, and to everyone's surprise, the Liberals agreed to it. The Liberals refused to agree to Bill C-265 as written, including the 360-hour minimum for eligibility. They voted against this measure.

As it turns out, the Liberals have not changed their position on employment insurance since 1996. Let us not forget that that was when they were wiped out in the Atlantic region. They lost ground there because they brought in hours worked minimums for employment insurance eligibility, minimums that made people ineligible.

For example, a claimant needs to have worked 420 hours to qualify for employment insurance in areas where the unemployment rate is higher than 13%; 490 hours if the unemployment rate is 12% to 13%; and approximately 535 hours if the unemployment rate is under 12%. Those figures are approximate.

We thought things had changed since then. It has been nearly 12 years since the Liberals had their lesson and saw that changes needed to be made to EI, but they did not support us. I cannot wait to hear what the Liberal member has to say about that.

For years, I have seen Conservatives here in the House of Commons. Before they were Conservative Party members, they were members of the Canadian Alliance or the Reform Party. The only thing they said during debates was that we needed to decrease EI premiums, which would create jobs and ensure that more people were working.

How would lowering EI premiums solve the problem with fish processing plants in the Acadian peninsula, the Gaspé, Nova Scotia or Newfoundland and Labrador? At this very moment, crab fishing season is open, and workers in the fish processing plants are working only 20 hours a week. How can we solve the problem by lowering EI premiums when people have not accumulated the required number of hours to qualify?

Then, the Conservatives and the Liberals told us that we needed to change the employment insurance rules, because people depended on it. They took $54 billion from the employment insurance fund and put it in the general fund to pay down the debt and achieve a zero deficit. This was done at the expense of workers who lost their jobs.

Motions in Amendment
Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

11:10 a.m.

An hon. member

The Liberals.

Motions in Amendment
Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

11:10 a.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin Acadie—Bathurst, NB

The Liberals did that in 1985, I agree. A Conservative colleague has just told me that the Liberals did that, and I agree with him, but nevertheless, they were supported by the Conservatives.

I am introducing Bill C-265, which would allow people who have worked 360 hours to qualify for employment insurance. But, in committee, the Conservatives and Liberals voted to delete this criterion of 360 hours. I hope that people are watching this debate today. I listen to the Liberals during debates or when they are on television. They say that they would like to be re-elected because they want to save employment insurance.

Yet, people often cannot receive benefits. We know that 68% of women in Canada do not qualify for employment insurance—even though they have contributed to the fund—and 62% of men who have paid into employment insurance cannot qualify because of the number of hours required. Quite often, women work part-time, 20 hours a week, and therefore cannot qualify.

That is what is currently happening in my region, and it is the same all across Canada, be it in Toronto or Vancouver. People would have us believe that it is only happening in the Atlantic provinces, but after the tour I did, I can say that it is happening everywhere.

As for the Bloc Québécois amendment, the consequences are too severe. The unemployed do not qualify with 420 hours, yet the Bloc Québécois wants to force them to have 700 and 875 hours.

With this bill, we can at least say that the two parties that are against employment insurance will have to take a position and indicate where they stand. I am anxious to hear the position of my hon. Liberal colleague who supported the Conservatives to remove the 360 hour requirement from my bill. I am anxious to hear my colleague from Nova Scotia, as though there were no problems in that province. I am anxious to hear from the Conservatives, who claim to be there for the workers, as though lowering premiums creates jobs.

We need only look at fish-processing plants in Atlantic Canada. Many are not operating at the moment; there is no work. We see this in the forestry sector, given all the closures. Now, we will also see it in the automotive sector. People have lost their jobs in Oshawa and they are leaving the factory. I hope they do not have to leave and that they win their fight. I wish them good luck and my thoughts are with them. Losing one's job is not easy. Furthermore, if they are given severance pay, they will not be eligible for EI benefits. It happened to workers at AbitibiBowater in Dalhousie and to workers at the Smurfit-Stone plant in Bathurst.

The employment insurance program is paid for by the workers, but under these types of formulas, they will not even be eligible, and this will leave them burdened with the biggest debts possible. Hopefully our amendment will be accepted and, in the end, the Conservatives and the Liberals will see a small light at the end of the tunnel, in favour of the workers, and give them a chance to survive.

Motions in Amendment
Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

11:15 a.m.

Bloc

Yves Lessard Chambly—Borduas, QC

Mr. Speaker, first I would like to congratulate my colleague from Acadie—Bathurst for introducing this bill.

We will surely recall that, over the course of the past four years, the Bloc Québécois has introduced five or six different and very comprehensive bills on this very subject in the hope of addressing this injustice perpetrated against workers.

Our colleague from Acadie—Bathurst and his party have decided to introduce more focused measures for the most part, which is also very good. According to what I heard him say, they hope that this will at least correct part of the injustice, in the event that the two major national parties do not have the courage or the political will to do so. This is very sound reasoning and allows us to assess the good faith of the two major parties with regard to how the unemployed are treated.

The unemployed did not ask to be in this situation. No one wants to lose his or her job. Similarly, they did not ask to be in this situation created by the unemployment insurance accessibility requirements. By the way, it has to be said that this should be called unemployment insurance. The name was deliberately changed in order to create or support the right-wing ideology that holds that this insurance is intended for people who want to work, as a Liberal minister said two or three years ago. This clearly shows all the prejudices against the unemployed. Policies are based on preconceived ideas.

As my friend from Acadie—Bathurst said earlier, the employment insurance fund has had a surplus for the past 12 years, but not because the unemployed had too much money; in fact, they did not have enough. The real reason is that accessibility criteria were tightened in order to exclude as many unemployed workers as possible from receiving benefits. As a result, at present, only 40% of all people who make employment insurance contributions can expect to receive benefits.

In fact, the fund surplus has been used for other purposes, even though the fund is made up only of employer and employee contributions. Meanwhile, we have pressed to have the purpose of the fund—to provide benefits and support for people who lose their jobs—remain unchanged. We have therefore introduced five or six bills, which have been debated. The most recent bill pertained to the independent fund and called for the return of the $54 billion that has been diverted from the employment insurance fund. The Liberals and Conservatives voted against that.

Where is that $54 billion? It should be considered a debt, just like the money the federal government borrows from financial markets. This money does not actually belong to the government.

It is as if we had disability insurance in case, one day, we should unfortunately fall ill. We pay for this insurance, but when we need it, the insurer says that it has spent the money on other things, but that there is no need to be concerned, because it made good use of the money. However, we will not receive any income while we are disabled.

The government is saying the same thing to the unemployed: it cannot give them their money. They are unemployed and need the money now, but the government has spent it on other things, such as maintaining buildings or making improvements to Rideau Hall.

The government used the money for other purposes and told the unemployed not to worry because it made good use of that money. That the government made good use of it is not the issue. The issue is that it took money that did not belong to it by virtue of the purpose of the EI fund.

The bill introduced by the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst corrects this problem in part. First, it creates better eligibility conditions for employment insurance and it also proposes a better way of determining income—in other words, the best 12 weeks.

In committee, amendments were made to the original bill. Here in the House, we are going to correct those amendments in order to implement eligibility measures that are more appropriate and more respectful of the situation of the unemployed, hence the incremental penalty scheme, if, by chance, an unemployed person's situation were more complicated with respect to his or her obligations to the employment insurance fund.

Another amendment we made includes inserting 360 hours of insurable employment as a condition of eligibility for benefits. In other words, one has to work 360 hours to be eligible. That is fair. Why? Because depending on the work situation, a worker can be treated unfairly compared to others. For example, 43% of men can hope to receive employment insurance benefits while in the case of women this drops by 10% to 33%. Why? Because women often do not hold their jobs as long because of their situation: they are mostly offered unstable jobs. As far as young people are concerned, it is even worse: 17% of young people under 30 can hope to receive benefits.

This situation is not right: the Canadian government treats men, women and young people in different ways. That is gender discrimination. That should not exist. The eligibility rules are very complicated for everyone; over the years they have become ineligibility rules. Not only do we have ineligibility rules, but we also have rules that discriminate from one group to the next.

I see that I still have two minutes, so I will also briefly talk about the situation with seniors, people over the age of 55. From 1988 to 1997, there was a program called POWA, the program for older worker adjustment. The Liberal Party, which was in power at the time, abolished that program, even though it cost only $18 million per year. Out of a budget of $16 billion, that is a small amount. It is clear how little concern there is for older workers.

The Conservatives often said that they had more compassion for people 55 and up, and that they would improve the situation. But it is the same old thing: the situation has not changed. Workers 55 and up have a hard time finding jobs, and employers have a hard time investing in an older worker.

However, the money is there, we know that money is the solution, and we know that people are experiencing difficulties. The government simply has a lack of political will to get involved, to stand up for those who need it most. It is even more difficult for the Conservatives, because it is a question of ideology. They want to decrease premiums so that there is as little money as possible to help workers who have lost their jobs.

Motions in Amendment
Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

11:25 a.m.

Conservative

Daniel Petit Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to share with you our conclusions regarding Bill C-265, following its review by the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities.

The first version of Bill C-265 proposes substantial amendments to the Employment Insurance Act, resulting in less stringent eligibility criteria and increases benefit rates. These proposals would have quite an impact on the fund. Before further discussing the repercussions identified by the standing committee, I believe it is important to analyze the situation in the more general context of today's labour market.

We acknowledge that there has been an economic slowdown in some sectors and certain regions in the country recently. However, in general, Canada's labour market indicators remain robust.

According to Statistics Canada, the unemployment rate in Canada continues to be one of the lowest in decades and the proportion of the population that is working has reached almost record levels. The participation rate of working age Canadians is 77.9%, one of the highest in the world. In addition, a review of long-term unemployment indicates that the rate declined from 13.5% in 1996 to only 4.4% in 2006 and 2007, under our government.

In short, more Canadians are working and the labour demand is high. Employment opportunities are abundant because a number of sectors are facing labour shortages and the aging of the active population in the next few years will only increase labour demand. In this context, one of the important objectives, now and in future, is to encourage the full participation of Canadians in the labour market.

Of course we realize that even in periods of high employment, some individuals need the support of employment insurance. The facts indicate that the plan is meeting their needs. Statistics Canada's 2006 Employment Insurance Coverage Survey reports that almost 83% of individuals who pay into the plan and who lose their job or quit for allowable reasons are entitled to benefits. In regions where the unemployment rate is high, the proportion of eligible individuals has increased significantly.

Of course, the higher the unemployment rate in a given region, the harder it is to find a job there. That is why, in the employment insurance system, when the unemployment rate goes up, the number of hours required to be eligible for benefits goes down. Setting a fixed number of hours—360 hours in the first version of Bill C-265—works against the goal of achieving equal access to benefits across the country. In fact, the regions that would benefit the most are those that already have low unemployment rates. In such regions, eligibility requirements would be reduced by 50%, but regions with high unemployment would see only slight reductions.

When the standing committee reviewed Bill C-265, its members made it clear that a fixed rate, 360 hours, could have negative repercussions on the labour market and would be very expensive. By opposing that suggestion, the standing committee upheld the variable eligibility requirements and the provisions for people who are new entrants or re-entrants to the labour force, because it recognized that those requirements stimulate labour market activity.

With respect to benefit rates, following the standing committee's study, the bill still proposes increasing benefit rates by introducing a formula based on the 12 best weeks.

We believe that we need to find a happy medium between raising benefit rates and the possible factors associated with the notion of “best week” that could discourage people from working. It is important for members to keep in mind that we are currently conducting a pilot project in regions with high unemployment that calculates employment insurance benefits based on the 14 best weeks of income over the 52-week period preceding the claim.

This pilot project is designed to address the same issues as the best 12 weeks approach. It examines whether this way of calculating the benefit rates will encourage workers to accept jobs which, otherwise, would have lowered their weekly benefits.

Our government's approach is based on the certainty that Canada has to rely on the forces of the labour market and the economy. That is how we look at employment insurance. Based on the annual EI monitoring and assessment report, there is every reason to believe that Canadians are well served by the EI program.

At the same time, we have always sought to improve the program and bring in specific changes to address specific problems. For example, we have: relaxed the eligibility criteria for compassionate care benefits; launched a pilot project to examine the effects of providing additional weeks of benefits to those in high unemployment regions; extended transitional measures for two regions, in New Brunswick and Quebec, until the conclusion of the national review of EI boundaries; introduced just recently, in budget 2008, improvements to the management and governance of the EI account, against which the Bloc and the NDP voted.

As I said, our government believes it is important that the EI program strike a balance between providing temporary income support for Canadians while they find new employment and keeping individuals active in the workforce.

Given that it cannot be established that the fundamental changes put forward in Bill C-265 are absolutely necessary, two important factors have to be considered: the cost to Canadian workers and employers, and the potential negative impact on the labour market.

Bill C-265 is not the right approach in light of the current labour market conditions. The Government of Canada is committed to ensuring that all Canadians can participate and prosper in the Canadian economy. We believe that we can make the most progress and deliver the most results by investing in a variety of mechanisms, including the EI program.

Motions in Amendment
Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

Michael Savage Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to take part in the debate on Bill C-265 introduced by my colleague from Acadie—Bathurst.

Employment insurance is a very important part of the social infrastructure of Canada. That is a core belief. It has changed over the years. Today fewer Canadian workers have access to EI in general. Canadian employers and employees have seen a surplus of premiums over benefits paid in the last decade. I think it is time to make some changes to EI. We know that other people believe this. A number of private members' bills have been introduced in the House and have gone through committee, for example Bill C-269, this bill, Bill C-265 and Bill C-278 by the member for Sydney—Victoria, which is a very important bill that would have seen the EI sickness benefit period raised from 15 to 50 weeks. It is an active file. Also, the government recently introduced a proposal to set up an EI crown corporation.

Let us start with a few facts to set the context.

Between 1994 and today there has been a surplus each year in the EI account. From 1990 to 1994 there was a deficit each year, the last time the economy had a serious slowdown. We have seen over the past decade or so premium rates drop significantly. In 1993 employees paid $3 per $100 of insurable earnings and employers paid $4.20. Those have dropped on the employee side from $3 to $1.73 and on the employer side from $4.20 to $2.42.

We saw some changes as well in 2000 and 2004. In 2000 we saw the extension of parental benefits from six months to a year. In 2004 the compassionate care benefit was added. Several pilot projects were introduced in 2005 for things such as going to the best 14 weeks. There were some other changes that were very positive as well, including an additional five weeks for areas of high unemployment. These pilot projects were set up to provide more benefit coverage in areas that specifically needed that assistance. In 2005 a new process was introduced in the rate setting mechanism, whereby rate stability was to be achieved by restricting the rate change to .15, in other words 15¢ per $100 of insurable earnings.

In 2004 the House subcommittee on EI made recommendations, one of which was for a more independent EI board, a commission, with a fund that would operate outside the consolidated revenue fund. It did not recommend total independence but it recommended that step. Many workers and employees felt that would be a good idea.

The EI surplus is a very contentious issue. It is a surplus or a no show surplus, depending on to whom one talks. One thing we know is that it is not theft, as some people would characterize it. The money was kept track of and allocated every year. In fact, interest has been allocated. On the $54 billion, the EI alleged surplus, some $11 billion of that is in fact allocated interest.

It is a contentious issue and I understand that. The money went primarily to pay down debt and perhaps to other services as well but most of that money went to pay down debt. One can agree or disagree with that decision, but that was a policy decision that was made by the Government of Canada.

There are many aspects of EI that need to be addressed: those who are excluded, self-employed people, creators, part time workers who are often women. I believe there is a need to re-evaluate benefits paid to those who already qualify. What we need is a serious debate. We do not need allegations of theft.

We do not need the leader of the New Democratic Party going to a CLC meeting and saying that nobody in the Liberal Party or the Conservative Party cares because they only had five minutes at the finance committee hearing and totally neglected the fact that a Liberal-led motion in the human resources committee evaluated this new EI corporation. If it was not for that, there would be no discussion of this. The government's response was to set up a crown corporation, but how do we know if it is a solution when there is no information available? We have been provided nothing.

We introduced a motion at the human resources committee. We heard from employees, employers, actuaries, labour organizations and business groups, many of whom said that it might be a good idea, but they just do not know and they need more information. That report will be tabled in the House this week. I hope that the government looks at the recommendations of workers as well as employers.

These meetings were public. They asked questions about things such as the size of the reserve, the accountability and how this would affect benefits.

I, like almost all Liberals, feel that EI reform is necessary. We particularly need to look at it at a time when many Canadians are worried about the economy.

Liberals are part of a group which included the NDP member for Acadie—Bathurst, the Bloc and labour groups that looked at a previous bill, Bill C-269, and came to some common ground on it. The common ground was negotiated in good faith and every Liberal in this House supported Bill C-269 when it came for a vote. Bill C-265 shifts that ground considerably.

As an example of what it takes to reform EI, this is a serious business. One proposed amendment to increase the rate of benefit from 55% to 60% would cost $1.2 billion every year. That was an estimate done in 2004. Reform is costly but it must be done. It cannot be done on an ad hoc basis. It is simply too important for that. It must be done by a government that accepts the fact that EI is a fundamental part of the social fabric of Canada that strengthens our communities and our people.

Reform cannot be done by running around and making allegations. We all play the constituencies. That is why it is called politics: to tell disingenuous stories about what is happening in this place when we visit with labour organizations or business groups, or to make allegations of theft and other issues about what happened before.

Changes to EI are needed, but what are those changes and what is the cost? What about the two week waiting period? We think something should be done about that. There is the five week black hole. Should it be the 14 best weeks or the 12 best weeks? What is the solution? Do we go from 55% to 60%? How are part time workers and self-employed workers covered? How is sickness covered? People have said to me that we should extend maternity leave to two years. There is no shortage of ideas. Those ideas will only be turned into action by a government that is serious about EI reform.

The Conservative government is not serious about EI reform. Reform will only be done by a government that accepts EI as a key part of the social infrastructure of Canada that strengthens not only the people and our communities, but all of Canada. It is time for a proactive and positive change to EI for employers and particularly for hard-working Canadian employees.

Motions in Amendment
Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

11:40 a.m.

NDP

Pat Martin Winnipeg Centre, MB

Mr. Speaker, I hardly know where to begin after listening to my colleague from the Liberal Party. I did have some prepared comments, but he has actually knocked me right off my game with the outlandish remarks he made regarding EI reform and his efforts to convince Canadians that the Liberal Party sincerely would like to see the EI system reformed.

I would like the record to show that it was the Liberals who gutted the unemployment insurance program in 1996. It was the Liberals who paved the way in 1996 and showed the Conservative Party how to use the EI fund as a cash cow for everything except income maintenance for unemployed workers.

It was the Liberals who were punished resoundingly in the province of Nova Scotia by six seats because they had the audacity to undermine income maintenance for unemployed workers. They got slaughtered in the election in 1997 as a direct result of using the EI system to pay off their debt on the backs of the most vulnerable people in the country, unemployed workers.

Before I begin my remarks on the bill put forward by my colleague from Acadie—Bathurst, I must tell the House that the Liberals gave away $100 billion in tax cuts, which they are very proud of and crow about from the rooftops. Let me tell the House where they got that $100 billion to give away to their buddies.

The Liberals took $30 billion right out of the unemployment insurance program, whether we call it stealing or lifting or pilfering, and not one penny of that was their money. It was paid in by contributions from employees and employers, nobody else.

They took another $30 billion from the surplus of the public sector pension plan. Again, they had no proprietary right to the surplus in the pension plan without negotiating it with the beneficiaries. The Liberals took that $30 billion right out of there and used it to do whatever they wanted, from paying down debt to giving tax breaks to their buddies.

The last $40 billion they took was from direct social program cuts.

That is where the Liberals got the $100 billion that they gave away to their buddies.

I must not get completely knocked off my game. I will return to the issue at hand here, which is Bill C-265, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (qualification for and entitlement to benefits), introduced and sponsored by my colleague from Acadie—Bathurst.

Let me preface my remarks by saying that working people in Canada have no greater champion on this issue than my colleague from Acadie—Bathurst. He was elected on the basis of his advocacy on this subject and he has been a tireless champion.

Throughout 11 years this June 2, this man has stood up many times to try to drum some reason into the ruling party of the day. There have been nine years of Liberal leadership and two years of Conservative leadership. He has been trying to get it through their thick heads that income maintenance for unemployed workers is a good thing to bridge the gap of employment.

He has been trying to tell them that our system is dysfunctional and broken. No wonder it was showing a surplus of $750 million a month at its peak: nobody was qualifying any more. It is not hard to design a system that shows a surplus if benefits are denied to virtually everybody who applies. That happened for two reasons.

First, the Liberals introduced a system that went to an hours-based system of 920 hours, which made it very difficult for people to qualify for the first time. The bill put forward by my colleague from Acadie—Bathurst proposes to reduce the eligibility qualifying time and return it to 360 hours. The benefit would be based on an individual's best 12 weeks.

We know who undermined that at committee. The heart and soul of this legislation, in summary, is that it would reduce the eligibility time so more people would qualify, and it would increase the benefit per week that individuals would receive so they would get a reasonable benefit based on former income. That was undermined at committee by the Conservatives, backed up by the Liberals.

This is a minority Parliament. The opposition parties could in fact effect this change in this finite window of opportunity, but it was gutted, stripped and undermined by the Liberals at committee. Therefore, we are right back where we started. Again we have the same fight of nobody qualifying for eligibility for EI any more and successive ruling parties in government using this fund as a cash cow to pay for everything but income maintenance for unemployed workers.

In 1997 we did a calculation of the impact of the Liberal cuts. In my riding alone, just the riding of Winnipeg Centre, when the Liberals gutted the EI system, $20.9 million a year in federal money that was coming into the riding of Winnipeg Centre was ripped out. It was like losing the payrolls of two huge pulp mills or auto plants. Federal payroll money of $20.9 million a year that was coming into the riding no longer did. It was stopped.

That was true in every riding across the country. There were some ridings in Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec where the impact was in terms of $50 million a year of federal money that used to come into those ridings. In the riding of Acadie--Bathurst, it was $81 million a year.

Do we wonder why the constituents were up in arms and sent the bums running by voting them out of office en masse in those Atlantic Canada ridings? That was the real impact of the changes to EI. Yes, the Liberals might have balanced the books, but they balanced the books on the backs of the people least able to afford it.

I am a journeyman carpenter. I have been on probably 10 different EI claims in my life, which is just a fact of life as an employee in the blue collar industries, but let me tell members about one thing that always bugged me, which neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives ever fixed.

When I was going through my four year apprenticeship, there was a two week waiting period even when I was going to trade school, as if I had been laid off. But apprentices are not laid off: the beauty of apprenticeship is that people earn while they learn. The employers give them six weeks off to go to the trade school and study for those six weeks.

It used to be that we could go right onto EI. That was part of the deal. Then the Liberals introduced a two week waiting period for apprentices, who had to starve and somehow borrow money to bridge that gap. That cost $11 million a year. A lousy $11 million a year would have made people whole for the two week waiting period, at least among the carpenters. I guess we have to extrapolate that to other trades.

That is how nickel and dime they were as they were trying to squeeze every ounce of juice out of the EI system. I will never forgive them for the inconvenience that it caused me and people I know.

Now that the Liberals think they are poised to form a government again someday, they are unwilling to fix the EI system, which they broke. In spite of all their rhetoric and being sympathetic to the issues, they are unwilling to fix it. I listened to that guy from Dartmouth and I could not believe it as he fudged around all of the issues that he knows very well are true.

When we add up the numbers of opposition members in this House of Commons, we see that we can do anything. United, we could bring this government down. United, we could fix the EI system. United, we could have a national pharmaceutical health care plan. United, we could have a national child care program.

We could do anything, but those members have squandered this finite window of opportunity.

I am running out of time, but I want to do justice to the bill that my colleague has introduced and has fought so valiantly for. It must make his blood boil to sit here in the House of Commons today and watch the other parties, the ruling party and its dancing partner, the Liberal Party, once again strip, undermine and destroy his efforts to fix the EI system.

I know that people in his riding had some optimism that perhaps this was the window of opportunity we needed, that surely Parliament would listen to them now that working people are represented in the House of Commons, and now that the three centre-left parties, so to speak, are united in opposition, but no, one of those parties went south on us. The official opposition went south on us, and we lost this again because the Liberals still see the unemployment insurance fund as a cash cow they can milk.

That $54 billion that we will vote on later today in Bill C-50 will be the end of that surplus money. Just let me state for the record one more time in case there is anybody who does not understand it: this is not the government's money. The entire EI fund since 1986 has been made up of contributions from employers and employees. Not one penny has come from the federal government.

When the fund dipped into deficit for a few years in the early 1990s, the total accumulated deficit was $11 billion. That was paid back, so as for the government taking $54 billion now and leaving only $2 billion in the kitty, the member for Dartmouth—Cole Harbour says we should not call it theft, but I am at a loss for words for what else we would call it. It is simply not the government's money to use as it sees fit.

It is not too late, I urge members, to support my colleague's amendments to reinstate these conditions to make the unemployment system work. I call on all members to vote in favour of the amendments he has put forward today.

Motions in Amendment
Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

Bloc

Paul Crête Montmagny—L'Islet—Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst for this bill, which is another demonstration of those who have fought hardest against the deficit and have had no return on their investment.

I would remind the House that the government managed to build up a surplus of $54 billion in the employment insurance fund by tightening up the system, by requiring more hours to qualify and, in the end, paying fewer weeks of benefits. That is how they turned off the taps. As a result, those who are the worst off have made the greatest contribution to fighting the deficit.

When we hear that Canada is now in a better financial situation, the people who are primarily responsible for this are the unemployed workers, employers and workers who have contributed to the EI system, which has really been used as a cash cow.

Now, when we try to correct the situation, for instance with Bill C-265, by lowering the threshold for becoming a major attachment claimant to 360 hours, which would make special benefits available to those with that level of insurable employment, we are merely trying to restore its human side. That is how we must look at this bill.

We are also talking about weekly benefits representing 55% of the average weekly insurable earnings during the highest-paid 12 weeks in the 12-month period preceding the interruption of earnings. In other words, with an amendment like this to the legislation, someone who manages to qualify for employment insurance and loses his or her job will be given an income that is far from extravagant, but which represents a more reasonable minimum than under existing legislation, which, as everyone knows, is the result of these systematic restrictions under previous governments.

We now have the most appalling proof, that is, the $54 billion that the government would sooner forget. As though following this misappropriation of funds, in other words, after stealing this money, it was decided to record it, to put it down under lost accounts and stop worrying about it. However, the people who fought the fight and those living in this situation today still need some help, like the kind of help outlined in the bill before us.

The same is true for older workers. In my riding there have been some major closures. Unfortunately there was another one just last week. In a company with 50 or so employees, 5 to 10 are workers over 50 who cannot be retrained easily. I know there are some in the Quebec City area as well. I also know that some people have gone to their MPs and, facing this real-life situation, the latter have said, “We are going to change things”. But, today, the Conservative government is stepping back and not confirming the commitment it made to older workers.

Bill C-265 has to be seen as a heartfelt appeal for a modicum of fairness for people who have to live with the employment insurance system.

In the same vein, I would like to talk about one aspect in particular, that is not necessarily directly in the legislation, but is not unlike this situation. I am talking about all the pilot projects that are coming to an end in fall 2008. For example, there was the project that extended the unemployment rate, requiring fewer hours in order to be eligible and increasing the number of weeks of benefits. This project will end in October 2008 if the government does not extend it.

There is a pilot project for newcomers. Eligibility is based on 840 hours, instead of 910 hours under the regulations. This too will end on December 6, 2008. This helps keep young people in their regions and prevents us from losing them because, as everyone knows, there is an exodus of young people.

There is a project that allows all claimants to earn a minimum of $75 without any impact to their benefits or to earn 40% instead of 25% of their rate of benefit without being cut off. This encourages people to earn a little extra. This is another pilot project that will end in fall 2008.

There are two other projects: one that allows claimants to take the 14 best weeks and the other that grants five additional weeks of benefits in order to deal with the gap.

It is a series of measures. Under pressure from everyone who wanted the situation to be corrected, at least the government made adjustments by setting up pilot projects. These pilot projects have been in place for a number of years now and we now know they are necessary for ensuring minimum income for those who are affected by these pilot projects. We hope that the government will make these projects permanent and enact them in law, in the same spirit as Bill C-265.

The first few times the member for Acadie—Bathurst and I talked to each other, even before he became a member of Parliament, we agreed that the former government's cuts to employment insurance had to stop.

In our ridings, we saw how this negatively affected not only people's individual financial situations, but also the regional economy. The government's main message was that seasonal workers do not deserve reasonable support from the government; they should just move. We are still hearing this today: workers should move or go out west. I have nothing against the west. The government considers the law of the marketplace so important that it looks on people like cattle. It is time for a change.

We need to bring in measures that will restore some measure of dignity to the employment insurance system, measures like the proposals in Bill C-265 and the amendments the Bloc Québécois reintroduced in this House to ensure the debate took place. I appeal especially to the members from regions outside major centres, resource-based regions, regions with a major seasonal industry.

This is a private member's motion. Members must take this opportunity to exercise their rights as members and vote for this bill. This is a pivotal moment. This will not necessarily be the bill of the century that attracts the attention of the national media, but every member here in this House should look at the bill and ask himself or herself whether it would not benefit the people in his or her riding who are most in need and are experiencing financial difficulty. Would voting for Bill C-265 not be a great way to combat poverty?

All the efforts made by the members of this House to restore some measure of dignity to the employment insurance system deserve to be recognized. The effort that has been made to bring this bill before us deserves recognition. We need to put the $54 billion surplus and the money we want to provide for people into perspective. This bill will not make the system too broad, far from it.

For example, basing the benefit amount on the 12 best weeks will give people $320 instead of $300, or something like that. In a family, even if both parents are working, it can be very difficult to make ends meet during some winter months, especially on that much money.

In a society with such collective wealth, parliamentarians have the responsibility of ensuring that an adequate minimum amount of this wealth is distributed. We are more than happy to take advantage of the fruits of the labour of seasonal workers, who do not work full-time each year. Often more people are required to carry out this work. However, we need to ensure that they have decent minimum conditions. It is our responsibility to provide an employment insurance program that adequately responds to these conditions.

The fight for employment insurance has long been a defensive one. I hope that we are at the point of taking concrete action and that we will adopt legislation that will restore a minimum level of quality to the program and that will re-establish the balance between workers and employers. The 1994 changes have proven unduly harsh for those who lose or quit their job. The pendulum has swung too far, and the situation must be fixed.

In conclusion, I would ask the members in this House to consider, when they are voting, whether or not it is truly reasonable to accept what the bill is proposing, which is calculating EI benefits by allowing someone to qualify with 360 hours based on the best 12 weeks of earnings; by reducing the qualifying period before benefits are awarded; and by removing the distinctions made in the qualifying period on the basis of the regional unemployment rate. Are these proposals not simply a way of bringing the pendulum back to centre, of restoring a better balance?

We must always remember that by voting for this measures, we are not returning the $54 billion surplus that was siphoned off. Today we are very happy that the Canadian economy is in better shape. If we had a way to give back to those who made the biggest contribution in Quebec and in Canada and who brought about this state of affairs, why would we not do so by voting in favour of the bill before us?

Motions in Amendment
Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

Noon

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Royal Galipeau

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

The House resumed from June 6 consideration of Bill C-29, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act (accountability with respect to loans), as reported (with amendment) from the committee, and of the motions in Group No. 1.

Canada Elections Act
Government Orders

Noon

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Royal Galipeau

Is the House ready for the question?