moved that Bill C-406, an act to amend the Employment Insurance Act , be read a second time and referred to a committee.
Madam Speaker, I am very happy to rise today to elaborate on my bill to amend the Employment Insurance Act.
As you know when I was elected in 1997, I was extremely concerned about the employment insurance issue and the changes made by the Liberal government in 1996. I then travelled across Canada and visited 10 provinces. I went to the Yukon. I took part in over 52 public meetings in every single province of Canada.
After meeting with Canadian workers, I presented a report to the minister. I then moved a motion in the House of Commons. It was unanimously passed in the spring of 2000, just before the election. Today, at long last, here is this bill, the result of a lot of hard work and those many meetings with people.
The bill is aimed at restoring justice for unemployed workers and beneficiaries of the program who were the victims of the changes made to the program in 1996.
The United Nations even condemned the cuts made to the employment insurance program and reiterated a request that it be reformed immediately.
Unfortunately, this government had only one thing on its mind: money. There are less people collecting EI, but more money in the coffers, which allowed the Minister of Finance to build a wonderful reputation by bringing down budgets with no deficits on the backs of workers who had lost their jobs.
I would like to remind the House that these wonderful budgets he was proud of were balanced on the backs of Canadian workers and businesses, the only contributors to the fund.
Today, I would like to talk more about my bill, which I hope will receive the support of the House.
First, I am asking that the name of the employment insurance program be changed back to the “unemployment insurance program”, as it was known before. This program does not provide employment, it provides assistance during periods of unemployment, so the former name is more appropriate.
The number of hours required to qualify for benefits would be 350 hours, or 20 weeks of insurable employment of at least 15 hours per week, instead of the current 710 hours required.
Benefits will be 66% of the insurable earnings, based on the 10 highest paid weeks in the last year, or 52 weeks.
This would solve the problem known as “accumulating hours”. This is a problem people in the southwest of New Brunswick are currently facing in fish processing plants. There are studies being done on them because of this phenomenon. The member for Beauséjour—Petitcodiac claims to be their advocate and says he will sort the problem out, but the minister is refusing to allow hours to be accumulated. I am anxious to see how these members will vote on my bill and if they will support the concept of the 10 highest-paid weeks over the last year.
Right now, the program provides only 55% of one's salary, which is minimal when it comes to the actual cost of living. This is effectively pushing people under the poverty level. Take someone who earns $8 an hour, and would then receive 55% of that. How can this person live? This is even lower than social assistance benefits.
The benefits period will be one week for each week of employment, to a maximum of 52 weeks. This would eliminate the problem of small weeks, while including part-time workers.
The adjustment for additional weeks of benefits would be calculated as follows: two weeks for each percentage point in the regional unemployment rate above 4% to a maximum of 10% and three weeks for each percentage point in the regional unemployment rate above 10%.The two-week waiting period is completely eliminated.
Looking at the SARS problem in Toronto, when this happened the government immediately adopted a regulation to do away with the two-week waiting period. Why just do away with those two weeks in response to a perceived immediate need in that region? I agree with it, but what I am saying is that anyone who loses a job today is in the same situation. There is no more money coming in. The two-week waiting period should be done away with for all Canadians who lose their jobs.
The government has set a good example with what is going on in Toronto.
By eliminating the divisor rule and the recovery provisions, by eliminating the 910 hours required for new entrants and re-entrants, special benefits would be 350 hours.
If this bill is passed, self-employed and contract workers will be considered employees and be protected by the EI program.
They are no different from any other workers. When one looks at today's labour market and the new way of life today, one can see that these self-employed workers need to be included.
As for the two weeks of benefits accumulated for each year worked, in the case of special lay-offs, these benefits are available only to workers with 10 years in the work force and aged 45 or older. The maximum benefit period would be 26 weeks.
This is to help people aged 45 or older who lose their jobs and do not have much prospect of finding another. This would be more assistance for them. It would be a little more to help them adapt and find something else.
Retirement pensions, separation pay and vacation pay are eliminated from the definition of earnings.
It is not fair that a person who receives holiday pay or severance pay on losing his or her job is not entitled to EI benefits because this qualifies as income under EI. That defies common sense. This money could help people find jobs instead of collecting benefits indefinitely.
Employees are entitled to up to five weeks of training every year, provided it is geared to their job. There would be a maximum of 52 weeks, the idea being to get people back to work. This would encourage them to work. It would get them back and help them find work.
This is a useful bill. Instead of using the money in the EI fund to balance its budget in order to achieve zero deficits, the government should put money where the needs are.
Financial penalties would be eliminated. No interest or amount would be payable in the event of a violation of the act, penalty or overpayment.
As for the EI account, it would be replaced with a trust fund. This fund would be credited with the contributions paid. At present, there is $42 billion in the EI account. That is well beyond the $15 billion necessary to make the program cost-effective. By establishing a trust account, we will be ensuring that the money put into the account will go to the program, and only to the program.
The Employment Insurance Commission will be comprised of members appointed by the governor in council for terms not exceeding five years from lists of persons nominated by labour organizations and employer organizations determined by the minister. The commission shall administer the act and the employment insurance program, the trust fund, and the appeal system.
In short, this is a far-reaching bill, which is nevertheless necessary to address the major deficiencies in the EI program.
Since I was elected as a federal MP, I have been receiving phone call upon phone call from people who are having serious problems with the existing program.
More and more people have trouble qualifying, which should not happen, especially when people have just lost their job. In fact, two-thirds of those without a job do not qualify for the program.
The 2002 monitoring and assessment report tabled this week by the Minister of Human Resources Development paints a rosy picture of the situation of the unemployed and the EI program.
Yet at my office, I receive approximately 30 calls a day about employment insurance issues. In my view, these calls are more consistent with the reality than the great report card the minister has presented to us.
There are cases such as the one I saw this week when I went to my riding. These are people who worked in construction in Western Canada. They left their families behind for over three months.
I have here the employer's severance form that says that the reason for the layoff was shortage of work. The government took the trouble to call the employer to see whether this was true or not. It conducted an investigation. Maybe it wanted to cut their employment insurance benefits.
How greedy is the government that it would steal money from taxpayers and workers even though it has a document from the employer saying there is no work in his plant? They are now investigating.
It is simple; it is because of the quotas. That is the problem. The government is more interested in taking money from companies and workers to pay its debts than helping people.
This past week, I spoke with a woman who had called my office. When I called her back I asked her how she was. She said that the rope was next to her. It was not very nice to hear. That is the problem and that is what we call the employment insurance deficit.
We have only to look at people in Toronto who are losing their jobs, women who work only 20 hours a week and who do not qualify for employment insurance because they are short a few hours. If we made the changes to employment insurance that we need now, we would not be in such a panic.
The employment insurance program was there to help people who lost their job. It was not there to help the Minister of Finance pay down the debt. It was not there to help pay for social programs. It was there for one specific reason, to help people who lost their job.
The Liberal government should be ashamed of continually saying that, for example, people should stop using employment insurance as an income supplement, when it is using it to pay down the debt. How can Liberals stand up and be proud to say such things?
At the beginning of the last election campaign, the member for Bonaventure—Gaspé—Îles-de-la-Madeleine—Pabok made a heartfelt appeal to the minister. He asked her to change the employment insurance program. He campaigned on employment insurance. The member for Beauséjour—Petitcodiac, as well as the member for Madawaska—Restigouche, were elected because they campaigned on the employment insurance program. Today, there is no change.
Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources Development will say: “We made some changes. We included 52 parental benefit weeks”. She might say that they will go up from 50% to 55%. The problem is not there.
There are now 800,000 people who do not qualify for employment insurance in Canada. There are 1.4 million children who are going hungry in Canada. If there are 800,000 adults who do not qualify for employment insurance, these are people who have families and children, so we can calculate that 1.4 million children are going hungry in Canada.
The Liberal government and the changes made in 1996 are to blame. Before that, in 1993, when the Liberals were in the opposition, they spoke out against the changes made by the Conservative Party and said that it was shying away from economic problems in Canada. Back then, they said that we had to deal with economic problems. Today, they turn around and come to us with the same changes that the Conservatives made.
This is 2003. Our wonderful country, Canada, has a program for employers and employees. Yet, it is not able to give this program to those to whom it belongs.
I was proud to hear this week that the FTQ and the CSN had finally gone to court. I pray to God that they win their case against the federal government to give the money back to the people to whom it belongs. I hope that that is how the court will rule, since the government is not able to fulfill its responsibilities. The Liberals are too greedy. It is the Liberal government that is living off employment insurance. They are the ones who are greedy when it comes to EI.
It is hungry children who have no food in the fridge who should be benefiting. They are the ones who should be benefiting from EI. The responsibility of the government is to ensure that there are jobs for people in the regions to go to. People need to have jobs to go to.
I sincerely hope that Parliament will vote in support of my bill, so that it can at least be referred to the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development where there will be a real review of it, and where we can finally make the changes that will benefit workers and our children.