Mr. Speaker, I want to begin by congratulating the hon. member for Manicouagan for the bill he introduced and for his speech, which sums up the situation quite well. Today, we can debate it while receiving the amendment for concordance with the legislation that was passed in June.
I also want to add that I share the opinion of the hon. member who just spoke with great ardour. He made it quite clear that workers are outraged at the injustice against them. It is totally unacceptable to leave these people in misery when they paid for insurance to avoid being in such a situation, if ever they had the misfortune of losing their job.
The basic reason for Bill C-280 is indeed to take away a fund that does not belong to the government and hand over its administration and management to its rightful owners. That way, we will be sure that its original purpose is being met.
This is not unlike what is happening with investment management companies. Over the past two years, we have seen scandals at Norbourg and Enron in the United States. Now that we know that collective assets belonging to the average citizen, to the workers, are mismanaged and misappropriated, we make sure that a regulatory body is in place to protect this fund. What do we do with people who were responsible for administering the fund, but misappropriated the money? First, we take the fund away from them. If it turns out that they misused it, they can end up in prison.
That is what is happening here with the employment insurance fund. We certainly cannot put the government in prison for its management as such, but we can at least question the legitimacy and honesty of what the government does. That is what we are doing now.
This has been going on since 1994, when the current Prime Minister took his post as finance minister. Is that a coincidence? Since 1994, in good years and bad, the fund has been generating surpluses of over $3 billion, which have been used for other purposes.
In her annual report last year, the Auditor General indicated that, in the past eight years, the government had accumulated a $46 billion surplus, by misappropriating funds. That was the amount as of March 31 of last year. By now, this figure is several billion dollars higher. We now estimate it to be $48 billion in funds that belong to the workers and employers who contributed to the EI fund.
How have these surpluses been generated and misappropriated? By slashing EI benefits to the unemployed and tightening up the eligibility rules so that people no longer have access to employment insurance. In 1994-95, 88% of those contributing to EI were entitled to receive benefits. Today, the Canadian Labour Congress estimates that only 38% of contributors qualify. The fund's chief actuary sets that number at 46%. Even it was 46%, that would mean that 54% of all workers contributing to EI are excluded, due to unacceptable rules.
This money is being used to generate these surpluses and is the reason why the government is patting itself on the back and saying that it is dedicated to sound fiscal management and able to pay down the debt.
Last year, of the $9.1 billion surplus in the general fund, the Consolidated Revenue Fund, $3.3 billion came from the EI fund. That is more than one-third.
In the meantime, the unemployed no longer have any income. My colleague said it perfectly earlier, it is making families poor. It is causing family crises. Some people are even committing suicide.
Today, we heard from five groups representing workers who were laid off when their plant closed in the past two years. They had been working in the textile, softwood lumber and electric stove manufacturing industries. There were five different groups.
These people said that the older workers have been unable to find other employment. In 1997, to save money, the government passed a motion eliminating POWA, the Program for Older Worker Adjustment. It did this to save money. As a result, once these people reach the age of 55, they can no longer receive EI, but have no income until they are eligible for the Quebec pension plan. In 1986, a program serving that purpose was created, but the current government abolished it in 1997.
What happened to all the workers who have been unable to find other employment since? The government did not bother finding out.
Today, we have heard testimonies. In one plant, there has been five suicides over the past year. In the last 30 months, 15 suicides were reported in another plant. That kind of information is not publicized. There is a sense of decency among people. Workers are embarrassed to find themselves without an income after working in a plant for 30, 35 or 40 years and contributing to the EI fund during all those years. They bought insurance for themselves, figuring that it would at least enable them to have a decent income to support their families with, should they be so unlucky as to lose their jobs. Let me qualify this notion of decent income. At present, it represents 55% of insurable earnings. That is not much. That is what was taken away from them.
Workers who are laid off find themselves with nothing. They have no choice but to eventually go on welfare, but they first have to use up whatever they had saved. When you have worked all your life and end up in such a predicament, you are not only insecure, you are also embarrassed, afraid of what tomorrow may bring, and you feel excluded from the labour market and cheated from recognition for a lifetime of work. This is all very serious, and that is what drives people to commit desperate acts like the ones I mentioned earlier.
On the other side of this House, they are insensitive to such a situation. Remarks like the ones we heard earlier are unacceptable. All they care about is lowering premiums. As my hon. colleague pointed out, that is not what the people who pay the premiums are asking for. The government has not invested a cent in that fund since 1990.
The word theft was used. I know that the word is unparliamentary, but there are ways around it. In the private sector or anywhere outside this House, that is how the actions of anyone with a similar behaviour would be described.
That is why Bill C-280 has to be passed. We must put an end to this injustice.