Mr. Speaker, I am happy to speak today in support of the bill introduced by the member for Berthier—Maskinongé, which would amend the qualifying period for individuals during a labour dispute. As it stands now, workers who are involved in a strike or lockout that lasts 52 weeks will not receive EI premiums during this time and will not therefore qualify for extended EI benefits.
The whole point of workers contributing to the EI program is so that when a person loses his or her job, he or she can access these funds. However, as the system currently stands, far too many people cannot receive EI even though they have paid into the fund.
According to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada figures, more than half of unemployed workers do not have access to employment insurance because they do not qualify under the current rules. The NDP has put forward a number of bills to amend the current EI system to ensure that it offers proper support to everyone who has paid into the system.
For example, Bill C-242, introduced by the member for Acadie—Bathurst, would increase the percentage of income claimed through employment insurance to 60%. Bill C-244, introduced by the member for Nickel Belt, would remove the waiting period for EI benefits. Bill C-280, introduced by the member for Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, would, among other things, lower the threshold for becoming a major attachment claimant to 360 hours.
However, I welcome the bill introduced by the member for Berthier—Maskinongé, which addresses another major flaw of the employment insurance system. The NDP is committed to working with other political parties to support legislation that strengthens social security policies in Canada, and I would like to congratulate the member for this bill. Why should workers who are involved in a strike or lockout not be covered by employed insurance?
The right to strike is an important one and, as it stands, people are penalized for exercising this right. Employers have the right to lock out workers and are not penalized by the government for doing so. Yet if a union votes to go on strike, it is penalized by the government through the flaws in the current EI system. In fact, as it stands, the government penalizes workers if they are locked out by their employer and it penalizes them if they go on strike. The government seems to support a lose-lose situation for workers.
In Sudbury, over 3,000 steelworkers at Vale Inco have been on strike since July 13. Today is the 126th day of that strike. Every day I speak to people affected by the strike: workers, their families and friends, small and local businesses in Sudbury. All these people want is a fair deal from Vale Inco.
Think of the consequences for Sudbury if this strike went on for a year and then these people were laid off. There would be over 3,000 people who would not only lose their jobs but also the employment insurance they paid into throughout their careers. There would be 3,000 families who would struggle to pay their bills and put food on the table. Think of the effect this would have on Sudbury's economy.
It is not just my riding of Sudbury that would be affected. Communities all across Canada are suffering. In Ontario alone, there are five more labour disputes currently taking place. At CEP Local 2003 in Toronto, 61 members were locked out in June by their employer, Cadillac Fairview, and then terminated one month later. At CEP Local 37 in Timmins, 95 members have been locked out by their employer, Grant Forest Products, since September 2006 and have walked the picket line for 39 months. At USW Local 271G in Erin and Cambridge, 44 members have continued to strike against Guardian Fibreglass Inc. since June 2007 for 29 months on the picket line. At USW Local 1-500 in Brantford, there have been 75 members on strike against ECP since August 2008, or 15 months on the picket line. At USW Local 9511, there have been 590 members on strike against DriveTest since August 2009, or four months on the picket line.
What is worse, as if the economic crisis had not brought enough hardship to these communities, is that many companies are using the situation for their own gain as to cause them to renege on agreements they made in the past. It is downright shameful. So many are using this economic crisis as a justification to roll back and renege on collective agreements. Workers should not be punished twice for standing up for the rights and benefits their brothers and sisters worked hard to obtain. This bill would fix that.
This bill would allow the extension of the EI qualifying period beyond the stated limit of 104 weeks for workers affected by a labour dispute, so that the extension of a qualifying period could equal the duration of the period of unemployment caused by the strike or the lockout.
This bill, if passed, would also be deemed to have come into force on January 1, 2008. This would mean that labour disputes which are affected by the current economic climate or brought on by companies exploiting the economic crisis for their own gain would be retroactively covered by this bill. It would also mean that members of the United Steelworkers Local 6500 in Sudbury would also be covered by this legislation.
This bill is not just about fairness for the workers on strike, it is about fairness for the communities they come from. One thing is certain, strikes do not just affect workers, they affect entire communities.
If 3,000 workers lose their salary and their EI benefits, it is not just 3,000 families that will suffer, it is the entire community; small businesses that rely on these workers and these families to spend their money; restaurants; and local charities. I will use the United Way in Sudbury as an example. It relies on the United Steelworkers in Sudbury for a significant portion of what it raises.
Entire cities will be affected. With a decreasing tax base, it means less revenue for cities, which is less funding for city infrastructure, services and so on. Families will break apart and parents will move to new areas to find work with no support networks.
As the representative of these workers and the citizens of Sudbury, a city that has been hurt deeply as a result of this strike, I am very proud and glad to voice my support, and will be voting in favour of this bill.