Mr. Speaker, it certainly gives me pleasure to rise and speak with respect to Bill C-50, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act and to increase benefits.
We have an opportunity today to help experienced workers who have lost their jobs because of the recent downturn in the economy. It is the fair and right thing to do. I hope all of my colleagues, particularly Liberal colleagues, will come around and agree to help with the passage of the final reading of this bill.
Before I continue, I would like to provide the House with some context, a quick rundown of some of the economic activities in the western provinces where I am from.
It is time for a reality check. Even though there is a lot of negative news, we do have some glimmers of hope. While we are continuing to take action to help Canadians who need help due to the recession, there are good news stories that we are hearing every day. I would like to share a few of those good news stories I have heard. I will start on the west coast and work my way east.
In British Columbia, for example, Nanaimo's restored Harmac pulp mill started a second shift in September and hired 265 of 500 former employees of the bankrupt and closed Pope and Talbot mill.
The Catalyst Paper's Crofton kraft mill was looking to restart just a few weeks ago, bringing back one of its two shifts, recalling 104 of the 375 workers laid off in February when the kraft mill closed.
There is welcome news in Prince George as well. Walmart will expand into a super centre and increase its permanent staff by 70 to 310, as well as hiring 40 temporary staff for the grand opening.
In Alberta, the CrossIron Mills shopping centre opened in Balzac in July and hired 3,500 workers.
In the northwest, a $71 million contribution for Yukon's $160 million Mayo hydroelectric dam expansion has been finalized. Up to 300 people could be hired over the next two years.
Less than a year after Liquidation World closed its door in Whitehorse, it will move back and employ between 12 and 20 people. SSI Micro, a Yellowknife-based company, won a multi-million dollar contract to upgrade the government of Nunavut's it services and plans to hire more staff.
In Saskatchewan, Enbridge has the $2.4 billion Alberta Clipper pipeline project, creating about 12,000 person years of employment, as part of which 5,000 full- and part-time jobs are right in Saskatchewan.
The first phase of Loblaws' $350 million warehouse and distribution facility located in Regina will initially hire 500 people, and by 2017 up to 1,700 people will be hired at its distribution centre.
I have provided this information because it gives a realistic snapshot of what is happening. Yes, there is bad news, but it is mixed with flashes of hope on the horizon and there are more and more strong flashes of hope every week.
What our Conservative government is trying to do is create a few more flashes of hope through the actions that we can take. Certainly all of us realize that there is only so much we as a government can do. However, where we have been able to act, we have acted and we are continuing to act. Bill C-50 is an example of our action.
Bill C-50 is legislation that will extend regular employment insurance benefits to unemployed long-tenured workers so they can be ready for a recovering economy. It is for Canadians who need a little more time.
Who are these long-tenured workers? They are individuals who have worked and paid their taxes and EI premiums for many years. They have paid into the system for a long time. They have not needed much help in the past but they need help now. They have worked hard but suddenly have lost their jobs and have had to start over in a recovering economy.
Resiliency is a trademark of Canadian workers, but we still have a responsibility to help them over the current hurdle. Bill C-50 is a temporary measure that will help workers who have paid EI premiums for many years and have never or rarely collected EI regular benefits.
Bill C-50 will provide between five and twenty weeks of additional benefits, depending on how long an individual has been working and paying EI premiums. It will help bridge these workers over until the economy recovers.
It applies to workers who have paid at least 30% of the annual maximum EI premiums for seven out of ten years, and we will allow up to 35 weeks of regular benefits in the past five years. Why is that? It is because we recognize that workers from some industries, including manufacturing and forestry, have used EI during temporary shutdowns.
Lest members of the House believe that only a few Canadian workers will qualify for this extended measure, let me tell them that this temporary measure will ultimately benefit some 190,000 long-tenured workers. These long-tenured workers come from all sectors of the economy. More than one-third of those who have lost their jobs across Canada since the end of January and have established an EI claim are long-tenured workers. Many of those workers have been in the same job or the same industry all their lives and face the prospect of having to make a transition into a new job. This is never easy and it takes time.
That is why we are acting. Specifically, we are acting to provide continuing support to those workers while they look for jobs in a recovering economy. For example, under the legislation workers who paid premiums in seven of the past ten years would get five extra weeks of EI regular benefits. For every additional year of contributions, the number of weeks of benefits would increase by three weeks, up to a twenty week maximum.
The start date will be January 4, 2009, now that we have made the amendment, and the measure will remain in place until September 11, 2010. This means that payments of these extended benefits will continue until the fall of 2011 for those who need them. To gradually transition out of the measure, the level of additional benefits will be reduced in five week increments.
By extending EI for long-tenured workers, we are only doing what is beneficial for our economy. These are workers with solid experience. With some adjustments they will make it back into the workforce and continue to be productive. We believe this is fair. These workers can continue buying groceries for their families, pay for their heating costs as winter approaches, and buy clothes for their children. It helps unemployed workers who have worked hard over the years and are now in a vulnerable state. It is our responsibility to support them as they struggle to get through the recession. We stand behind them. They will get through this downturn.
Of course, this temporary measure has not been initiated in a vacuum. It builds on other initiatives we have introduced as part of Canada's economic action plan.
One of the most complementary actions we have taken in our action plan is the career transition assistance initiative. Through this initiative we are further supporting long-tenured workers by helping them train for future jobs. Workers can get their EI benefits extended up to a maximum of two years while they undertake longer term training. This will be very significant as the economy emerges.
They can also get earlier access to EI if they invest in their training using part or all of their severance package. This initiative is available to the same type of worker, long-tenured workers, using the same criteria as is used for Bill C-50. Career transition assistance is complementary, and closely linked, to Bill C-50.
Through our economic action plan, we are also supporting unemployed Canadians through other measures. We are providing nationally five extra weeks of EI regular benefits. We have increased the maximum duration of EI regular benefits from 45 to 50 weeks available in regions of high unemployment.
We are also protecting tens of thousands of jobs through the work-sharing program. We have made changes that allow more flexibility for employer recovery plans. Agreements have also been extended for an additional 14 weeks to a maximum of 52 weeks. It supports employees who might otherwise be laid off. It allows them to continue working a reduced work week while they receive EI benefits for the days they do not work. As of this week, over 5,900 active work-sharing agreements across the country are preserving the jobs of almost 167,000 Canadians. We are working for Canadians so that Canadians can continue working.
We are also providing an additional $1.5 billion towards skills training to be delivered by the provinces and territories.
Let me refer to another program, the targeted initiative for older workers, which applies to people who are 55 to 64 years of age. Under the economic action plan, we are investing an additional $60 million over three years to provide upgrading and work experience to help older workers make the transition to new employment. Further, we have expanded the program so that it extends access to older workers in major communities as well as smaller cities affected by significant downsizing or closures.
I am especially interested in pointing out the active, supportive and positive aims and methods of this program and contrasting its active approach with the passive, uninspiring so-called solutions that some members of the opposition have put forward for our older workers. We believe in our older workers, as we do in all of Canada's workers. We want to help them use their skills and experience to get back into the workforce and continue to contribute.
Our older workers have much to teach our younger workers and much to contribute to the work and value of our companies. We are going to help them remain active in the workforce. We are not going to give up on them.
Best of all, we are also supporting initiatives that focus on aboriginal Canadians. The aboriginal skills and employment partnership, ASEP as it is commonly known, has received an additional $100 million over three years to provide on the job training and work opportunities in sectors such as natural resources, construction and tourism. The initiatives funded under this program depend on partnerships between aboriginal communities and the major employers in the field.
In addition, the aboriginal skills and training strategic investment fund will help about 5,800 aboriginal people over two years to get the specific skills they need to benefit from economic opportunities now and into the future. This fund also supports greater investment in training for aboriginal people who face barriers to employment, such as low literacy or a lack of essential skills.
The economic action plan is helping Canadians access the labour market in all kinds of different ways. One way is by freezing EI premiums for 2010 at $1.73, the same rate as 2009. This rate is now at its lowest level in a quarter century. Right now freezing the EI premium rate translates into $10.5 billion stimulus to the economy at the exact time that the economy needs it.
Canadian employers and Canadian workers can be assured that the EI premium rate will not increase during the economic downturn. That would not make any sense.
We are delivering on our commitment to improve the governance and management of the EI account by establishing the Canada employment insurance financing board, the CEIFB. The board will be an independent arm's-length crown corporation. It will implement an improved EI premium rate setting mechanism that will ensure EI revenues and expenditures break even over time and will set the EI premium rate starting in 2011.
These important changes will ensure that EI premiums, all of them, will be there for Canadian workers when they need them. It will ensure that EI premiums, the hard-earned dollars of Canadian workers, will not again be used for pet political projects as was done in the past. No, the CEIFB will ensure that EI premiums will be used properly and will not be mismanaged like they were in the past by previous governments.
In closing, let me return to Bill C-50. The purpose of this bill is to help long-tenured workers directly affected by the force of this recession. As explained earlier, the legislation before us proposes a temporary measure that will provide much needed assistance to long-tenured workers throughout the country.
The passage of this bill will make a difference in their lives. It will make a difference in the lives of their families. It will make a difference to industry. It is the fair and the right thing to do, so this government is doing it.
These are workers who have striven long and hard to support their families and to work hard for their employers. Now it is time for us to assist them in their hour and time of need and to support them while they find a job.
I ask my colleagues to join with us to get behind the bill and to help each and every one of those 190,000 people who are waiting for the bill to pass and to take effect.
I would ask members to unanimously support the passage of the bill.