moved that Bill C-56, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, today I am very pleased to introduce Bill C-56, Fairness for the Self-Employed Act. Our government knows that self-employed Canadians should not have to choose between their family and their business responsibilities. Extending access to employment insurance special benefits to the self-employed is the fair and the right thing to do.
Our government knows that families are the foundation of this great country and this bill is yet another example of how our government is providing support and choice for Canadian families. It is good family policy and it represents one of the most significant enhancements to the EI program in the last decade.
Self-employed workers in Canada are often the innovators in our economy. These are people who contribute their creativity, their courage and their capital in pursuit of a better life. Their dynamism strengthens our communities, and that, in turn, makes Canada a stronger country.
Some 2.6 million Canadians are self-employed. They account for more than 15% of the working population.
It is very important to note that the self-employed have been asking for these benefits for quite some time and for 13 years, the former Liberal government completely ignored them and their families, but our Conservative government is responding by taking action.
Self-employed Canadians come from a broad range of situations and their incomes vary widely. There are professionals, scientists, technicians, tradespeople and retailers. Their work ranges from agriculture and construction to real estate and the performing arts.
It is important to note that about one-third of all self-employed women are of child-bearing age and many of them are choosing self-employment because it provides the flexibility of combining a career with raising a family. In tough economic times like these, self-employment also offers a way for many laid-off workers to stay active in the labour market.
Our government believes that the supports available to people who choose this path are insufficient today and that is why we are talking about supports that many salaried employees consider a given. Salaried employees who pay EI premiums have access, through the EI program, to a number of special benefits: maternity leave, parental leave, sickness and injury leave, and compassionate care leave. The self-employed, sadly, do not, and our government believes this is unfair.
A year ago, the Prime Minister said:
Self-employed Canadians, and those who one day hope to be, shouldn’t have to choose between starting a family and starting a business because of government policy. It should allow them to pursue their dreams, both as entrepreneurs and as parents.
At the time, we planned to offer maternity and parental benefits to self-employed workers. Our Conservative government keeps its promises. This bill delivers even more than we promised. Our government plans to offer all special employment insurance benefits, including maternity benefits, parental benefits, sickness benefits and compassionate care benefits, to self-employed workers
This bill will have a major impact on the lives of Canadian self-employed workers. Self-employed mothers and fathers will now be able to take a break to take care of their newborns for a year. They will not miss their child's first steps or first words because now, they can collect maternity and parental benefits.
We know that increasing numbers of adults are becoming part of what is known as the sandwich generation and are taking care of an elderly parent. With access to compassionate care benefits, self-employed Canadians will be able to take time away from work to care for a terminally ill parent or other relative. Every Canadian knows how important it is to be able to spend time with and to care for family, and this bill will give self-employed Canadians the same opportunity.
Overall, special benefits for the self-employed would mirror those available to salaried employees under the EI program. Contributions and benefits for the self-employed would be comparable whether earnings came from self-employment, salaried employment, or a mix of the two.
While our overall goal is to make these special benefits for the self-employed the same as those for salaried employees, some adjustments are needed to reflect the unique nature of this type of employment. Specifically, participation in the program will be voluntary. Qualification will be based on earnings, not on hours worked. The self-employed will have to contribute to the program for at least one year prior to claiming benefits, and once they have made a claim, they will need to continue contributions on future self-employed income.
The self-employed would pay the same premium rate as salaried employees and they would not be required to pay the employer's portion of the premium rate. This is quite simply to recognize the fact that the self-employed will not have access to EI regular benefits, the ones that people collect when they have been laid off.
We expect that between 300,000 and 500,000 Canadians will apply for this coverage over the next three years.
I would like to clarify that self-employed workers in Quebec will continue to receive maternity and parental benefits under the Quebec parental insurance plan. Now they can also receive the sickness and compassionate care benefits that the Government of Canada is offering through the employment insurance system.
The changes that we are making to create fairness for the self-employed go well beyond the commitments in the Speech from the Throne and budget 2009. This is one of the most significant enhancements to the EI program in the last decade, and it is just the latest in a whole series of timely enhancements that we have made to ensure that EI remains responsive to the needs of Canadians.
Our economic action plan is geared toward helping Canadian workers and their families get through the global economic downturn. By helping Canadian workers in all walks of life, we are helping families and communities in our overall economy. We believe that these individual Canadian entrepreneurs will play a leading role in our economic recovery. We need their skills, we need their experience and we need their energy to meet the challenges to come. That is why our government believes that these Canadians deserve to have access to EI special benefits, because it is the fair and right thing to do.
Our government knows that self-employed Canadians should not have to choose between their family and their business responsibilities. Members do not have to take my word for it; there has been a chorus of positive response across a broad range of employment sectors to the tabling earlier this week of Bill C-56.
We heard from the agricultural community. Richard Phillips, the director of Grain Growers of Canada said Tuesday on CTV News that for a lot of young farm families, this could be the difference between whether they stay on the farm or leave the farm. He added in a news release that this legislation is very welcome. He said that this has huge potential for quality of life in rural Canada.
From the small business community, Catherine Swift, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said in yesterday's Montreal Gazette that the initiative fills a “glaring gap” for people running their own business, especially women. She said, “We have a lot of women members. They would like to have a child, and yet abandoning your business is not an option”.
Next, from a town which forms part of my beautiful riding of Haldimand—Norfolk, Shane Curtis, president of the Tillsonburg Chamber of Commerce said Tuesday in the Tillsonburg News:
I think it's a fantastic thing from a couple different perspectives. It promotes women to be in business and to be self-employed. It will promote self-employed women to have children.
From one end of the country to the other, people have been getting behind this legislation. John Winter, the chair of the Coalition of B.C. Businesses, said in a release on Tuesday:
It is only fair.... British Columbians who hang their own shingle should not have to choose between raising a family and raising a business.
I could not agree with him more.
The contractors have waded in as well. In a media release on Tuesday, Phil Hochstein, president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association said:
Many independent contractors work as owner operators, from truckers to drywallers to painters, and with these challenging economic times, the extra security offered with extending EI special benefits is welcome.
And it continues. Dale Ripplinger, president of the Canadian Real Estate Association is quoted in a news release on Tuesday, saying:
This is an important step to level the benefits playing field for self-employed Canadians.... We look forward to working with the government to ensure access to EI benefits for REALTORS(R), which can help balance career and family life.
I would suggest that the opposition listen not just to me but to Canadians, who are demanding that this legislation be passed, people like Stephen Waddell, national executive director of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists, better known to many as ACTRA, which represents creative people across the country. In a news release he said:
This legislation is a question of basic fairness and equal treatment for Canadian workers. We're calling on the Liberals, NDP and the Bloc to avoid an election and get this initiative passed into law.
The previous Liberal government ignored these Canadians for 13 long years. Self-employed Canadians want the bill to pass. They are trusting us to deliver for them, but they also know that the Liberals and the Bloc let down other Canadians. Hundreds of thousands of long-tenured workers were let down by the Liberals and the Bloc through their opposition to Bill C-50 earlier this week. Surely, when many of their own members have been calling for this bill, I would hope they would get behind the fairness to the self-employed bill.
On March 5 of this year, the Leader of the Opposition himself said in the Toronto Star, that the self-employed are the largest category of Canadians without EI protection and that he thinks if we are going to be a compassionate society and if we want to get stimulus in, that would be a good place to go.
Even the Bloc has expressed support. The member for Saint-Lambert said in this House on the same day, “I think offering self-employed workers the opportunity to contribute to employment insurance on a voluntary basis is long overdue”.
Finally, on Tuesday night on CTV's Power Play, the Liberal member for Markham—Unionville said that the Liberals support this bill in principle.
I encourage them all to support this bill in reality by voting for it.
The Liberals and the Bloc let down long-tenured workers. Will they let down the millions of self-employed Canadians as well? Self-employed Canadians want to know if they will be let down too. Canadians want this bill to pass.