Madam Speaker, I rise today to speak to Bill C-56, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts.
These amendments will mainly affect self-employed Canadians who have been lobbying for changes to employment insurance legislation for a number of years.
In principle, Liberals will support this legislation because the intent is good. We would like to see the bill sent to committee for an in-depth study.
What my colleagues and I on this side of the House find surprising is the fact that the government has drafted such an important bill without even defining the expression “self-employed worker”.
As a legislative body, it is our responsibility as parliamentarians, when laws are written and codified, to provide advice to whose who will apply the law in the legislative framework.
At the outset of any piece of legislation, it is important to say what we mean by the terms. Who are these independent workers? When we talk about the self-employed, who are we speaking about? Are we speaking about people who work as individual consultants, or those who work within a consulting firm where there are several independent consultants but only share office space, phone lines, a receptionist and other administrative services? Are we speaking about contractors, small and medium-sized entrepreneurs who work in teams yet have no financial responsibility towards each other?
Surely the definitions of the people affected by any legislation, and particularly such a major piece as we are discussing today, should be included and clarified in the actual legislation and not left to regulations. These regulations, which come after the legislation has passed this House and the other House, can be amended by order in council, at the government's will, without any debate in Parliament. It is therefore imperative that there be substantial amendments to the bill as it stands today, and the very first one that I would suggest to this House would be a definition of who are the people who will be affected by this bill.
Who are these self-employed workers? What we do know, based on socio-demographic characteristics, is that the number of self-employed workers has increased.
Throughout Canada, one worker in six is now self-employed.
According to the surveys, self-employment has grown more quickly than employment in general in the past 25 years.
According to Statistics Canada, between August 2008 and August 2009, self-employment rose by 3.5% on average. That is in one year. That is over 92,000 more people.
Concurrently, the paid work force has decreased by 2.7%.
There are now more than 2.7 million self-employed people in Canada, as compared to 2.5 million in 2005. This is despite the downturn in the economy. It is obvious that this bill comes at a very important time for these 2.7 million self-employed people in Canada, but we have to know, within this 2.7 million, who is going to be affected by the bill.
In the case of women who are self-employed, 35.9% have their spouses as business partners compared to 28% for men. That means that both workers in the family are self-employed.
We also know that around 88% of the self-employed work full time.
We know that people have chosen self-employment either after retirement, or in many cases, when they have grown frustrated with their inability to find full-time work that suits their qualifications and skills.
We also know that stress in the workplace, especially within the public service sector, has forced people to choose the uncertainties of self-employment, and I could talk about the uncertainties of self-employment, because for 10 years I was self-employed. It was really an up-and-down ladder. There were months when nothing would come in and I would do no work, and there were months when I would be trying to do two or three things at the same time. One could never tell a few months ahead whether there was going to be any money coming into the house.
We know that among the self-employed, 17% are newcomers to Canada. We know one of the reasons is that they have degrees they have earned outside Canada and they are not able to have a comparable degree here in Canada. These people have no choice but to become self-employed, because barriers to employment are more prevalent.
The opposition has been waiting a long time to discuss changes to employment insurance. We spent the summer trying to work with the Conservative government.
In the end, we have a bill that has no flexibility within the employment insurance program, does not take into consideration the variety of legislation in the provinces and territories, and does not provide a clear definition of self-employment. If there is one, it is not good enough.
This is as a result of a summer of discontent, of a lack of goodwill on the part of the government to be open and willing to discuss public policies that matter to Canadians.
While we are pleased that many of those self-employed women, and I am only speaking of women here, will now be able to access maternity benefits and parental, sick and even compassionate benefits, what calculations did the government use to assure Canadians that the EI fund will be able to withstand the added cost? If it has done calculations, these calculations are still unknown to Canadians and are definitely unknown to parliamentarians.
What models did the government look at before coming up with this framework? Obviously not very many.
For instance, had the government made an effort to look at what the provinces and territories had in terms of programs, it would have realized that the Quebec model is a very good one, and it would be important that it be used as a basis for developing a fairer and more equitable system for the self-employed. I would like to take a moment to outline this Quebec model.
The Government of Quebec currently provides parental and maternity benefits to the self-employed, but it uses a different model. All Quebeckers who are in business for themselves have to pay, out of their income, premiums to Quebec's parental insurance plan, QPIP. Self-employed workers with at least $2,000 in insurable income may qualify for benefits under this plan and receive up to 70% of their income in QPIP benefits. That is a more generous plan than the one proposed in the bill before us today.
As long as the QPIP is in place, the new federal maternity and parental benefits plan will not apply to Quebec, but the self-employed in Quebec will be able to contribute to the plan for the caregiver and sick leave benefits that are not currently provided under QPIP. Consequently, in Quebec, the self-employed will pay premiums corresponding to 37% less of their income. It goes without saying that this sounds like a more equitable arrangement than the one proposed in this federal bill, which corresponds to 55% of an individual's average income.
Another questionable aspect of what is being presented in this legislation is the threshold of $6,000 in pre-tax earnings before the self-employed can qualify.
Again, what calculations did the government use to come up with this figure?
This is one aspect that we, on this side, would like to see discussed in detail at committee in the interest of those who will be affected by the proposed regulations.
At committee, we would also like the hear the Government of Quebec on the best practices and lessons learned in providing services to the self-employed in that province.
While we are pleased that many of those self-employed women will now be able to access maternity benefits, we still ask, again, what calculations has the Conservative government made? How has it come to these calculations? Will it make them public to members of Parliament, as well as to the Canadian public?
The labour force must become flexible. Working full time for a single employer is no longer the norm. We must therefore have a system that meets and responds to the needs of this new labour force, one that is flexible, mobile and even seasonal.
This is what fairness and equity is all about in the 21st century.