moved that Bill C-395, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (labour dispute), be read the third time and passed.
Mr. Speaker, I am very interested to speak once again about a bill that I introduced, Bill C-395, which is at third reading. This bill would amend the Employment Insurance Act so that people who have lost their jobs because of a lengthy labour dispute, be it a lockout or a strike, can qualify for EI.
This bill is at third reading, and it is clear that this bill must move forward because it has made it all the way through the House with the support of the majority. The next step is royal assent. Before that, I want to try yet again to convince the Conservative members that, as we have mentioned many times, this bill would correct a major gap in the act that penalizes workers when a company closes because of a labour dispute.
Bill C-395 would add work stoppages due to labour disputes to the reasons for extending the qualifying period. Our proposal, which would not cost the earth, is that the full length of a labour dispute be incorporated into the qualifying period so that it can be extended by 52 weeks to include the last year of work preceding the dispute. To qualify for employment insurance, workers would have to have been at work during the last year preceding the dispute. There have been cases where workers who worked for 20 or 25 years and paid into employment insurance did not qualify for EI benefits because of a lockout that lasted for more than two years. That is shameful. One such case was in Lebel-sur-Quévillon.
Under the current Employment Insurance Act, if a labour dispute lasts longer than the 52-week qualifying period, workers who are laid off after the dispute do not qualify for benefits, regardless of how many years they paid EI premiums and whether or not they have ever received EI.
A surplus of nearly $60 billion has built up in the employment insurance fund over the years, yet workers who have paid into that fund for years are not being compensated. Often, these workers are not to blame for the situation they find themselves in, yet as a result of a long lockout, they cannot receive EI benefits.
This is intolerable. I mentioned the workers at the Domtar plant in Lebel-sur-Quévillon who learned in December 2008 that they would be losing their jobs as a result of a lockout and would not be receiving any EI benefits. Since the lockout had gone on for more than 104 weeks, and the workers had not worked any hours during that time, they did not qualify for employment insurance.
I will leave it to my colleague from Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou to talk more about the social and economic impact of this dispute. And I am not talking about how the workers feel about this government, which is building up numerous surpluses, yet left these workers, who had put in many years on the job, with no income when the plant closed.
Suffice it to say that these people did not qualify for employment insurance. It is shameful. We need to make sure that this unfortunate situation never happens again.
I would of course like to thank the opposition parties for supporting this bill and I would also like to wake the Conservatives up, since they once again seem to be opposed to improving the employment insurance program.
Whether we are talking about the abolition of the waiting period, or the 360 hours that we are demanding through various legislative initiatives, or Bill C-395, or the unemployed, or seniors and the guaranteed income supplement, the government ignores us and has no intention of supporting those who are, unfortunately, in need. Instead, it is investing in airplanes. It is investing billions of dollars in the military. It is investing exorbitant amounts in all sorts of tax breaks for oil companies. But when it comes time to help the poor, this government does nothing.
But I hope this government will reconsider and support this bill, as it ought to. It is not fooling anyone. People will remember Conservative government initiatives like investing a billion dollars in the 48-hour G20 and G8 meetings while openly refusing to improve a measure that is meant to help the unemployed.
Bill C-395 is an effective and simple measure that would fix a problem that is rare, it is true, but that is profoundly unfair for men and women. It is important to take action, but it seems as though the government does not understand this and will vote against giving us the opportunity to implement this legislation.
We will say it and shout it out loud in Quebec. We just want to enable people to receive their employment insurance benefits, because they have contributed for many years to this fund, which regularly generates a surplus. I do not understand why the Conservative government is stubbornly rejecting this measure I am proposing.
In the case of Lebel-sur-Quévillon, why, after the lockout, did the workers who contributed to this fund not have the right to a single cent of employment insurance? This was a lockout; the company shut down for three years. I could be wrong, of course, but I believe a strike or lockout is legal in Quebec and Canada. It is part of a labour relations system that is recognized by law in both Quebec and Canada. These existing measures are not illegal.
Much has been said about Lebel-sur-Quévillon, but let us not forget that it might be the same elsewhere in Quebec or Canada. All workers and employers pay premiums to ensure our protection in the event of a plant or company closure. This is about protecting families, incomes and, often, people's homes.
If the members of this House found themselves without an income for a year or two because of a lockout affecting this place—as it happened not so long ago under this Conservative government—and if that went on for two or three years, that would have an enormous economic, social and family impact on them. Workers have responsibilities, and it is not right for a government to act this way. This is a government with some means. This is not a third world country, but one in which we regularly see billions of dollars spent on various things. Implementing this bill would cost a few million dollars, yet the government is wilfully ignoring it and failing to support those in need.
Sadly, this government has not yet grasped that need. It can still reconsider and support Bill C-395. The same is true with respect to improving EI and eliminating the waiting period. These are all measures designed to support people in need, to whom the Conservatives do not seem to be showing any sensitivity right now.
I once again urge the Conservative Party, at the end of this hour of debate, to consider not only business owners and the most fortunate in society, but also those who are not so fortunate.