moved that Bill C-395, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (labour dispute), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased and proud to introduce at second reading Bill C-395, which aims to amend the Employment Insurance Act so that people who have lost their jobs because of a labour dispute, be it a lockout or a lengthy strike, can qualify for EI.
Because of the changes the Liberals made to EI in the 1990s, it has become ineffective, because it is not very accessible to thousands of workers in Quebec and the rest of Canada.
In fact, according to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada figures quoted here in the House, more than half of unemployed workers do not have access to the plan they have paid into.
Given the current, ongoing economic crisis and the thousands of jobs that have been lost all across Quebec, the Bloc Québécois maintains that the current Employment Insurance Act is not meeting its objectives and needs comprehensive reform.
Clearly, the bill before us today does not dramatically change the employment insurance plan. That is not the aim of Bill C-395. Its purpose is to correct a major gap in the act that penalizes workers when a company closes because of a labour dispute.
Currently, the Employment Insurance Act establishes benefits based on a given salary over a given qualifying period. The qualifying period is defined in section 8 of the Employment Insurance Act. Only hours of insurable employment included in the qualifying period are used in calculating the claimant's benefit period.
Although the qualifying period can be extended to a maximum of 104 weeks if a claimant is ill, in prison, in training or on preventive withdrawal, the standard qualifying period is one year, and it is based on the claimant's insurable income. Two criteria are used to determine the benefit period and level: the number of weeks worked in the previous year and the contributions made to the plan based on employment income.
Consequently, an individual who does not work during the qualifying period obviously does not contribute to the employment insurance plan and is not covered by EI, unless he or she is ill, in prison, in training or on preventive withdrawal.
But what happens if there is a labour dispute? “Labour dispute” is defined in subsection 2(1) of the Employment Insurance Act as follows:
any dispute between employers and employees, or between employees and employees, that is connected with the employment or nonemployment, or the terms or conditions of employment, of any persons.
That is the definition set out in the act. This definition serves to justify, in section 27, the fact that if a worker is unemployed following a labour dispute, he or she cannot access the system, which is not right.
So a striking or locked out worker cannot receive employment insurance benefits.
In other words, employment insurance benefits will not be paid to a striking worker or the victim of a lockout. So, what happens when the company closes the day after a labour dispute?
Obviously, if the labour dispute is short, less than 52 weeks, the worker could receive employment insurance benefits. However, what happens to that employee if the labour dispute lasts a long time, that is, longer than the qualifying period set out in the act? Even if he or she has paid into the fund for many years, that worker will simply be forced to turn to social assistance, because he or she would not receive employment insurance benefits.
According to the Quebec department of labour, from 1995 to 2004, there were 966 labour disputes, of which 39 were considered long-term, that is, disputes that lasted between 361 and 721 days. What is interesting is that when we compare that data with the numbers from 1985 to 1994, we note that the number of labour disputes dropped by nearly half, from 1838 to 966 for all disputes, and from 52 to 39 for long-term disputes. Thus, the number of long-term disputes has gone down.
In Quebec, on average, we have just under four long-term labour disputes per year. In most cases, these disputes are resolved without job losses, as was the case with the Journal de Québec after more than 14 months. But as I was saying, that is not always the case. The employment insurance system does not cover long-term labour disputes that end with a company going out of business.
One case in Quebec involved Domtar workers in Lebel-sur-Quévillon who were laid off and denied employment insurance even though they had contributed for years. In December 2008, the 425 Domtar workers at the Lebel-sur-Quévillon plant found out that they were going to lose their jobs and collect no employment insurance benefits. They had been locked out since November 24, 2005, and on December 19, 2008, Domtar finally announced that it was closing its Lebel-sur-Quévillon plant permanently.
Because the lockout lasted longer than 104 weeks and workers had accumulated no hours of work during that period, they were not eligible for employment insurance. After that long labour dispute, they received no financial assistance, so they had to resort to social assistance and welfare even though they had contributed to the fund for so many years.
To summarize, although the Domtar workers were locked out for over three years, they were still considered employees, but they were no longer contributing because they were collecting money from a strike fund. Under section 27, they were therefore not eligible for employment insurance. As soon as the plant closed, they were no longer considered employed and would have been eligible for benefits had they contributed during the reference period, which of course they had not because the dispute lasted longer than 52 weeks.
I am looking at my NDP colleague because I believe he asked some questions about this yesterday. This bill requires further explanation. It is an exceptional situation, but this is a major shortcoming in the Employment Insurance Act that must be corrected as soon as possible.
We must do something to help these workers who have been abandoned by the federal government. I want to thank the hon. member for Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou for having initiated this bill and wanting to support the workers affected by this lengthy labour dispute in his riding.
In light of this situation that has to be corrected, Bill C-395 proposes excluding from the qualifying period the period covered by a labour dispute. It is as simple as that. It is not complicated.
That way, a worker who loses their job when a company closes following a lockout or a strike would have their benefits calculated based on the 52-week period preceding the dispute. It is simple. These people have paid premiums for a long time and then gone through a lockout or a closure following a labour dispute. If the company closes following such a dispute and the workers cannot go back to their jobs, they will be entitled to employment insurance instead of having to go on social assistance, which is all too often the case.
I think this is a quick and effective way to resolve what seems to us to be a simple omission in the legislation for a problem, let us not forget, that is quite rare, but immensely unfair to these men and women.
As I was saying at the beginning of my presentation, this bill is one measure being proposed by the Bloc Québécois to change the program.
We need to completely reform employment insurance—many questions have been asked in this House to that effect and various bills have been introduced by the Bloc—in order to ensure that the program can fulfill its main mandate of providing benefits in a fair manner to all and for a period of time that allows people to live with dignity.
We must not forget that there is a relationship between poverty and adequate government support in the form of an employment insurance program.
I would like to point out that 19% of Canadian citizens live in poverty, compared to 11.4% in Sweden, 14.1% in France, 16.2% in Belgium, 17% in the United Kingdom, 17.2% in Germany and, at the bottom, 23.9% in the U.S. With a rate of 19%, we have some work to do. Improving the employment insurance program is one way of helping.
It is quite simple. The lowest rates of poverty are found in countries that do more for their population. That is why it is vital that the federal government adopt a true policy for supporting its citizens who often find themselves in need and unemployed.
For that reason, the Bloc Québécois is proposing a complete overhaul of the employment insurance program, including improving accessibility and eliminating the waiting period. I presented to the House a petition signed by almost 4,000 people from Berthier—Maskinongé who also want the waiting period to be eliminated.
Bill C-395 does not make sweeping changes to the employment insurance program. However, as I already mentioned, that is not the objective of Bill C-395. This bill will correct a major shortcoming of the Act, one that is immensely unfair to certain workers who lose their jobs because of a work stoppage caused by a long labour dispute.
Therefore, in the interest of justice and fairness, I invite all members of this House to vote for this bill, including the New Democrats, Conservatives, Liberals and Bloc Québécois, who will support it because it is one of its initiatives. I urge them to think about those people who have worked for so many years and who, because of a lockout or shutdown, can only turn to social assistance.
They find themselves in poverty.
We would like the House to support this Bloc Québécois initiative, which is one of many.