Madam Speaker, unfortunately, workers across Quebec and Canada are waiting with bated breath to see whether the House will pass Bill C-24, which is currently before us.
These people are holding their breath because they are desperate to know whether they will receive EI benefits. The number of weeks of benefits they were entitled to have run out, and phones are ringing everywhere as people try to find out what tomorrow holds.
Bill C-24 answers that question by extending the EI regular benefit period to 50 weeks. The bill will also fix something that we, the Bloc Québécois, have been calling on the government to fix since December by creating an exemption so that people will no longer be able to claim the $1,000 Canada recovery sickness benefit when they return from a non-essential trip. That is the essence of the bill.
Once again, we think it is regrettable how often since the beginning of the crisis we have had to rush back to the House to ram through bills that make all the difference for workers who are waiting with bated breath.
Some members may recall that I spoke in this chamber on September 26, 2020, when the House resumed after prorogation. For weeks, we had been urgently calling on the government to pass Bill C-2, the purpose of which was to make the EI program more flexible and implement the three new benefits we are all familiar with, namely, the Canada recovery benefit, the Canada recovery sickness benefit and the Canada recovery caregiving benefit.
Back in September, I began my speech with these remarks:
Sometimes the saying “better late than never” applies, but not here since it is too late for the bill before us. In fact, the three economic support benefits in this bill, which affect thousands of workers and were announced by the government on August 20, are still not in place, while the CERB ended yesterday.
That is the situation we find ourselves in and it is utterly deplorable. I am outraged.
Bill C-24 changes absolutely nothing. We have time; we would have had time to reflect on and think about the best measures to put in place for EI, this enormous program, so that workers, people who are ill and people on maternity leave will not be left wondering what will happen to them from one day to the next. We are simply putting off the problem every month through these temporary measures, when we should be introducing the permanent, structuring and useful measures that reflect the true reality of work for the people concerned.
I am outraged. My colleagues know me and may be sick of listening to me, but I am not done. Since my work in the House began, I have probably uttered the term “employment insurance” 200 times. I was thinking that perhaps I should start saying “unemployment insurance” and maybe that term would resonate with people.
I often say that we must be open, as legislators, to settling once and for all the issue of permanently increasing sickness leave benefits to 50 weeks.
I have been calling for this from day one for a reason. I strongly believed that the government would rise to the occasion during this crisis for which our EI program is inadequate. It could have taken the opportunity to change EI instead of viewing it as a threat and taking a piecemeal approach. The government had that mandate.
The pandemic is a convenient excuse for everything, and we are told that the crisis needs to be managed. That is what we are told when we point out that there needs to be a significant increase in the old age security pension. There has never been a measure brought in to permanently and predictably increase the pension. Temporary measures are brought in instead. The same goes for the Canada health transfers.
This same government had a mandate in 2015 to review the EI program. It has received countless reports and solutions for making the program suit the reality of the workforce and to address the fact that many people are ineligible.
This is unacceptable for a so-called social program designed to protect workers. The government had that mandate.
The minister found the mandate a bit too late, after the throne speech. The government claims to be working on it, but we know that the bill before us is another temporary measure that will expire on September 25, 2021, if I am not mistaken. It is March now, so there are six months left.
What is the government's plan beyond September 25, 2021? Has the government calculated that the job market will have recovered and that the existing EI system will be adequate?
The answer to that question should be “no”, because the system is inadequate. The system is based on the number of hours worked, which clearly needs to be changed.
I gave the House some examples on Monday. With the system that is now in place, women who hold what are increasingly non-standard, part-time jobs are finding it difficult to qualify for EI. Women take maternity or parental leave, using up their weeks of benefits, after which they cannot qualify for EI. If they lose their jobs, they are refused regular benefits. This flaw must be addressed.
Seasonal workers suffer a loss of revenue between periods of employment and end up without EI because of the gaps during which they were not working. This is also something we have to put an end to. No worker should have to go through that.
For them and for sick, suffering or injured workers for whom 15 weeks are not enough, temporary measures are insufficient. There needs to be a real system that will guarantee them 50 weeks of EI benefits.
That is the mission of the Bloc Québécois, a mission that outlines a vision, is promising and takes the reality of the people we represent into account.
In Quebec and Canada, workers are the lifeblood of our job market. We see how essential all of these people are in the health care, social services and other sectors. They are essential because they contribute to our economic strength, our social strength and the strength of our labour market. There has to be a balance, and we need permanent changes. I cannot emphasize that enough.
We will vote in favour of Bill C-24 because, as I said on Monday, we have no choice. Is there any other choice?
If we do not vote in favour of this bill, workers will find themselves without any income tomorrow morning. What is more, many people have reached out to us via telephone, press release and other methods to tell us just how necessary these measures still are.
That is why we are going to vote in favour of Bill C-24. It is not because we like the way the government is forcing us into this. On the contrary, I think that the government could and should do things differently. It has everything it needs to present a much more permanent and strategic vision in the future. I am calling on the government and urging it to do just that, when it has the opportunity to do so in the very near future in the next budget.
My Bloc Québécois colleague's bill, Bill C-265, could really make a difference by increasing EI sickness benefits from 15 to 50 weeks. That was yet another opportunity for the government to take action because it was an election issue last time around. There were plenty of commitments, promises and mandate letters, but nothing was done because the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and action had to be taken. The thing is, taking action during a pandemic does not mean doing the same thing forever after. It means thinking about what the future should look like and coming up with much more strategic measures. That is what people expect.
That is why I am working so hard and with such determination to make sure nobody else falls through the cracks. I also want to make sure that, in the course of our very important legislative work, we are never again called upon to rapidly approve a government bill to meet needs and achieve goals. We condemn that approach.
Even so, we support the bill because we would never abandon thousands of workers whose EI benefits will come to an end tomorrow morning and who will be left without an income to make it through this crisis.