Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. It's a pleasure to be here this afternoon.
Good afternoon. Thank you for the opportunity to address the committee on reforms to the employment insurance system that reflect the needs of Canadian workers.
Sean Strickland is my name. I'm the executive director of Canada's Building Trades Unions. We represent 14 international construction trade unions, and we have over half a million members across Canada.
Reforming employment insurance has long been a high priority for Canada's Building Trades Unions, and the pandemic has put a light on cracks in the system, as you're very much aware. I want to thank the committee for the work you are doing.
We appreciate the government's measures to support Canadians through the pandemic—unprecedented times for sure. The recent extensions of benefits through the budget—the Canada recovery benefit, the Canada emergency wage subsidy and extending sick leave—will help workers through this unprecedented time. We're also encouraged by the announcement we heard from the Province of Ontario today in terms of paid sick days, and we are looking forward to the successful rollout of that program as well, as it will help our members deal with the pandemic.
The construction industry accounts for 6% of Canada's GDP, and the industry has been a key player in keeping the economy going during the pandemic. However, industry employment is down from pre-pandemic levels, with unemployment nationally at 8% and much higher in certain regions of the country. The additional supports and the CERB have helped bridge the gap, and current reforms to EI are an opportunity to better support workers in the long term.
In our brief, we have included eight recommendations to update the EI system. I'd like to expand on a few of those in the time I have.
Let's talk about apprentices. Currently, apprentices enrolled and participating in the in-class portion of their apprenticeship, which often lasts only a few months over a period of years, often do not receive their entitlements from EI until after training is completed. This wait creates an economic barrier for apprentices to complete the in-class portion of the training and challenge the certification exam. To grow Canada's skilled trades workforce, we need to expedite the EI applications for apprentices to allow them to receive EI payments faster and complete their training.
As we look to rebuild our economy, we recognize the changing nature of work, and we've included recommendations to extend the EI training support benefit, address the limits in the Canada training benefit and support workers seeking retraining or skill upgrading.
There are a few key areas that we need to focus on. For example, Canada's energy sector is changing. As it changes, so does the nature of work, and a just transition, including skills retraining, needs to be included to make sure no worker gets left behind. We need to lessen the confusion of navigating the system to ensure more workers can utilize training programs and benefits.
As the economy changes, we also need to crack down on employer misclassification of workers, who are often labelled as independent contractors or self-employed, allowing employers to evade EI and other payroll deductions. A recent study in Ontario by the Ontario Construction Secretariat indicates loss of revenue to governments in the magnitude of $1.8 billion to $3.1 billion annually. Addressing the misclassification of workers will help broaden EI's base and prevent free-riding and undercutting competition.
Canada's Building Trades Unions is also requesting that the dedicated EI program liaison officers be restored. Think of an apprentice who doesn't know the system. They submit a report to an EI office that redirects them to apply for other similar jobs, not understanding the cyclical nature of construction and how a union hiring hall works. This not only confuses the apprentice but leads to deferring apprenticeship completion. CBT recommends that each of Canada's four regions have its own liaison officer who can understand the specific issues pertaining to the region and the building trades.
I'd like to also talk about getting Canadians back to work in the construction sector. There's a private member's bill in the House, Bill C-275, which will help get workers back to work across Canada. Unlike many careers, construction is temporary, in that you build a project, complete it and then move on to the next. This can require workers to travel and to temporarily relocate for work. Costs could be too much for a worker and could disincentivize them to travel. This can create labour shortages in different regions, with high unemployment in others—something that a skilled trades mobility tax deduction would address.
Currently, the temporary foreign worker program is a tool used to support labour shortages. However, it is not being implemented accurately with labour market information data. This has become a bigger issue in certain trades and regions, particularly in B.C. We need to better address how temporary foreign worker applications are reviewed, make it easier for skilled trades workers to travel to where the work is, and rely less on temporary foreign workers and government programs like EI.
I thank you for this opportunity and I look forward to answering questions later during the deliberations.