Thank you very much.
I have with me our executive vice-president, Barbara Byers, who will comment quickly on pay equity.
I wanted to focus my comments on employment insurance, or unemployment insurance--I still want to call it unemployment insurance, because it seems that when you call it employment insurance people compare it to being employed. It's a critically important program in Canada. It's served us quite well, especially in the tough times that we have faced, but today laid-off workers need adequate benefits to support themselves and their families. Unemployment insurance benefits are spent on necessities. They're not saved. They're not spent on imports, and they're not used to buy stock options. We argue that they are the most effective form of economic stimulus we have available to us today, and they help maintain hard-hit economies. Compared to when we hit previous recessions, our EI programs leave far too many Canadians, especially women and lower-wage and insecure workers, out in the cold.
In November 2008--these are the government statistics--four in ten unemployed workers qualified for benefits. The maximum weekly benefit achievable is $447 today--that's 25% less than in 1996, I would add--and the average benefit today is $335. I just want everybody to put that in perspective, and I say this with the greatest deal of respect. That amounts to less than $48 a day taxable to support oneself and one's family. You, members of Parliament on the Hill, get $81 taxable a day just for meals every day you're here on the Hill. These people get 60% of that to support themselves and their families every day. In our view, that's a pathetic amount of money when you consider what they need to use that money for.
I know the minister likes to argue that 80% of all currently employed workers would qualify for EI, but that's not even relevant to the situation. That's if they lose their jobs. It ignores the fact that job loss particularly affects those with unstable patterns of work, such as workers on reduced hours before layoff, or those who are work-sharing, as well as part-time, temporary, and contract workers. It also ignores the fact that many unemployed workers qualify for EI for a very short period but exhaust those benefits.
Our congress has called for lower entrance requirements of 360 hours. We think that's something that is very important to consider.
In the run-up to the budget, I want to tell you that many voices, including those of editorial writers, business leaders, and even the council of chief executive officers, as well as provincial premiers, endorsed our call for major improvements to the EI system. Since 1999, since I've been the president of this congress, every political party in Ottawa has supported that call at some point in time or another, depending on where you sat in the House, I might add.
The minister says in her statements that she doesn't want to pay employment insurance benefits to workers to just sit around. This is an insult to many workers. More than a quarter of a million people in the last three months have lost their jobs. They're looking for work. They're not sitting around. There's nothing out there for them.
We want to tell you that we support the budget provisions, as well, and there have been some improvements, including allowing extra weeks, and we applaud that, of course.
We support the provisions to freeze EI premiums up to 2010 on top of the 2009 freeze. We think that will help stabilize the economy. However, the huge EI surplus of $54 billion accumulated should have been used and taken into account to improve those benefits.
I also want to point out that in this budget bill there is a provision to make accommodations to retroactively legalize the premiums that were illegally collected in this country in 2002, 2003, and 2005. They were declared illegal by the Supreme Court of this country. We think this does nothing to rectify the fact that governments collected premiums vastly in excess of much-reduced benefits over the years and put that money into general accounts and spent it. We'd like to see immediate repair to this system, and we think the people who have paid those premiums are entitled to the insurance they deserve.