Mr. Chair, members of the committee, thank you for inviting us to speak to you today.
My testimony will be solely about the part of the budget implementation Bill C-38 that deals with employment insurance.
Mr. Chair, I must tell you that we hesitated a little before accepting this invitation because we are very well aware, as is everyone here, that Bill C-38 is going to be passed anyway. But we have a deep belief in democracy, we are democrats. We feel that Quebeckers and Canadians have to know about the issues that underlie the proposed changes to employment insurance, because those changes will have very serious consequences.
Clause 605 on page 372 of this 452-page bill, which affects 60 separate acts, contains four lines that rescind section 27 of the Employment Insurance Act. The entire historical definition of unsuitable employment is removed, a definition that protected workers who found themselves out of work and gave them a reasonable amount of time in which to keep looking for work in their areas of expertise and experience. From now on, unsuitable work becomes suitable. From now on, what was unacceptable becomes acceptable.
Mr. Chair, we knew of course that a new definition would eventually be introduced into the employment insurance regulations, regulations that do not go through Parliament. Last Thursday, Ms. Finley, the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, tabled such a document. We now know more about the spirit in which that definition of suitable and unsuitable work will be couched.
This is a historic stage in the history of employment insurance, a program that has existed since 1940. Three separate classes of the unemployed are now created; they will not have the same rights nor be subject to the same requirements. That is unheard of. Specifically, a new sub-class of the unemployed is being created; they are called frequent claimants and they are no longer entitled to a reasonable search period. They will be required to accept any work at 80% of their previous earnings starting in the first week of unemployment. In the seventh week of unemployment, they will have to take any work paying 70% of their previous earnings.
Who are these frequent claimants? Principally, they are seasonal workers. And where are those seasonal workers, ladies and gentlemen? In eastern Canada. In Quebec, 34% of those receiving employment insurance benefits are seasonal workers. In Atlantic Canada, the percentage in Nova Scotia is 38%, in New Brunswick, it is 46% and in Newfoundland, it is 52%. In Ontario, it is 19%, in British Columbia, it is 14% and in Alberta, it is 9%. In a way, they are declaring war on eastern Canada by penalizing those who live in those regions where a major part of the economic activity comes from seasonal work.
Who are these so-called frequent claimants? Generally speaking, they are people who have no opportunities for a full-time, year-round job. They may be, for example, in the film, cultural, television or advertising industries. They are support workers, like those in school cafeterias. According to the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development's own figures, one-third of the Canadian workforce is in a vulnerable situation. Those are the workers being targeted. They form the newly-created sub-class of unemployed that will be forced to accept unacceptable conditions.
The same bill proposes to abolish the administrative tribunals, meaning the boards of referees and the umpires. My colleague here from the Canadian Labour Congress brought that up as well. I point out in passing that the boards of referees were tripartite—with representation from labour, employers and the government—in order to ensure a measure of balance in the decision-making process. That will all be replaced by a new Social Security Tribunal with only one member. There will be 74 of them for all of Canada, only half of which will be assigned to employment insurance.
I have been mandated to tell you that the current government is in the process of breaking the social contract on which employment insurance was built in 1940, when it was called unemployment insurance. All observers, commentators and columnists, the entire political class in Quebec and the Atlantic provinces, are opposed to these changes.
Let me finish with these words. Mr. Chair, this government is sowing the wind. Those who sow the wind can expect to reap the whirlwind, and the whirlwind is coming.