Evidence of meeting #50 for Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities in the 40th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was c-50.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Pierre Céré  Spokeperson, Conseil national des chômeurs et chômeuses
Pierre Laliberté  Political Advisor, Manufacturing Sector, Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec
Jean-Claude Rocheleau  Rank and File Board Member, Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada
Brent Reid  Rank and File Board Member, Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada
Corinne Pohlmann  Vice-President, National Affairs, Canadian Federation of Independent Business
Andrew Casey  Vice-President, Public Relations and International Trade, Forest Products Association of Canada
Armine Yalnizyan  Senior Economist, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
Dan Kelly  Senior Vice-President, Legislative Affairs, Canadian Federation of Independent Business

3:40 p.m.


The Chair Conservative Dean Allison

I call the meeting to order, pursuant to the order of reference of Tuesday, September 29, 2009, Bill C-50, an act to amend the Employment Insurance Act and to increase benefits.

We are going to get started. It's televised today.

I have just a couple of housekeeping notes for those of you who haven't been before a committee before. When we identify you, the microphone will turn on. We're going to start over on my left-hand side, and we're going to move all the way around to my right. You have seven minutes each. I'll just sort of wave at you when you're getting close to your seven minutes so we can get to some questions and answers. We're going to have a first round of seven minutes each by all parties, and then we're going to go into a second round of five minutes, which will be back and forth among all parties.

I'll recognize you in a second, Mr. Lessard.

There is some additional committee business that we need to deal with. My suggestion is I'm going to set some time aside to deal with that so we could talk about another meeting.

I'm going to turn the floor over to you, Mr. Lessard. I have a feeling you probably want to talk about another meeting. Go ahead, sir.

3:40 p.m.


Yves Lessard Bloc Chambly—Borduas, QC

That is correct, Mr. Chair. Given that we have a vote at the end of this session and that we know how pressed for time we are, especially since we have six groups to hear from today, I think we should let them have the whole two-hour period.

We have agreed to add a session so that we can hear from important witnesses that we have not yet had the opportunity to invite, specifically, the CWA of Canada, the Québec Forest Industry Council, and the Confédération des syndicats nationaux.

Our suggestion—and we could make the decision right now—is to agree to hear those witnesses at this Thursday's meeting and to do the clause-by-clause study of the bill next Tuesday so that we complete our work on it and make our recommendation to the House.

3:40 p.m.


The Chair Conservative Dean Allison

What I'm going to suggest is I'm going to set 15 minutes aside at the end to discuss that very issue. I know there have been some conversations. Are we okay with this?

3:40 p.m.


Ed Komarnicki Conservative Souris—Moose Mountain, SK

Mr. Chair, we had just a quick discussion among us and the idea was that there would be one additional meeting of witnesses on Thursday and a clause-by-clause on Tuesday, with the understanding there would be no further delay so the bill can get to the House expeditiously.

3:40 p.m.


The Chair Conservative Dean Allison

Do I have consent?

3:40 p.m.

Some hon. members


3:40 p.m.


The Chair Conservative Dean Allison

You guys work well together. That's perfect. Thank you very much.

Mr. Martin did want to talk about future business. I'm going to suggest that we set a subcommittee meeting for tomorrow, Wednesday, Madame Folco, if that's okay, to talk about future business. I was thinking the same time tomorrow afternoon, 3:30. I'll put that out there. Let's talk about it the last five minutes of the meeting today. I don't want to cut into any more time.

I'm going to start with Pierre Céré. You have seven minutes, sir. We'll give you the floor to start, and then we'll continue around the room. Thank you for being here today, and the floor is yours, sir.

3:40 p.m.

Pierre Céré Spokeperson, Conseil national des chômeurs et chômeuses

Thank you, Mr. Chair. I thought I had 10 minutes. That is what they told us in the documents, but fine.

First of all, on behalf of our organization, the Conseil national des chômeurs et chômeuses, I would like to thank you and the members of the Standing Committee on Human Resources for this invitation to discuss Bill C-50, which would extend the duration of employment insurance benefits.

But, regrettably, we must disagree with this bill, strongly disagree.

First, we disagree with the approach. The government has in fact chosen to use legislation to play a political trick on the opposition when, on September 14, it could have simply announced a pilot project. The government obviously opted for a game of political chess, using the victims of the recession as pawns.

We oppose this bill because it creates two categories of unemployed persons: the good ones who have hardly drawn any benefits in recent years and the bad ones who have drawn on employment insurance in the last five years.

We disagree with and are very skeptical of the department's figures: $1 billion and 190,000 unemployed persons to be helped by the bill.

And finally, Mr. Chair, we disagree because this bill further complicates an already complicated piece of legislation by creating all kinds of exceptions and applications.

For 20 years or so, successive governments in Ottawa have worked to make employment insurance a many-headed beast, a complex act with multiple exceptions and special measures. With Bill C-50, the current government is adding further complications. It is replacing subsection 12(2) of the act, which is about six or eight lines long, with over three pages of all kinds of exceptions. So subsection 12(2) becomes 12(2.1), 12(2.2), 12(2.3) and 12(2.4), creating a distinction as to when employment insurance benefits are claimed—four different periods—and setting out up to six possible types of extensions depending on the number of years of premiums paid. The 20-week extension would be granted only to those who applied before June 5, 2010, and who paid, and I quote from the bill, “at least 30% of the maximum annual employee's premium in at least 12 of the 15 years before the beginning of the claimant's benefit period.” All other claimants, Mr. Chair, would receive less, often only five weeks. Most importantly, workers who have received more than 35 weeks of benefits in the last five years would be excluded. That, of course, means all workers in unstable situations, all seasonal, part-time and casual workers, all workers affected by economic slowdowns and those laid off, even for short periods, in recent years. Therefore, whole areas of our economy are excluded: the lumber industry, the construction industry and a large part of the manufacturing industry, to name only a few. The measure also excludes all workers with less labour market seniority.

As a result, some unemployed persons will receive a few additional weeks of benefits while others will not be entitled to receive them, even if they are from the same workplace, the same factory, and live in the same town, if not the same neighbourhood.

It is all too clear to us as well that the department's figures do not stand up, if only because the $1 billion announced is necessarily based on a calculation of the average benefits, of $348 per week, for 190,000 unemployed persons. That simple calculation, taking $1 billion and dividing it by 190,000, translates to an average extension of 15 weeks. Let me ask the following question, Mr. Chair: is the bill designed to grant that average extension? Of course not. And if there truly was the political will to grant a 15-week extension, why did the government not proceed accordingly, with a simple, clear and direct bill that is much less complicated than the one before us now?

Similarly, will there really be 190,000 long-term unemployed persons who can benefit from this measure? We seriously doubt it, Mr. Chair, based on two facts: first, just 27.9% of employment insurance recipients exhaust their benefits.

I still have two minutes, right?

Second, the bill excludes all those who have drawn benefits for more than 35 weeks in the last five years. That excludes a whole bunch of people. We think it is wrong to claim that Bill C-50 will provide $1 billion to 190,000 persons. We believe that older workers deserve more than these few weeks of additional discriminatory benefits and that they deserve a real assistance program for older workers, such as POWA.

In our opinion, the problems with the employment insurance system have not been addressed at all, including the pressing problem of eligibility. At the end of July this past summer, the 10 premiers of the 10 provinces called on the Prime Minister to resolve this problem. Most Quebec municipalities signed a declaration demanding that the eligibility question be solved at the federal level. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities, as well as many economists and observers, associations and unions, even the church, have all called on the government to resolve the eligibility problem.

In the present case, it is not up to us to vote on this bill, to defeat it or to pass it. However, we respectfully maintain that, in its current form, Bill C-50 is unacceptable. It is discriminatory. It does not represent the type of constructive and structural solutions that are expected to repair the employment insurance program. We believe, perhaps naïvely, that policy must provide solutions to problems and our highest legislative officials must be able to work together.

Can the Standing Committee on Human Resources make use of its voice and legislative powers to raise the issues pertaining to employment insurance and put them forth to the Canadian Parliament and before the Canadian people? We believe so. That is why we are here today, and that is our continued hope.

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

3:45 p.m.


The Chair Conservative Dean Allison

Thank you, Mr. Céré.

We're now going to move to Mr. Laliberté. Sir, you have seven minutes.

3:45 p.m.

Pierre Laliberté Political Advisor, Manufacturing Sector, Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec

Good afternoon and thank you.

It is my pleasure to testify today on behalf of the FTQ. For those who are unaware, the FTQ represents 500,000 workers in Quebec, of whom two thirds come from the private sector. In Quebec, the private sector has been in recession since 2003. The official recession began in 2008, but we have been experiencing its effects for several years. As you will see, that has repercussions on us and on our opinion of Bill C-50.

As to the content of the bill, two main impressions arise. I echo the remarks of my colleague, Mr. Pierre Céré. Two things strike us: first, the inadequacy of the measures proposed to solve the problems we are facing, and second, the arbitrary, even discriminatory and certainly bureaucratic nature of what is proposed. Allow me to give you more details.

For several years, we have stressed the fact that the employment insurance program is no longer fulfilling its role as a safety net. In the 1990s, there were reforms that amounted to overkill, if I may use the expression. They went too far. That left, and continues to leave, whole sectors of our workforce, men and women alike, without life jackets.

The most vulnerable on the labour market, in fact, are precisely those without life jackets. As the recession began, our employment insurance system was one of the least generous in the OECD. As the recession loomed, we even said that we were in favour of temporary, but generous, measures intended to curb it. What we have are temporary, but not at all convincing, measures that are going to leave a lot of people in difficulty.

I will not use the word “scandal”, but, to be polite, let us just say that it seems to us like an anomaly. Extending the period of employment in insurance benefits is the macroeconomic measure that will have the most impact. No other measure comes close. Every economist studying multiplier effects will tell you that. So we thought we had a right to expect a program with some muscle. We are still waiting.

The OECD has given us its most recent forecasts. As in every recession, the unemployment rate is expected to remain quite high for one, two, perhaps even three years after the recession is officially over—as happened through the 1990s. For us, this is a source of concern.

In our view, any reform should have had, and still should have, a single eligibility level of 360 hours. We know what impact that would have; it has been measured. You have heard the testimony. It would cost about $1.2 billion for 165,000 unemployed. In the circumstances, we think that this is what should be done.

Now let us talk about these measures. I will not go into detail because I feel that Mr. Céré has described our problem well. One of the provisions that causes us a great deal of difficulty is the one that will put people into either the deserving or the undeserving camp. Being laid off is not some sin that requires penance. It is the result of an economic condition. In our view, the government is on the wrong track and is going to cause a lot of frustration as a result. Be warned: people who feel that they have a right to benefits and do not get them are going to be telephoning you. We guarantee it. I work in the union movement and I can tell you that when our members expect something that they do not get, they let us know about it. I am telling you to look out.

For several years, manufacturing job losses in Quebec have been substantial. The figure 125,000 is mentioned, not counting temporary layoffs. Naturally, the temporary layoffs affect eligibility for the program that you are now cooking up. That worries us. We would like better figures. Everyone would. But we do not have them. We are puzzled, especially when we hear the figure of potentially 190,000 people receiving benefits.

We also have other questions. We were always told that it would be difficult to get Revenue Canada and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada together but now it seems to have become doable. That system already poses administration problems and you are going to increase them tenfold. You must not underestimate what this could mean.

There are other problems. If you really resort to legislative means and if this process is of some use, we would like you to consider our proposals as amendments and to duly process them. If that is not the case, we wonder why you did not choose to use pilot projects which would be much less awkward and would allow you to help people tomorrow morning.

I will conclude with that. If you have questions, I would be happy to answer them. Thank you.

3:50 p.m.


The Chair Conservative Dean Allison

Thank you, Mr. Laliberté.

We're now going to move to Mr. Reid and Mr. Rocheleau.

3:50 p.m.

Jean-Claude Rocheleau Rank and File Board Member, Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada

Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee.

My name is Jean-Claude Rocheleau and I am President of Union Local 121 of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada at the Shell refinery in Montreal. For reasons of transparency, I also wish to mention that I am currently the New Democrat candidate in the Hochelaga by-election. I am accompanied by Brent Reid, Vice-President of Local 630 of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union at the Catalyst Paper pulp and paper mill in Campbell River, British Columbia. I would like to thank the committee for inviting us.

First let me state that our organization supports Bill C-50 as a measure that will provide help to tens of thousands of Canadians who have been hit with full force by the current economic crisis. To give you a sense of this urgency, the current terms of the bill would likely exclude 1,100 workers at the AbitibiBowater mill in Grand Falls-Windsor, if not implemented by the end of November.

We have been informed that an amendment will be presented to maintain a January 4 starting date and we encourage you to adopt it. Despite our support for adopting this bill as quickly as possible, let us be clear and state that Bill C-50 must not be confused with the real reform that employment insurance needs at this point. It is merely a stop gap that is simply better than the status quo.

There are three points that should be mentioned in connection with this bill. About 190,000 workers will be eligible and will qualify for extended EI benefits in the next two years. This extension which varies from 5 to 20 weeks of benefits will allow workers to extend their benefit period. That is the only reason why CEP is supporting this bill. Some workers will be helped more than others, but it is still better than the status quo and it is a step in the right direction toward necessary change.

As a negotiator, in my everyday life, I believe in the step-by-step approach. I believe in taking what is on the table and continuing to work in order to improve the system. Moreover, the workers I represent at the Montreal refinery may, in the near future, be affected by the closing of the refinery, because the government is allowing the oil to go south to the United States, which is causing our refineries to close and could lead to the layoff of a lot of our members. This situation is also affecting several employees in the Montreal region who are currently laid off because of the economic context. This measure will thus come to the assistance of certain workers who need this help and need to hope that other changes will occur.

I will now yield the floor to my brother.

3:55 p.m.

Brent Reid Rank and File Board Member, Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada

So then there is a bad side, concerns around the many workers that this bill misses--for one, 500 Canwest workers laid off in November, and the others before them.

Bill C-50 in its current form.... There are some situations that arise. At Catalyst Paper in Campbell River, there's a three-phase closure: the sawmill in the spring, the pulp mill in November, and the paper mill probably this February. These people all work together. This bill will cover fewer than half of them. That's a concern for the people I represent and the community I live in.

The other concern is that the people who are best protected, with the most severance, with those kinds of contractual obligations behind them, will get the most benefit. The people with the least amount have the least protection; they'll run out of time and won't be able to push past. If you're shut down in November and you don't have enough severance to take you through until January 4, you'll be excluded. All of the people in the sawmill in the spring will be excluded.

The conditions set out to claim the extended benefit are way too numerous, again pushing employees that are at the most risk of production curtailments outside the scope.

Thank you.

October 20th, 2009 / 4 p.m.

Rank and File Board Member, Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada

Jean-Claude Rocheleau

There is also an ugly side to this bill. This is obviously not a reform and any attempt to portrait it as such should be strongly rebutted. A real reform would have included the 1.4 million unemployed workers who have been left by the wayside. We seem to have lost sight of the fact that employment insurance is insurance. That is why it was created to protect workers who need it when they lose their jobs.

Over the years, the system has been tinkered with to make it more difficult to access, especially by seasonal workers and by people dismissed with cause or who decided to leave. The main rationale was that in times of lower unemployment, there are many jobs for the taking and EI benefits are not warranted in these cases. But that is not the case currently in a period of very high unemployment. Workers who have to move do not have the opportunity to do so during the periods when there are more jobs. And so they really need help. We have to extend the benefit period to allow people to get through the crisis, get back on their feet and hope to be able to find another job in the relatively near future.

What Bill C-50 does is give some hope to one in nine workers currently drawing EI benefits and buy them some time to get back on their feet or to see their plant, their mill or their companies restart their activities.

That is why we, along with the CEP, support Bill C-50 and ask that it be adopted as quickly as possible. We certainly hope that this will be a mere first step towards the real reform that the EI system badly needs so as to be able to help the millions of workers who really need this.

Thank you.

4 p.m.


The Chair Conservative Dean Allison

Thank you, Mr. Rocheleau, and thank you, Mr. Reid.

We're now going to move to Mr. Kelly and Ms. Pohlmann. The floor is yours for seven minutes, please.

4 p.m.

Corinne Pohlmann Vice-President, National Affairs, Canadian Federation of Independent Business

Thank you, and thank you for the opportunity to present the perspective of small business on EI and Bill C-50.

First, I'll tell you a little bit about CFIB. We represent more than 105,000 independently owned and operated businesses across Canada, all of which are small and medium-sized companies. They collectively employ 1.25 million Canadians, and they account for $75 billion in GDP. Our members come from every region of the country, and every sector of the economy.

Most people do not realize how big small business has become in Canada. In this country, 98% of all businesses have fewer than 50 employees. They employ about 55% of Canadians and represent 45% of Canada's GDP. They have also been responsible for the bulk of net new jobs in our economy, and this is especially true during more difficult economic periods.

Speaking of more difficult economic periods, the last year has not been easy for many, and small businesses are no exception. CFIB produces a monthly business barometer that tracks our members' business expectations along with a number of other economic factors. Our most recent index, which was released on October 7, shows that our SMEs' outlook dipped quite dramatically during the latter part of last year and earlier this year, but it has been picking up since April. This upward trend has continued into September, leading us to suggest that the economy is making its first tentative steps towards recovery.

The good news is that the level of optimism is up right across the country. For the first time in many years, it's our members in Ontario who are leading the country on this measure. The manufacturing sector is also one of the most optimistic sectors, leading us to believe that those manufacturers that have been able to adjust and survive the downturn of the last few years are starting to come out the other end with renewed hope and optimism.

While optimism is growing, however, hiring plans remain on hold: 16% plan to increase full-time employment, and 13% plan to decrease it. These results are not unusual during times of economic recovery, as employment plans tend to lag behind economic growth. As employment growth is essential to the recovery of the real economy, we must be very cautious of decisions that may end up deterring job creation. We are concerned that some of the decisions being made with respect to EI may end up doing just that.

I'd like to give you a quick glimpse of a report on small business perspectives on EI. You have a copy of that report; it's called “Ensuring Prosperity”. It goes into quite a bit of detail about a variety of issues related to EI. I'm just going to focus on a couple that are relevant to this discussion.

First, CFIB research found that the smaller the firm the less likely it is to lay people off. So while small business employers may not yet be starting to hire in great numbers coming out of a recession, they are more likely to have held onto their people longer. This is the reason that throughout this recession we've not seen a large increase in the percentage of small firms planning to decrease employment. Other research has shown that employment at larger companies has dropped by 10% in the first half of this year but was virtually unchanged among smaller firms. In fact, we know of employers who have forgone their own income to ensure that their employees continue to get paid during these more difficult economic times. What small business provides to employees is stability and personal relationships, which is often not the case at larger firms.

Secondly, it was clear from the survey results that small business owners support the fundamental principle of EI—to provide short-term financial assistance to workers between jobs. For the most part, they were relatively satisfied with the regular benefit side of the program. For example, when asked how the system could be modified to meet the needs of their business, the largest group would rather see no changes to the current benefit levels or current qualifying periods. In fact, the majority want no change or less generous benefit levels or qualifying periods. Instead of making changes to the benefit side of the system, CFIB strongly believes that the most effective way to assist long-tenured workers is to help them get trained and back to work as soon as possible.

Another report we did last May, which was entitled “Canada's Training Ground: SMEs' $18-Billion Investment in the Nation's Work Force”, found that when you calculate the costs associated with formal and informal training, smaller companies actually invest more in training per employee than larger companies. Moreover, oganizations such as the OECD have found that the most effective means of helping people get back to work is to provide on-the-job training incentives. We believe that providing an EI training credit to small employers would be a much better investment of EI training dollars and would likely help to create job and training opportunities for many long-tenured workers.

Our biggest concern with this bill, and with the EI system overall, is the additional costs that are being added to the EI program, which will result in sky-rocketing EI premium rates just as we're coming out of recession.

First, small businesses themselves have identified payroll taxes as having the biggest effect on the growth of their businesses. When you increase the cost of payroll taxes, such as EI, you discourage hiring, and fewer jobs are created.

What kinds of increases are we talking about? The current EI rate freeze, which is in effect until the end of 2010, has been a very welcome policy, as it has allowed many business owners to hold on to their people. Most analysts, CFIB included, do not expect the unemployment rate to fall to 6.5% by 2011, which is the rate at which the EI premium rate freeze was set. So the rate will have to go up in 2011 to compensate for whatever the difference in unemployment rates will be at that time.

However, it has become clear that the government also plans to charge back the two-year EI rate freeze to the EI account, which would require the new Canada Employment Insurance Financing Board, the CEIFB, to pay the government back an additional $10 billion to $13 billion, with interest. The only way it can do that is by increasing EI premiums. As they are limited to an annual increase of 15¢ for employees and 21¢ for employers, we foresee maximum premium rate increases for both employers and employees for many years to come. By passing Bill C-50, yet another $935 million will be added to the total amount the CEIFB will be expected to pay back through premium increases for several years to come.

Turning to the next slide, you'll see what this might mean for an employer or an employee. Taking the most pessimistic scenario, which is also the most likely scenario, given what we currently know, we expect that between 2011 and 2015, EI premiums will increase by 65%. This will ultimately discourage job creation at the worst time, as the economy will be just starting to emerge from its employment slump. Ironically, the $935 million to help long-tenured workers get additional benefits may end up contributing to making their job prospects worse as employers watch the costs of hiring go up and the take-home pay of their employees go down.

What makes this whole scenario even more frustrating is that there was a $57 billion surplus accumulated in the EI account from 1994-2008, as shown on the next slide. We would have no objection to government requiring the CEIFB to pay for the additional EI costs as a result of the current recession if they would repay the $57 billion surplus first. Instead, the new CEIFB was provided $2 billion as an initial reserve, which, given the scenario I have just described, will be easily wiped out in the first year. We strongly believe that the federal government has a moral obligation to pay back the surplus accumulated from employers and employees by absorbing additional costs and by maintaining a premium rate freeze until the $57 billion has been paid back.

In conclusion, we believe that no real discussion about Bill C-50 can take place without your understanding and dealing with the much broader fiscal issues related to EI. We suggest that the EI premium rate freeze be maintained beyond 2010 to ensure that future job creation is not harmed by payroll tax increases. We also suggest that the CEIFB be properly funded to withstand recessions and additional costs by having the $57 billion surplus repaid over time.

With its target of assisting long-tenured workers, Bill C-50 is more acceptable than other measures that have been suggested to enhance EI benefits. However, we remain very concerned that these kinds of selective measures are unlikely to result in the successful restructuring of the program. They will likely just harm the overall financial balance of the system.

Finally, we encourage the government to think about creating an EI training credit that encourages hiring and workplace training as an alternative means of assisting long-tenured workers and others on EI so that they can get effective training and have better access to the new jobs that are being created.

Thank you.

4:10 p.m.


The Chair Conservative Dean Allison

Thank you, Ms. Pohlmann and Mr. Kelly.

We're going to move over to Mr. Casey now. You have seven minutes, sir.

4:10 p.m.

Andrew Casey Vice-President, Public Relations and International Trade, Forest Products Association of Canada

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Thank you, committee, for this invitation today to appear before your committee to contribute to your discussions on Bill C-50.

By way of brief introduction, I am here on behalf of the members of the Forest Products Association of Canada. We're the national trade association that represents the majority of production of Canada's forest products, including lumber, pulp, and paper.

The industry, more broadly, represents about 11% of Canada's manufacturing GDP. We employ 273,000 workers directly across this country and another 500,000 or so indirectly. That comes to about 700,000 people.

We are the mainstay of about 300 communities from coast to coast, in every region of this country.

I am certain that the members of the committee know that the Canadian forest industry is currently undergoing a major crisis. I am sure that the members have had the opportunity to note that when we talk about job losses, we are not only talking about people who lose their jobs, but also about the destruction of communities. The topic of interest to us is not only the loss of jobs but the social integrity of rural Canada.

Even though the devastation, heartbreak, and social disintegration we're experiencing is cause for deep concern—and I think yesterday's debate in the House of Commons serves as a good example of the level of passion on all sides of the House about this issue—I would like to at least put on record today that we foresee strong markets coming back for the industry in the not-so-distant future.

We have traditional markets that are going to come back and also new and emerging markets for the industry, and we're prepared to take advantage of those markets when they do come back into play. Until that time, we obviously have a number of challenges ahead of us. First, we have to survive until those markets come back. Secondly, we have to be as competitive as possible, so that when the markets do come back, we are going to be able to compete. When those markets come back, we're going to be looking at competition that's fiercer and stronger than it ever was before.

The good news is that Canadian industry hasn't been alone in being hit by this recession. Our competitors have been hit too. Whether it's Brazil, Russia, or Europe, each and every one of them has been facing their own set of challenges that has put them at the same playing level as Canadian industry is at right now.

I am certain that you are wondering what the government can do. We know what we in the industry must do and we do it. But what can the government do?

We know what we have to do as an industry and we're doing it, but what can government do? One thing is for certain: government cannot bring markets back up to the levels where they need to be for us. That's the first thing that has to happen for this industry: People have to start buying lumber and people have to start buying paper again. The government cannot do that for the industry. That's the biggest thing that's facing the industry right now. As I said earlier, those markets will come back.

However, there is a fundamental role that government can play right now—that is, establishing the policy conditions here domestically that will enhance our competitiveness, not only now but also when those markets come back. There are certainly a number of things at the government's disposal, such as tax policy, providing for a competitive rail system, and investing in the green energy and bioeconomy right now, that it should be pursuing immediately, and that will set us up, not only this industry but the country more broadly.

Our markets will rebound. We know that the U.S. is going to start building houses again. We know that the markets in China and India are going to come back. We're already the leading exporter into the Chinese market. We're the third-largest Canadian exporter into the Indian market. We're well positioned and we look forward to taking advantage of those marketplaces again, once they come back.

In the short term, there are certainly some key challenges. I think one of the main things we're certainly worried about right now, in this current economic recession, is the loss of employees. Forestry jobs are highly skilled jobs. We cannot simply replace those employees with anybody just off the street. Our big concern right now is that, in a time like this, people go and look for jobs elsewhere. The changes that are incorporated in Bill C-50 and other changes to the EI program that came out of the budget of 2009 go a long way towards helping the industry retain its employees. This particular bill is one measure, but also the work-sharing program changes that were brought in through the budget are enormously helpful.

With the committee's indulgence, I would like to draw the committee's attention to one tiny change, or at least an area of interest, that we hope the committee will find the opportunity to look into a bit further, going down the road, on the work-sharing side of things.

Prior to the work-sharing program announcements, a number of companies were already taking advantage of the program. Those members received the top-up to their existing agreement and immediately qualified for a new 52-week agreement at the conclusion of their existing agreements, without a cooling-off period. Other companies that were relatively healthy at the turn of 2008 and were not in the program started their clock when the program began. Their benefits will conclude at the end of their 52 weeks. They will be subject to a 26-week cooling-off period. Right now, we don't see the markets returning for another year or so. A lot of those companies are going to be facing a 26-week waiting period to get back into the work-sharing program. We'd like to see the government take a long, hard look at that to see if there's a way that we can eliminate the 26-week waiting period. Ultimately, we think this will be of benefit to the government as it will be less costly at the end of the day.

Ultimately, as grateful as the industry is for these programs, like most insurance policies, we would prefer that our employees not have to avail themselves of the program. We would much rather keep the mills running and keep the employees gainfully employed in the towns in which they were raised or those communities that they have grown to be members of over time. Focusing on providing the industry with a competitive domestic policy framework should continue to be a strong objective for governments at all levels.

Again, on behalf of the Forest Products Association of Canada and our members, I thank the committee for its time and I look forward to answering any questions you may have.

4:15 p.m.


The Chair Conservative Dean Allison

Thank you, Mr. Casey.

We're now going to go to Ms. Yalnizyan. The floor is yours for seven minutes.

4:15 p.m.

Armine Yalnizyan Senior Economist, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives is Canada's leading progressive think tank, supported by more than 10,000 individual and institutional members across the country, with offices in Ottawa, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Regina, and Halifax.

Thank you very much for inviting our views on Bill C-50.

No recession since the Second World War has destroyed as many jobs in the opening months of a downturn. The government was very quick to react with supports for the financial sector, but improvements to EI have been long overdue and woefully inadequate. This despite a clear action plan for EI reform tabled by this very committee on February 15, 2005, and later, in 2007, all-party agreement on two readings of Bill C-269, before the government of the day, this government, then decided to deny royal recommendation in November of 2007. So, long before the meltdown of global financial capital began last fall, we knew our system of unemployment insurance was not recession-ready.

Between October 2008 and last month, the labour market shed 483,000 full-time job opportunities. More than 1.5 million Canadians today are actively looking for paid work. More than half of them do not receive EI. That means three-quarters of a million Canadians are left twisting in the wind. Canadians have not been this exposed to the economic risks of joblessness since the 1940s, when we first put unemployment insurance into place.

Now, I’m not telling you anything new that you don’t know. I’m not telling you anything radical. For years, your very own committee has noted the need to improve access to the system by reducing and making more uniform the eligibility criteria based on hours; to improve the duration of benefits, which were precipitously cut back in the reforms of the early 1990s; and to improve the rate of income replacement, which is particularly disastrous for low-income workers.

Bill C-50 was this government’s response to these concerns. It limits itself solely to the issue of duration, and further limits the extension of benefits to a small subgroup of the unemployed. HRSDC gave testimony to the Senate Standing Committee on National Finance just a couple of weeks ago and stated that a third of those displaced since January 2009 could benefit from this legislation. That means two-thirds of those who have been displaced since January 2009 and who have exhausted their benefits—the majority of Canadians who are in that position—will not receive any help. Bill C-50 also ignores all of those who lost their jobs, who were the shock troops of the opening months of the recession.

So how many people are we talking about? Monthly unemployment figures by Statistics Canada showed that unemployment swelled by at least 200,000 people last fall and a further 300,000 people since January. Improvements to EI, need I say, are critical. Canada cannot have a full recovery if workers face rollbacks in wages, benefits, and pension provisions and the unemployed also cannot find new jobs at roughly comparable wages. Aggregate demand will just continue to fall.

The United States are 22 long months into recession, with no clear end in sight. We will have to wait an awfully long time to ride on their coattails. So diminishing purchasing power of Canadians is an issue this government, this committee, needs to deal with, because this is a very fragile recovery and this issue can no longer be ignored.

I will limit myself to comments about Bill C-50, though we understand that it only deals with one aspect of the improvements we are all seeking to the unemployment insurance system. Bill C-50 can be made more effective with three simple modifications that address three questions. When should the clock start ticking? Who should get help? How much help should they get?

First, the effective date for Bill C-50 should be changed to start at January 4, 2008, rather than January 4, 2009. Some may ask why reach so far back. It's simply because January 4, 2008, is exactly what the government's thinking was in Bill C-10, passed not very long ago, which included measures to extend benefits by five weeks for all those who had exhausted their benefits. Moving the trigger date to January 4, 2008, would extend the benefits provided in Bill C-50 to the same group as Bill C-10: everyone affected by the recession.

Second, Bill C-50 should drop the rule that excludes workers who may have been drawing up to 35 weeks of benefits in the last five years. As you have heard, it is nonsense to say that, in these types of economic times, some unemployed are more deserving of help than others.

The majority of people first affected by the downturn were in goods-producing industries. Such industries commonly retool, adjust inventory, experience slowdowns in demand or supply, which all can lead to temporary layoffs and shutdowns periodically. Workers in such industries have zero control over their hours of work. People who have been laid off on a regular basis in the previous five years may find themselves not being recalled at all. These people should not be excluded from what Bill C-50 offers. No such limitation was placed on Bill C-10.

Finally, how much help does Bill C-50 provide? Unlike Bill C-10, which provided an additional five weeks of benefits to all unemployed Canadians who had exhausted their benefits, Bill C-50 proposes this baroque set of eligibility criteria that are extraordinarily difficult to read through. Within the small group of unemployed who are the target of Bill C-50 , the bill further creates six different categories of winners, where the amount of help they'll get is based on how much they have contributed to the system in the past 15 years, up to a maximum of 20 weeks for a select few.

Extension of benefits should be uniform, as in Bill C-10, and Bill C-50 should offer a significant extension for all who need it. Does 20 additional weeks sound overly generous to you? Well, let's compare this to what happened just two weeks ago in the United States. The Associated Press reported: “Congress has added up to 53 extra weeks of benefits on top of the 26 typically provided by the states.“ And the House this week approved legislation that would add a further 13 weeks for high-unemployment states.

Let's be very clear. Without significant extension of benefits, you can be sure that a huge proportion of the cost is going to fall on provincial shoulders. Last summer, British Columbia's Premier Campbell suggested extending benefits to two years, and Saskatchewan's Premier Wall also stressed the need for extended benefits. These are not socialist politicians, but these premiers know very well that they are going to end up picking up the tab for the federal government's unwillingness to act.

Without significant changes to Bill C-50 this government risks being a spectator to what may be the most significant period of asset-stripping of the middle class in generations, exactly what unemployment insurance was designed to prevent.

Recovery or not, Canadians are coping with unbelievable economic stress. Your predecessors from decades ago created a system that improved life for Canadians in good times and bad. I urge you to consider today how you can take on that mantle.

Thank you.

4:25 p.m.


The Chair Conservative Dean Allison

Thank you, Ms. Yalnizyan.

We're going to start with our first round, which will be seven minutes.

I'm going to start with my Liberal colleague, Mr. Savage. The floor is yours, sir.

4:25 p.m.


Michael Savage Liberal Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

Thank you all for taking the time to come out and help us on our study on this bill. It's a difficult bill to deal with. This is a bill that divides Canadians, as a number of you have pointed out, into those who are deserving and hardworking and those who the government seems to think aren't. The minister refers to hardworking Canadians, deserving Canadians, which by implication means that others aren't.

It further complicates, as Monsieur Céré pointed out, the EI system, which isn't simple to begin with. There's nothing here for many long-tenured workers. There's nothing here for people who lost their jobs last fall. They're out of luck. There's nothing for seasonal workers, part-time workers, those who have frequent interruptions in their work. It does help, on the positive side, some long-tenured workers who need help, like everyone else does. But we have a range of opinion here, and I think it's consistent with the other hearings we've had. We have some people who are saying that this is a bad bill and has to be defeated. Others are saying that it's an imperfect bill, but that you have to take what you can get. It's hardly an endorsement. We have other witnesses here today who presented on EI without really putting forward a position on this specific bill.

That's what we are faced with. We're faced with looking at a bill that will help some people but that is discriminatory and seems to ignore the real needs for reform in the EI system. For a number of years we've had private members' bills and opposition day motions that address the EI issue. We all, on the opposition, supported an NDP opposition day motion on EI on March 5, which called for the elimination of the two-week waiting period, a national standard of 360 hours for eligibility, raising the benefits from 55% to 60%, using the best 12 weeks. It talked about training. It talked about the self-employed. It didn't talk about an extension of benefits. It wasn't one of the priorities in March to further extend the benefits. I think we had 11 recommendations from CFIB today, none of which refer to an extension of benefits.

So we have a bill that seems to have the support of those who say that it is better than nothing and they'll take it and keep going, but does anybody really think that we're going to get more from this government on EI? That's the difficult question we have to face.

My question is to any one of you, perhaps starting with Ms. Yalnizyan and working across. Is this the best way we can reform EI? Is this what the system needs more than anything else?

4:25 p.m.

Senior Economist, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

Armine Yalnizyan

I think the answer to that question, Mr. Savage, is if the government would be willing to work with you to improve this piece of legislation to actually help more people, because we are talking about hundreds of thousands of people. The other shoe of the recession may fall, but politically speaking it looks like this bill is going to pass, and the job is not done. The job is far from done.

4:25 p.m.

Vice-President, Public Relations and International Trade, Forest Products Association of Canada

Andrew Casey

I can't speak to the specifics of the bill from a technical standpoint, but certainly when you combine it with some of the other changes to the EI program, like the work-sharing program, those are going to be enormously helpful to our industry and our sector.

Anything that helps keep employees in the towns they are already working in or keeps them at least in the area so they don't move elsewhere is going to help us when we do rebound, as I said earlier on.

4:25 p.m.


Michael Savage Liberal Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

So you think this is the single best improvement we can make to EI right now? This is the only thing we can control right now?