Good afternoon, and thank you for the opportunity to appear before the committee today to discuss and share some concerns around the bill.
My name is Steven Schumann. I am the government affairs director for the International Union of Operating Engineers, or IUOE, for short. We are a progressive and diversified trade union. We represent workers in a wide variety of occupational categories. Our members help to build Canada's infrastructure, and they are involved in the production of Canada's resources and the delivery of critical health care and community services. We have been in existence since 1896.
Currently in Canada we have over 45,000 members, with representation in every province and territory through our 20 locals. We also have eight state-of-the-art training centres that develop and deliver heavy equipment operator training and a wide range of construction safety courses catering to the present and future needs of the construction industry. Many of our training centres deliver the provincial training programs for our trades.
Construction workers represent the largest share of our membership, around 30,000 members. They operate tower and mobile cranes. They operate heavy machinery, like bulldozers, graders, and backhoes. They are the mechanics and surveyors who work on the construction sites. They are the first to a job site and the last to leave. They work for commercial construction companies and civil and industrial contractors. They build roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, pipelines, and oil refineries, just to name a few. Our members shape the infrastructure and the skylines of Canada.
We strongly believe it is important to work with our employers, other building trade unions, and all levels of government to ensure Canadians are provided with the best opportunities to work and provide for their families.
Since this legislation will provide additional benefits to many Canadians, including some of our members, we support Bill C-50 even though we have questions around the fairness of this legislation. More importantly, we believe there has been a missed opportunity to make real changes. The time spent on this legislation could have been spent overhauling and modernizing the system in a more global context rather than a singular approach.
Unfortunately, we believe this legislation shows there is a continued lack of understanding towards the construction sector. This government, like previous governments, believes that all sectors of our economy can be dealt with in a one-size-fits-all approach. This has been seen with other initiatives, like the agreement on internal trade that overlooked the construction sector in many ways. This singular approach does not work and it must stop, to ensure that Canada's construction sector can survive with the skilled people we require to get the jobs down.
While many workers in various sectors of our economy will be able to apply for these benefits, only a limited number of our members will meet the criteria of collecting less than 36 weeks of benefits in the past five years. The construction sector is a very unique industry; it is cyclical in nature, and activity often differs substantially from region to region. The industry ebbs and flows in cycles corresponding to the level of investment and the strength of the economy. These investments come from both the private sector and through public investment at all three levels of government.
The construction industry also often stays active at the beginning of a downturn in the economy as ongoing work continues to completion. In turn it lags behind recovery, as planning and preparation do not take place until investment is in place. This can be seen right now. There are many areas of the country that have stayed fairly busy through the early parts of 2009, but we forecast in 2010 and beyond that there may be a serious shortage of work in many of the same regions that are busy now. Construction jobs themselves are very unique. Every one of these jobs has an end date. It may be a week, a month, a year, but that job will end when the project ends.
These are not typical nine-to-five jobs. Our members work tirelessly. They work lots of overtime to ensure a job gets done and that it gets done on time. They also face many shortages of work. When the jobs end, our members go off to find new jobs. On a regular basis they will travel to a different part of the city or province they live in, or in some cases a different part of the country. This can create challenges for our workers. They are forced to relocate at their own cost, usually for short-term opportunities. This can leave them with a heavy financial burden, to say nothing of the impacts on their families.
Sometimes our members may find work right away, or it may take a few days, a week, or even six months or more; it all depends on the various factors that are well beyond their control. As a result, many of our members are forced to make several claims a year for EI benefits. This is the nature of the construction industry; this is what makes us so very different from other sectors of the economy.
Simply put, Bill C-50 does not take into account these variations of our work hours and work schedules; thus, many of our members are excluded from applying for these benefits. We estimate that several thousand of our members will be unable to apply. For example, in Quebec we believe that 80% of our local's membership, around 1,000 members, will not be able to access it; in B.C. it is around 20%, which is about 2,000 members; and in Ontario we are expecting the same numbers, if not higher.
These are members who have been working for 10, 15, 20 years and have been contributing fully to the employment insurance plan. They are now going to be treated differently from other Canadians because they don't have an opportunity to access these benefits.
Another concern we have, which Mr. Blakely will focus more on in his presentation, is the need for clarification around the impact this legislation will have on apprentices. Apprentices are essential, and they're the lifeline and future for our industry in particular. We need legislation that promotes and encourages apprentices to continue their schooling and training. If they are forced to leave their program and find another job, they're not coming back to construction to be an apprentice; we'll lose them forever.
We are already facing a significant skills shortage, and we need legislation to positively address this problem, not make it worse. We believe that Bill C-50 could have the unintended consequences of making this situation much worse by forcing people out of apprenticeship programs because they can't seek these benefits and they need to look for more work. As I said, Mr. Blakely will focus a bit more on that.
We also believe that more has to be done, sooner rather than later. We cannot just pass this legislation and forget about doing more reforms. We believe there are several small but significant measures that need to be done, not only to make employment insurance fair for everyone, but also to encourage people to seek other employment rather than collect EI and to address the skills shortage issue.
Some of these measures would include creating one national EI standard that makes sense and that is fair for all regions; enhancing the work share program, because many of our members on the stationary side really do support that; more support for training and re-training to address some of the impending skills shortage; providing a tax credit or income deductibility to employees in the construction sector who want to travel across the country to work; and monetary incentives for employers to maintain and hire more apprentices.
We believe that by taking these measures you will ensure Canada can better respond to the needs of a post-recession economy and we will have the skills and workers available to fill the jobs that become available.
We are more than willing to participate in broader consultations with the government and all parties to develop viable solutions that benefit not only the construction sector but all sectors of the economy.
Thank you for your time, and I look forward to your questions.