Madam Speaker, I am pleased today to rise to speak to Bill C-44. This is an important moment, not because of the profusion of measures on the table, but because the Minister of Human Resources Development is in flight.
She did not appear to defend her bill in the House today, she gave the task to a parliamentary secretary. I think this makes it clear what is going on. On the table, we have a bill that, for the first time since the Liberals took office, since they introduced unacceptable reform, and in a number of limited measures, returns some vestige of dignity to the workers facing unemployment. This cannot be called a victory, but it is a significant step. Some of the measures in the bill will have to be implemented as quickly as possible so these workers may be given sufficient income again.
I would remind those watching us today of the whole history of this bill. First, the former government, that is, the one before 1997, toured all of Canada. The present Minister of Foreign Affairs was the Minister of Human Resources Development at the time. People throughout Canada told the government that what was needed was a plan providing people between jobs with a decent income, a plan that was up to date, a plan that was open to self-employed workers, for example, and a plan that did justice to women by allowing them to qualify for maternity leave under decent conditions.
When all was said and done, the Liberal majority acted as though nothing had been said during the tour. The former Minister of Human Resources Development had his orders from the Minister of Finance, which the Prime Minister told us about last week. These orders were the following: “We have a deficit of $42 billion. The ones who are going to pay it down are those who are the least well organized, through a reform that will let me help myself to $7 billion or $8 billion a year, so that I can be sure of eliminating my deficit no matter who is affected”.
One of the things changed was the intensity rule, which the Liberals now want to restore. This is a terrible rule. It amounted to telling workers: “You are economic guinea pigs. If you are seasonal workers, it is because you do not wish to work longer, and we are going to penalize you. Each time you go through 20 weeks of EI, we will reduce your benefits by 1%”.
This rule became law because federal government analysts said that our seasonal workers were deliberately avoiding work and something had to be done.
It took three years of reform. Eight or nine months ago a report came out saying that this was not having that effect. It is too bad, but when the season is over for a seasonal worker, in agriculture, forestry, tourism, the fishery or whatever, there is no longer any work. The worker cannot be transformed into a computer technician. A logger cannot be turned into a computer technician overnight. Sometimes he is very good at what he does but could never be retrained for something else.
It has taken the Liberal government three or four years, and maybe an election in the offing, to understand this, but we must pick up all the pieces so that workers can receive the money they need as soon as possible.
Bloc Quebecois members have worked hard regarding this issue, particularly over the past three and a half years, since the last election. In June 1997, when I found out that I had been elected in my riding, I personally pledged before my constituents to give priority to this issue so that by the end of my mandate we would have made gains.
We worked tenaciously. The Bloc Quebecois invested a lot of energy in that issue and I will give a brief historical overview.
We had, for example, an employment insurance week. For an entire week we heard from witnesses, the people who were confronted with this reality. Women and young seasonal workers told us about the impact of having to work 910 hours to qualify. We listened to these people for a week.
At the time, it was the current Minister for International Trade who was the Minister of Human Resources Development. Whatever the question, his answer was always “Things are going well in Canada. Jobs are being created and this is how we will get through this situation”.
Last week we found out the true reason the government was acting in such a fashion and why we were always given the same prepared answer. It was because the Prime Minister of Canada had told his Minister of Finance “We need money to eliminate the deficit. We must have a zero deficit. You will achieve that result by targeting those who are less organized because, ultimately, it will cost us less in terms of votes. We should be able to make it through if we go that route”.
The government did not put the same energy into settling the family trust issue. The efforts made by the government regarding these two different issues were far from being the same.
The Bloc worked very hard on the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development, particularly the member for Quebec and the member from Lac-Saint-Jean. All members of the Bloc Quebecois from Quebec have put interesting proposals on the table. Six bills have been introduced here in the House to deal with the different types of discrimination. Some members even added other elements.
For example, the member for Quebec has tabled a bill on the requirements to qualify for benefits. We had to make sure that people could qualify. It is all very good to abolish the intensity rule—it will solve a small problem—but if people cannot qualify, what good will that do? No work means no benefits. If people cannot qualify, they cannot get benefits. Not only do we have to settle the intensity rule issue, but we also have to deal with the eligibility criteria.
The member for Beauport—Montmorency—Côte-de-Beaupré—Île-d'Orléans introduced a bill on insurable employment. The government had decided to tighten eligibility requirements. It was trying to turn off all the taps in order to keep all the money it could keep.
On the matter of insurability, the government started to target very small businesses, family-type operations, and to be on the case of people who worked hard, small businesses employing two, three or four people who had been qualifying for unemployment benefits for three, four, five or ten years. They were told “You do not qualify anymore. Retroactively, you owe us $18,000, $20,000 or $25,000 because of a mistake we made three years ago. We should have told you that your employment was not insurable”.
The present legislation allows this. It is not being corrected here but we do have a bill that would correct the problem.
We have also introduced a bill to make sure that specific standards apply to the management of the EI account and the setting of the contribution rate. We would have a system where the contribution rate meets the needs of the system and not the financing needs of the finance department. This is a very important issue.
On December 31 there will be $32 billion in the EI account. That is a lot of money. The cost of the provisions in the bill, which the minister did not care to defend, will never be over $500 million. For ordinary people, $500 million and $32 billion is a lot of money. For those who have a hard time figuring it out, it is as if a pie were cut into 60 slices and you got only one. Someone else got the rest, while not having contributed a cent to the system.
The EI system is financed by employers and employees. The federal government rakes in the money because it does not care to respect the spirit of the law, which is that the EI account should finance the EI system only. Instead, it has been used to finance the government's surplus with the contributions from people who earn less than or up to $39,000. It means that anyone earning $40,000, $41,000, $42,000, $50,000, $60,000, $70,000 or $90,000 has not paid his share into the EI fund.
It also means that the EI money the federal government is spending comes from the poor because the rich do not pay their share. It is unfair.
This is why the three measures announced in the bill before the House are interesting, but they definitely do not go far enough. We will ensure that the workers are not hurt by the way members will vote in this House. We will vote for this bill but that does not mean that the fight is over. It only means that the fight has only begun.
I want the workers and our fellow citizens to understand that we still have some way to go, that we will fight until we have everything we need to deliver a decent employment insurance program.
In some of the bills we have introduced, we talk about access for self-employed workers. In Canada, the self-employed make up over 16% of our manpower. These workers are not covered by EI. One out of six workers is not covered because he is self-employed.
Despite its annual assessment of the program, the federal government was unable to come up with something that would allow self-employed persons to become eligible for employment insurance on a voluntary basis, as the Bloc Quebecois has been proposing. This should be included in the reform before us today but it is not.
I could give an electoral perspective to my arguments since the Liberals are very sensitive to that. The Liberals have to think about it. One worker in six is a self-employed worker who is not eligible for employment insurance. Right now these people cannot even contribute to the program. They are not eligible. I think this should have been included in the bill.
We also proposed that the waiting period be abolished. As members know, this is the two week period when people lose their job. When people apply for benefits, they have no income. Someone who earns $50,000, $60,000 or $70,000 a year and has a steady income may have difficulty understanding what that means. For those who earn $500 a week, for example, or $25,000 a year, having no income for two weeks means there is a big hole in the family income. There is certainly room for a solution to this problem.
In this area, Canada is dead last among developed countries. In terms of employment insurance, we are behind the United States, which is nothing to brag about. It is certainly not an advantage.
Several measures are missing. On November 25, 1999 we introduced a bill that included all these reforms so we could tell the government “You see, we are an opposition party. We are not the government party. We do not have all the resources the government has but we are putting forward a general proposal”. The bill contained all the elements that should be included in a good employment insurance program.
Today we are looking at the result. Certain measures in this bill were included in our general proposal. Let us first deal with the elimination of the intensity rule.
For those who do not know what the intensity rule is all about, it means that each time someone has received EI benefits for 20 weeks his or her benefits will be reduced by 1%. This means that a seasonal worker or someone who relies on EI every year will get, after three years, benefits representing 50% of his or her average wage instead of 55%. This may not seem like much but for someone earning $600 a week 55% of his or her wage is $330 and 50% is only $300. This difference of $30 a week counts.
This shows clearly that the federal government is only motivated by electoral gains. We all realized that the intensity rule was unfair, that it did not achieve any of its goals and that it was based on a false assumption, the assumption that people do not want to work. To be completely fair, the government should give back to these people the $8, $10 or $15 a week it took away from them for three years. It was dishonest with these people, because the government used the $8 and $10 cuts to fight the deficit.
Today we realize that it deliberately penalized these people in a perverse and unacceptable way. I expect the government to compensate them retroactively, as the amounts involved are not huge. That would be a way to show at long last that it was wrong and now wants to do justice to these people, not so much because of the amount involved but rather out of respect for the dignity of the workers. It is important to do that and I think such a measure ought to be included in the bill.
The second measure contained in the bill, the removal of the discriminating rule of fiscal clawback for frequent claimants, is the very principle of the bill. We have an employment insurance system that should be funding EI benefits but a provision was put into it that allowed for the clawing back, through income tax returns, of EI benefits received by a taxpayer whose income was over $39,000. That situation will be corrected, and I think it should be. However, that is only one of 12 or 15 measures required to have a comprehensive and acceptable system.
The same thing applies to the change in the definition of new entrant or re-entrant to the labour force with respect to special benefits. For example, women will now be allowed to take into account maternity or sickness benefits received in the six previous years to qualify for benefits under the system without having to do 910 hours of work. However, regular benefits will not be taken into account, only special benefits.
That means that a woman about to give birth to her first child will not qualify under that rule. She cannot have received maternity benefits before because this will be her first child. This woman will not be able to qualify properly or more easily. This will only allow the women who already have a child to reintegrate into the labour market, and that is a good thing.
However, there may be the case of a woman who left the labour market for several years for whatever reasons and who has a first child. She will not necessarily qualify for maternity benefits or be able use the hours she had worked previously. I think this again is an unacceptable half measure.
The contribution rate will also be reduced to $2.25. What is interesting here—and we approve of this reduction—is that it leaves room for other improvements. In spite of this reduction, the fund will still have this year a $6 billion surplus. Every year, under the proposed changes, approximately $6 billion will remain in the fund. That money will stay there and will not be used for employment insurance. What it means is this “We stole $32 billion from you. We are giving back $500 million. You should be satisfied with this. So don't say a word”. That is what citizens and workers and even employers are now being told. In this regard, the proposed measures are quite inadequate.
As for seasonal workers, again I think that we succeeded in convincing the government on the issue of the intensity rule. During the last weeks and months, people have stood up in various areas, especially in Charlevoix, the North Shore and Lac-Saint-Jean, to let the federal government know that its proposals were unacceptable. With their help and with the work of those members of the House who are opposed to the Liberal measures, we have managed to do something interesting.
There is still horrible discrimination. Someone in our areas who qualified between July 9 and September 17, 2000 had to work 525 hours to be entitled to 21 weeks of benefits. Had that person applied after September 18, he or she would have had to work 420 hours to be entitled to 32 weeks of benefits.
The only reason the minister gave for this was that the act would have to be amended for those people to become eligible for benefits retroactively. This is precisely what it is all about today: amending the act. There was nothing preventing the minister from introducing an amendment to remedy discrimination against those people.
Imagine someone who has worked 460 hours being told that he is not eligible because the required number of hours is 525. Even worse, someone with 525 hours of work may be eligible but only get 21 weeks of benefits, while another person who has worked 420 hours will be eligible for 32 weeks of benefits for the same summer period. This is totally unacceptable. We cannot understand why the government is not trying to correct the situation.
I want to say something to all those members in this House who still do not understand what seasonal work is. I have listened to the hon. member from the Canadian Alliance and I would really like everyone to understand that the number of weeks worked by a seasonal worker has nothing to do with the economic activity of the whole country.
It is all very well to have the greatest economic growth, as we do at present, a very strong economic growth, but that does nothing in a sector in which there is 18 weeks work. An example of this is the peat bogs, where digging up the peat is very hard work, and there is 18 weeks of work. What is the point of selling more peat, when after 18 weeks there is no more work. The price of peat may go up but that does not make any more work.
The same thing goes for several other sectors. In the lower St. Lawrence area, the tourist season is of a certain duration in summer and a certain duration in winter, but in between there is no work, nor will any pop up tomorrow morning. It will be a long time before there is any.
I would like it to be understood that seasonal workers are not lazy and unwilling to work. They are people who work in an industry that is seasonal in nature.
This situation must be remedied by providing the seasonal workers with special status, one that is the same throughout Canada. They must be able to qualify with 420 hours worked, and receive 35 weeks benefits, whether they live in Halifax, Edmunston, Rivière-du-Loup, Gaspé, on the north shore, or anywhere else. They need to qualify in the same way, because the sector of industry in which they work has no connection with the number of hours and the unemployment level in their region.
Since the rate of unemployment is dropping, the iniquities are more obvious. Now that unemployment has gone down, in certain regions, 550 or 600 hours are required in order to qualify. Seasonal workers cannot accumulate that many hours; there is not enough work for them.
The main theme of the present EI system is discrimination. Young people are being discriminated against. In my area, a young person who enters the workforce needs 910 hours of work to qualify, instead of 420 hours. This means twice as many hours of work.
Do you know what this means in an area like mine? This means that young people are all leaving for Quebec City or Montreal. A year later, when you need them, they are gone and have found work elsewhere. This is how our regions are being emptied. Our young people are leaving. Not only are we depriving them of an income, but the whole region as well, while we may need them in other sectors. Qualified workers will be needed in those sectors. This is unacceptable because our regions are being emptied, and this is unacceptable to all young Canadians.
A Liberal member told me “If we lower them, they will drop out even more”. This is not the right way to help young people join the workforce. The right way is to make sure that they get proper training and have confidence in their abilities, not to hit them over the head. This is not the answer. This is not how it is done.
We must ensure that they can work long enough, without being discriminated against, otherwise we would using the same rule as for seasonal workers.
Maybe it will take a few more months to convince the Liberal government. We convinced the government in the case of seasonal workers and we will do the same for young people.
We need a measure and a decision before the next election. We could solve all these questions before the next election. We could do it in the next few days if we wanted to. If we do not want to solve these issues prior to the election, Quebecers and Canadians will do so at the polls. They will send another message to the Liberal government.
Let me quote the words of the Prime Minister. He said: “Employment-insurance was implemented to eliminate the deficit.” The message was very clear for all liberals and I repeated it here in the House in several speeches. I told them: “If you do not adopt measures to rectify the EI situation you will get defeated with an even greater margin than the last time in Atlantic Canada, in Eastern Quebec, and in all the regions where there are a great number of seasonal workers”.
This warning still stands. Liberals must understand that nobody is applauding those small changes to the employment-insurance system. People everywhere in the country have understood that if we want more, we must put the requirements on the table quickly, before the next election. After that, maybe the people across the way will pay less attention. They may not want to listen. I have a prediction to make that may be of some interest to the Liberal members. They will be asked a lot of questions on this issue.
When the minister announced the three proposed changes in a press conference, a reporter asked her three times if the changes would eliminate all the inequities in the legislation. Not once was the minister able to provide an answer. She was so totally out of it that she was unable to defend her bill here today. She had the parliamentary secretary tackle the job. That is terrible.
The message remains the same. It is always here. The stakes are the same. If the Liberal majority believes the changes proposed in this bill are enough, they will surely have a political price to pay. It will be on the minds of voters throughout Canada, but particularly in Quebec and Atlantic Canada, where measures are needed to correct the situation.
Employment insurance is also unfair to students. Are the members aware that the EI premiums paid by a student who earned $2,000 or less at a summer job are not refundable?
This is totally unacceptable. People pay premiums to an insurance program but are unable to receive any benefit, even when they are eligible. The benefits to which they would normally be eligible are not refundable.
The same principle applies. The prime minister wants to grab all the money he can. The government is going to prey on the weak, it will make sure that students, who are not organized in that regard, cannot recover the premiums they pay by setting a limit. It is almost as if it were laughing at them. It is telling them they will pay premiums but will not get their money back. This is another form of discrimination.
That program is also out of touch with the social realities facing workers. For example here are the coverage rates for regular benefits since 1995. In 1995, 52% of workers were covered; in 1996, 49%; in 1997, 42%; in 1998, 43%; and in 1999, 42%. We now have an insurance plan under which nobody is covered.
Let us look at the same percentages for young people: in 1995, 44% were covered. In 1996, the proportion was 38%; in 1997, 26%; in 1998, 25%; and in 1999, 24%. Do you understand what I was saying earlier? They are forced to pay premiums, but only one out of four is eligible for benefits. They no longer think that it is simply an insurance plan which does not work, they are under the impression that they are being robbed by the government. That is exactly what our young people think.
This is also true for women. In 1995, 51% of unemployed women received regular benefits. In 1999, that percentage had dropped to 38.4%.
Will the very modest measure taken today correct the situation? No. I can predict that one, two or three years down the road, we will realize that that was not enough, that we kept intact a system where the lowest possible benefits are paid out and as few people as possible qualify, so that the government can coffer as much money as possible.
I submit that we must read the fine print to see how the benefit rates will be established in the future. I think that the government is trying to pull a fast one on us. Instead of having to put the money back into the account, as the act currently provides, the government could say that that is just a payroll tax and that it does not have to replenish the EI account. That means that the government will never have to pay back the $32 billion surplus that will have accumulated by December 31, 2000.
We must keep a close eye on that. Not only was the money taken and spend elsewhere, but the entire financial, accounting system is being diverted. With one stroke of the pen, the obligation for the government to put the money back into the system is removed.
Since 1994, the Liberals have accumulated a $38 billion surplus. It will be $32 billion by December 31, 2000, but that is because there was a deficit at the beginning of the period. Since 1994, this $38 billion surplus has not been put back into the plan, but has been used instead to eliminate the deficit. It remains to be seen if the effort is the same in other areas. Let us try to see if the same kind of demand was put on high-income people, to make sure that they contribute. Were these people more able, or less able, to afford to fight the deficit?
The true objective of the reform was to save money. I was speaking about the total accumulated surplus, which was $5.7 billion in 1996, $12 billion in 1997, $19 billion in 1998, $25 billion in 1999 and $32 billion in 2000. Hon. members surely recall the day when, in response to a question, the Minister of Finance stated that the money was spent. This was a revelation to many. This account is absolutely not managed in an open manner.
We had to seek all the elements one by one to be able, at the end of the day, to prove without a doubt that this program was only a way for the federal government to keep the money in its coffers. I think that the Liberals are really going to pay the price for that during the next election.
Today, everybody has a clear understanding of the surplus issue and of the fact that it was used for purposes other than those for which the money was collected in first place. And this is still going on. If the government does not reform this plan completely and just makes small changes, Canadians will not be fooled in the next election, and they will make decisions to really show the government that they do not have to put up with such a situation.
The plan must be totally modified. I gave some examples, such as the universal status for seasonal workers. The abolition of the clawback rule in the case of frequent recipients is already in the law. We should also lower to 300 hours the eligibility criteria for special benefits, such as maternity leave, if we want women to really qualify, so that we can have an assurance until the federal government finally abides by the law and gives the money back to Quebec, thereby allowing Quebec to put its parental system in place.
Here again, our society is trailing. Between you and me, the parental system is not a matter of unemployment insurance. It should be an independent system that can be financed, among other things, by the employment insurance fund as set out in the act, but it should not be linked to qualifying conditions of this type, to make it easier to qualify so that young couples can have children under economically acceptable conditions.
Coverage of insured earning should be raised from 55% to 60%, which is very important according to me. Today's society is one of economic growth. Wealth is being created. The problem is that those who most vigorously fought against the deficit do not enjoy the benefits of wealth creation. They have been squeezed like lemons. They have made sacrifices over a period of five years and now, we are not ready to give them what belongs to them.
The government is giving tax reductions—and I have nothing against tax reductions—but there is surely a way to allow a 5% increase, from 55% to 60% of their average wage, for those making $300 a week so that they have enough money to feed their children, support their family and enjoy a moderate level of dignity in order to live a happy life.
This is an important demand that is not found in the bill. It will not come from the government, but it will be one of the issues in the coming federal election. Canadians must have an employment insurance system that provides an adequate average benefit income, an EI system that allows people to be eligible under acceptable requirements and that is based on the principle that, as a whole, people want to work, are willing to work, are looking for jobs, but when there is none, they should be able to receive a decent income.
The discourse that has been going on here for the last five years must no longer be heard in the House of Commons. When we are told that many jobs are being created and this is how the problem will be solved, we must know that job creation is indeed important. But despite the creation of more jobs, there will always be people who are in a situation where they need some extra income. They do essential tasks in society that need not be full time jobs. This reality must be part of our experience as parliamentarians, to show Canadians and Quebecers that we are aware of this reality.
We must also be able to suggest other measures. Some people talked about lowering the premium rate. There is something interesting being done in this regard. There is the creation of the independent fund. All the problems we are facing here, the fact we are forced to debate them here, would be solved if there were an independent fund. If it were employers and employees, those who finance the system, who determined the system's conditions, there would be some pretty heated discussions on the joint board of administration. They could discuss and even if sometimes they were not happy with negotiations, in the end, the rate would be determined by the people who are financing the system.
There would not be a third party which would come and take money from the employment fund to pay for embassies or finance other expenditures that should be paid for with taxes collected by government. Control by an independent fund would be an essential measure that is not present here and that should be at the heart of a bill making changes to employment insurance.
Judging by the way the Liberal government is changing things, I doubt we will have a new EI law tomorrow morning. I believe we are bound by many elements. There are the pressures we have exerted where we have convinced people by the logic of our argumentation that we were right and that changes were necessary. There were public demonstrations where people from all over Canada told the government: “Listen, you will give us back our share.” There are also legal challenges coming up, some of them have already begun, notably by the CSN, to ensure that, in the end, the federal government does not act illegally.
The factor that is most important maybe for the Liberal majority, the Prime Minister in particular, is the issue of the next election. If the government is taking only this factor into account, it should consider the situation seriously so that we can settle this issue as fast as possible.
Consequently, it must put all these measures in the bill, including delegation of parental leave administration. The bill does not contain those measures. However, it provides a few other things we will support because people need to have their benefits as quickly as possible.
However, I challenge Liberal members to travel in the area, like the hon. member for Bellechasse—Etchemins—Montmagny—L'Islet, who was in Rivière-du-Loup last week. He flew in on a government helicopter. He said, and this is almost a direct quote “I came here to tell you the truth, because the member for the Bloc will twist the facts”.
In Rivière-du-Loup, the radio anchorman had this comment “Unfortunately, the member for Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Temiscouata—Les Basques has been saying for four years now that these things had to be changed. You never said a word about this”.
The member for Bellechasse—Etchemins—Montmagny—L'Islet had even been travelling to the area. About a month or month and a half earlier on TVA, he had participated in an interview with the member of the National Assembly, Rosaire Bertrand. He had said at the time that no changes were needed, that the act was perfect, that things were going well and that was the way they dealt with the situation.
Well, this defender of the established order, who talks only when his government allows him to, was publicly rebuked by the people in my area because this is not the way they expect their political representatives to behave.
The Bloc Quebecois has brought something new to federal politics. Bloc members speak out and express the opinion of the people. They act as defenders of Quebecers and of the disadvantaged.
The next election will offer us an opportunity. I am issuing an invitation to Liberal members: we are ready to meet them in any forum on this issue. The government's record on employment insurance has to be examined. When the time comes to give marks to the Liberal government and see if it gets a passing grade, seasonal workers in our ridings will tell those “You don't get a passing grade. Unfortunately, as MPs, you do not pay employment insurance. You will cope some other way and, when you're gone, you'll find yourselves a job. But we will not trust the government again, because we said four years ago that it could change things, and it did not change them”.
I think the few amendments on the table are inadequate. This is not what people are waiting for. They expect justice in this matter. In the end, it is a question of justice. It is a question of those who pay, who finance the system, benefiting from it. It is a question of enabling our society, which claimed to have programs to ensure social equality, to make sure the social programs exist in order to permit a better distribution of wealth.
Today, there is creation of wealth, but no distribution of wealth. These people are in intolerable situations. I find it unacceptable that people do not qualify for employment insurance because they are short 50 or 60 hours, when they have the number of hours that were required in the past.
A person with a family, who earns $600 a week, gets $330 at 55% of his salary. I challenge the members to live on that much and make ends meet. This amount is not much more than what a person gets on social assistance.
If the government wants to encourage people to work, it will not succeed by trying to penalize them with rules of intensity. It has been demonstrated that this does not work. The government has said so itself. The government put it in place. It did not work. The government penalized people for three years, but nothing came of it.