House of Commons Hansard #126 of the 36th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was benefits.


Motions For PapersRoutine Proceedings

3:20 p.m.

Some hon. members


Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

3:25 p.m.

Papineau—Saint-Denis Québec


Pierre Pettigrew Liberalfor the Minister of Human Resources Development

moved that Bill C-44, an act amending the Employment Insurance Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

3:25 p.m.

Laval West Québec


Raymonde Folco LiberalParliamentary Secretary to Minister of Human Resources Development

Mr. Speaker, as we all know, employment remains Canadians' number one concern.

They returned this government to office with a mandate to continue its work to promote economic growth and the creation of jobs. In fact, the job strategy makes these issues the main priority of the Government of Canada.

This government rightly considers its role is to create a context promoting investment and development of the private sector and, in particular, small and medium business, the real motive force in job creation in Canada's economy.

No one today can deny the enormous progress that has been made in achieving these major economic objectives so important to Canadians.

Since this Liberal government was elected in 1993, two million new jobs have been created, half of which have gone to women.

The unemployment rate has dropped by over 4% across the country. I would add with pride that in Quebec the drop in the rate is greater than the national average. There, the rate of unemployment, which was 8.4% in August, has dropped by five points.

Nearly 400,000 more Quebecers are employed today than were in 1993. Never have the prospects of the country as a whole for short and long term economic growth been so good considering, among other things, the announced reduction in employment insurance contributions, the seventh in as many years, and the $58 billion in reductions in income tax, which will remain in the taxpayers' pockets.

Four years ago the government put an entirely new employment insurance system in place with the very specific purpose of helping people return to work as quickly as possible.

One of the great innovations of the employment insurance program introduced in 1996 was to provide not only temporary income support in the form of benefits but also active employment measures to promote permanent integration of the unemployed into the labour market.

These measures were designed to be flexible enough to meet the specific needs of the unemployed, based on the local economy, through partnerships with the various levels of government, community organizations and employers.

In the year 2000 alone, more than $2.21 billion were spent on active employment measures, including $594 million in Quebec.

People now realize that this initiative was crucial, as evidenced by the fact that the federal government has since then signed 11 labour market agreements with the provinces and territories about the delivery of these active employment measures funded through the employment insurance account.

Through this initiative, the federal government was also able to give Quebec something it had been demanding for 30 years, namely full jurisdiction over manpower training.

Today, we are bringing forward several changes to EI. One of the changes proposed by the minister in this bill would eliminate the intensity rule.

As we know, the amount to which a claimant is entitled is 55% of his or her insurable earnings. The intensity rule, which reduces the benefit rate down to a minimum of 50%, was designed to discourage people from using employment insurance frequently and for extended periods.

However, we have noticed that in several regions, particularly in those where the economy is based mainly on seasonal work, workers who are already penalized by these annual and always deplorable seasonal layoffs are also penalized because they have no other choice but to rely on employment insurance to make ends meet.

Under the proposed change, the basic rate will stay at 55% of insurable earnings for all claimants, whether they are frequent claimants or not, whether they are seasonal workers or not.

Needless to say this change will benefit people in fishing regions, particularly in the Maritimes, but it is important to note that it will apply to all frequent claimants in all regions, throughout Canada, which means that it will apply to much larger pools of seasonal workers. In fact, this change will have a great impact in Quebec, where 41% of claimants are subject to the intensity rule.

We are also proposing to change the rules governing the clawbacks on benefits. At present, tax recovery applies to all claimants whose net income exceeds $48,750 and to frequent claimants whose net income exceeds $39,000.

These recipients have to pay back 30% of the amounts received, regardless of whether these are regular or special benefits. Those who are forced to call upon employment insurance frequently can be required to reimburse up to 100% of their benefits.

We are proposing that, in future, only the highest wage earners, that is those with a net income in excess of $48,750, be required to pay back benefits. Even then, there would be an exemption for first-time claimants and recipients of special benefits such as maternity, parental or sick benefits. Once again, this will be a change that will benefit the workers of Quebec.

Overall, we feel that the new employment insurance program has had good results so far. The government made a commitment to monitor the application and effects of the new program and to remedy any possible weaknesses. This is, in fact, what it is doing by introducing this bill.

Let me add that we will always be working together with the provinces and territories, business groups and communities to diversify the economy and help generate jobs and growth.

All my parliamentary colleagues, along with the entire Canadian public, acknowledge that economic development, skills development and permanent job creation are the best solutions in the long term, as the minister has indicated.

What all Canadians want first and foremost is jobs. They want to work so that they can improve their situation and their own feelings of self-worth, while contributing to the collective effort of society.

This is true as much for seasonal workers as for all other working men and women throughout the length and breadth of Canada.

Business Of The HouseGovernment Orders

3:30 p.m.

Scarborough—Rouge River Ontario


Derek Lee LiberalParliamentary Secretary to Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of order. When the House was adjourned on Thursday last, it was about to complete debate and come to a vote on private member's Motion No. 259 in the name of the hon. member for Kamloops, Thompson and Highland Valleys.

There have been consultations among the parties earlier today and I believe you would find unanimous consent for the following motion. I move:

That the question on Motion No. 259 be deemed to have been put and a division thereon requested and deferred to the time of completion of consideration of government orders later this day.

Business Of The HouseGovernment Orders

3:30 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

Does the hon. the parliamentary secretary have the unanimous consent of the House to propose this motion?

Business Of The HouseGovernment Orders

3:30 p.m.

Some hon. members


Business Of The HouseGovernment Orders

3:30 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

Business Of The HouseGovernment Orders

3:30 p.m.

Some hon. members


(Motion agreed to)

The House resumed consideration of the motion that Bill C-44, an act to amend the Employment Insurance Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

3:35 p.m.


Diane Ablonczy Reform Calgary Nose Hill, AB

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to be able to stand up and give the official opposition's take on this new bill, an act to amend the Employment Insurance Act.

In our view this bill violates three important principles. First, it violates the principle of sound policy making based on consultation, completeness, addressing fundamentals, all the things that good policies do and this bill does not.

Second, the bill violates the principle of doing the most good for the most people. Here we see a very short-sighted, very narrow approach taken to the unemployment insurance regime.

Third, the bill violates the principle of public interest over self-interest. I think everyone knows that the bill is being rushed in on the eve of an election simply to increase the political fortunes of the Liberals in some parts of the country. That is an insult to all Canadians in those parts of the country.

As an overview, the bill purports to do six things. First, it increases the amount that a seasonal worker can earn before his or her EI is clawed back. It is increased from $39,000, which is the average industrial wage, to close to $50,000.

Second, the bill puts into place a single rate of repayment for those who are clawed back at 30% instead of a higher clawback for more frequent claimants.

Third, it eliminates the clawback for all first time claimants.

Fourth, it eliminates the intensity rule which clawed back a portion of benefits for all frequent recipients of EI.

Fifth, it makes it easier for parents who left the workforce to raise children to qualify for EI benefits.

Sixth, it exempts paternal, maternity and sickness benefits from the clawback.

Those are the six things that the bill purports to do.

As I said, we believe that the bill violates three important principles and I would like to spend my time elaborating on that.

First, the bill violates the principle of sound policy making. This is a very important issue for Canadians. Many Canadians access EI benefits from time to time but more importantly, every single Canadian worker and every single Canadian business pays into and support the system and is therefore a very important stakeholder in the system. If we are going to change the system, then we need to get it right.

The House will know that about two decades ago an exhaustive study was made of the EI system by the Forget Commission which resulted in about 15 volumes of recommendations. Almost none of those have ever been implemented, including in this bill. Yet we have a bill coming forward in the face of not only the study that I mentioned but many subsequent studies and articles by experts and policy thinkers. The bill does virtually nothing to address the perversities, the complexities and the things that plainly are not working in the EI system. This is not good policy making.

What is needed is real reform of the EI-UI system, not just this kind of tinkering. In fact, to my knowledge the government consulted no one before bringing in the bill.

I think everyone acknowledges that this system, which is profoundly flawed, was supposedly fixed by these Liberals in 1996. Yet those so-called reforms just made things stingier. They did nothing to fix the underlying problems of the system.

The so-called reforms that the Liberals brought in in 1996 have now been summarily reversed with a stroke of the pen. Why? One can only suppose that it is to enhance Liberal electoral chances in Atlantic Canada; shocking as it may seem that the Liberals would stoop to such transparent tactics.

The fact is that the changes the Liberals brought in in 1996 drew an outcry from many of the people affected right away. That was four years ago. If the concerns which the Liberals heard about the system and about the changes they made were legitimate, why did it take four long years, right up until the brink of an election, for them to do something about it?

The member on the other side who just spoke did nothing to address that question and a lot of people are wondering why now. Why ignore concerns, outcries and discontent for years and years and then all of a sudden decide to do something now? The present changes have also been criticized very widely. There are some legitimate criticisms which need to be answered by the government.

Many people feel that these changes will simply make it profitable for industries to gear up for short seasons. They believe they will not be doing their workers a disservice because their workers have the EI cushion. Instead of offering workers long term, stable jobs that they can count on to raise their families and better themselves in the long term, these changes simply pour cold water on that kind of positive change.

Some people are also concerned about the fact that these changes and others really entice young people to leave school earlier for jobs that offer no real future. A very good article was written by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. It was published in the National Post on September 28. Essentially it pointed out that two things are happening due to problems in the system.

One is that the rule that allows people to gain about half a year of EI benefits by catching as little as $2,500 worth of fish has made some young people go into that industry in order to get the EI benefits. This is damaging in two ways. It hurts the young people who then become caught in what many in Atlantic Canada refer to as the EI trap. Instead of going on to school, gaining the skills and training they need to build a strong future for themselves, they are encouraged by these rules to leave school so they can say that they are available for work in order to gain short term benefits. Surely this was not the intention of the EI system. Those are the kinds of perversities that are not addressed at all in this bill. They are hurting a lot of young people and causing concern for a lot of families.

Also, at a time when the fish stocks are decreasing, we have rules that encourage people to get into an industry with declining stocks. What kind of future is that building for people? Not much, but we have a government that is blind to those kinds of perversities, that does nothing to address them and still claims that this bill is helping people in seasonal industries. Clearly that is not a claim that can be sustained at all. In fact, it is hurting the very people that the government is claiming it is helping.

We owe the people of Canada better than that. The bill does nothing to give long term hope for employment and a secure future and skills building to many people across the country. That is what we really want to do.

The minister herself has said that what Canadians want most is to have a job. The bill does nothing to deal with the problem of unemployment, which is severe and disabling in many parts of the country, and the government is silent on providing the help that it says people need, which is a secure job.

We have to conclude that these changes are really driven more by politics than by a desire to help the people who are affected by the EI system, who are most people in the country and proportionately more in parts of the country with low employment.

The bill also violates the principle that government policy and legislation should do the most good for the most people. Most of us would agree that we have to look at the big picture when we are making policies and bringing in legislation. We need to ask ourselves whether the bill actually does look at the big picture, whether it does make an attempt to do the most good for the most people and whether it attempts to deliver more jobs for people, not simply and solely more benefits to cushion, in the short term, the effects of there being an absence of jobs.

The bill is also completely silent on the real needs of Canadian workers who are chronically underemployed or unemployed. The bill provides a few dollars more but will not give any real long term hope. Is that the message we want to send? I ask my friends in the NDP and PC Party, is that what we want to tell people? I ask these people because they represent voters and constituents in that part of the country. Do we want to tell people that we will give them a few more dollars and make the pain a bit less but that we will not give them any long term hope? Is that the message we want to send? That is exactly the thrust of the bill.

There may be some legitimate changes to the EI regulations in Bill C-44 but the long term solution to unemployment surely is training and skills enhancement, not encouraging people to move into dead end jobs. Surely the real solution to unemployment is getting the economic fundamentals right so there is economic prosperity, activity and new jobs are created. The bill contains none of that.

Even with what the bill does contain, which is a few more dollars for people caught in the trap of low employment, no employment or underemployment, it is an insult in light of what the Liberals are taking out of the EI system.

We have a $38 billion surplus in the EI system. If we divided that amount among all of the unemployed workers they could get a university degree, receive training or set up their own businesses. What does the government give them out of that $38 billion surplus that workers and businesses helped to create? It gives them a 15 cent reduction in EI premiums. I have not checked the minister's math, which may or may not be right given the track record of the minister, but she says that a 15 cent reduction will add up to $1.5 billion. At the same time there is a $38 billion surplus. What are the Liberals doing with the other $36.5 billion one might ask?

At the same time, with the Canada pension plan premiums increasing by 40 cents on January 1 there will be a net increase in taxes that workers have to pay when they do work rather than any reduction.

However, the government refuses to look at the big picture and makes small, small-minded, small impact changes to do what? It is to be able to pretend to people that it is responding to their concerns and that it is providing some of the much needed help for which people have been asking. It is a charade. It is a scam. It is not worthy of putting before the Canadian people.

The EI surplus does not belong to the Liberals. It belongs to thousands of business people and millions of workers. We believe that the people who are paying the shot, putting in the money and who have a stake should be making the decisions. I do not think the people putting up all this money every year and who have built up a $38 billion surplus would decide to hand it over to the Liberals to use as they see fit.

There is even law-breaking in the way this EI premium reduction is being managed. The law says that the government can only charge premiums to pay out the current benefits and to build up a little cushion in case unexpectedly high unemployment comes along. The chief actuary of the fund himself has said that the surplus the Liberals have built up is far in excess of what would be needed to meet the requirements of the law. However the Liberals simply ignore their own laws and build up enormous, unjustified surpluses and then use them for whatever they want, which, as we can see, is mostly for their own political gain.

The Canadian Labour Congress said that this year for the first time more EI premiums will go into general revenues of the Liberal government than will be paid out in benefits. In other words, all the money that is being paid by struggling Canadian workers and small businesses who can barely keep their doors open is pouring into the coffers of the Liberal government. It is not helping employment or unemployed workers. It is helping the Liberals. The Liberals are helping themselves to it. That has to stop.

Is there anything in the bill to address the clear violation of what is right and proper? There is not a word. We only have the Liberals saying “We will give you a tiny reduction. Are we not generous? You lucky people who are paying us $10 billion a year more than you are supposed to pay for this program, we will give you a little back. We will give you about 15% back and you should be grateful for that”. That is what the Liberal government is telling Canadian workers. It is an insult and should be seen as an insult.

We believe, and all opposition parties believe, that employers and workers should control what is rightfully theirs. A couple of years ago all opposition party leaders held a joint news conference to make that very point to the government as surpluses in the EI fund rose above any kind of reasonable level. Opposition parties have different ideas on the types of benefits, the levels of benefits and the rates of payment. That is healthy. It is good to have different ideas because we come to a balanced and proper perspective when we share those ideas. However, we are all in agreement that the decisions about how to spend the money that comes out of the workers' pockets and the pockets of struggling small businesses should be made by the people who are putting up the money.

Does the bill address that issue? Not at all. There was a thing called the Canada Employment and Insurance Commission. It was set up to consult with all the people who pay into the system and advise the government on things like levels of EI rates. What does the bill do? It simply toasts the Canada Employment and Insurance Commission. It does an end run around them. It says that cabinet will set the rates directly and that it will also be done next year. What is the EI commission good for? What is it there for? Is its mandate respected? Is the consultation it is doing respected? No.

The EI commission is actually made up of people from labour, from employers, from workers and from all the groups who are affected by the system and yet the commission is simply being ignored, disregarded and an end run done around it by the government in the legislation.

Far from the government respecting the people who are paying the freight of this program, the government is ignoring and running roughshod over the representatives of these groups that are on the Canada Employment and Insurance Commission. This is a bad bill for so many reasons, and that is just another one.

The bill will hurt in several ways, as I pointed out. It allows companies to structure the way they operate to take maximum benefit of EI. It does not encourage businesses to find ways to operate in the full season and allow people to have long term, stable jobs. It encourages just the opposite. How does this help people? It cannot. It does not encourage the kind of break that people are asking for from dependence on short term assistance programs and over to what they really want, which is long term employment of which they can be proud, on which they can raise their families and on which they can build a future.

I recommend to the House an article by Fred McMahon who for a long time worked with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. This article was published on October 2 in the Ottawa Citizen . He essentially said that the EI system has harmed many regions of the country and that it has created a trap for many people. Surely that is a tragedy that must be addressed but it is not.

We need to be more compassionate than that. We need to look at what is happening to people who have no hope other than a few more dollars once in a while on the eve of an election from a Liberal government. We need to look at what can be done to provide strong economic growth and activity in parts of the country where people are unemployed or underemployed. We believe that the answer to that is in the Alliance's policies of actually letting people keep the money they earn. What a novel idea. When we earn money, the government will not actually take it away from us. It will let us keep it to create jobs, to buy consumer goods, to build our businesses, to invest in skills, to fund education and to do the things that will create a strong economy.

That is not just pie in the sky. We have many examples across the world of economies that have done exactly that. They have significantly reduced the government grab of earnings from companies, entrepreneurs and workers and their economies have soared. Ireland is a prime example of that. There are many states in the U.S. that have significantly reduced taxes and seen a huge increase in the number of jobs available for their citizens.

If we want to look closer to home, we can attest to the fact that these measures do not just work in other countries. They also work here. The provinces of Alberta and Ontario, which have significantly cut taxes, have seen job opportunities for their citizens absolutely go through the roof. And what does the government do? It increases its tax take, or reduces it by such minuscule amounts that it has no appreciable effect on the overall level of economic activity.

We believe that our policies, which we will be putting to the people in the election, will actually secure jobs for hundreds of thousands of unemployed and underemployed workers. They will also pour millions of dollars into the economy in a positive way without any political tainting, without any perverse effect on the economies which desperately need that kind of infusion. Instead of a few dollars in handouts mostly tied to political patronage and political profiteering by the Liberal government, it would be money spent in the common sense way by workers, businessmen and entrepreneurs. That is what we need to be working for in this country.

The bill also violates the principle of public interest over self-interest. What we have here, as one person described to me today, is a knee-jerk policy decision designed solely to get votes.

I have given so many reasons today, and I know that other speakers to the bill will give even more, why the bill does not represent big picture policy to benefit the people most affected. It represents an 11th hour, quick vote buying kind of initiative by a government that should be ashamed of itself. That government says that it cares about people, that it values people. It did not care about the people who were affected by the EI changes over the last four years. All of a sudden are we supposed to believe that the bill is motivated by real caring? I do not think so.

This is simply the Liberal government indulging in some very cynical and reprehensible vote buying, vote manipulating policy making. It is an insult to every person affected. It suggests that people who are most affected and most needy, and to whom even a few dollars would mean an awful lot, can be bought right before an election. It is so cynical and insulting.

The Liberal government should be ashamed of itself. I appeal to Liberal members to vote against this kind of ad hockery in public policy making on the eve of an election. The people in the country who are the most needy and have the biggest difficulty in finding long term stable employment deserve far better than this and we should give it to them.

There is also a lot of evidence which I believe must come out in debate, in the committee hearings, in letting people speak, that in the long run these kinds of measures will hurt more than help regularly unemployed workers. It is a tiny, tiny bit of short term gain but so much long term pain in a system that is fundamentally flawed. It does not address the real needs of workers, which are for real work, real economic opportunity and real relief from chronic dependence on politicians and what they may or may not give.

We have seen the politicians over there take away, then give back a little, then take away some more. Surely we can do better for people than to play those kinds of games with them, their futures and their families. They deserve better. I am appalled that the Liberal government has done such a cynical, shortsighted, inadequate job of addressing those issues.

All employed workers are going to carry the freight for this, whether they are part time, seasonal, or full time in low paying jobs. The money comes straight out of their pockets and out of the pockets of their employers who would probably like to hire more people but simply do not have the money and resources left after the government is done taxing them to death.

The sad thing is that people who are the least able to pay, people who are the most needy in this system are going to be hurt by these changes. These changes help a few, but mostly those few at the higher end of the income scale.

We have to wonder when there are so many people in the country not able to work full time, not able to find secure employment, why the government cares so little about the real problem that it would insult them with this kind of last minute, short term, small minded tinkering.

This is not a bill that should even have seen the light of day. As the bill is debated and examined in committee, and as people in the public start to see what is in the bill, I believe it will draw an increasing level of opposition and criticism. And so it should because legitimate needs that ought to have been addressed in the EI system and in the bigger picture of employment needs of Canadians simply have been ignored in this bill, or have not been helped, or have been addressed in ways that can only be characterized as mere tinkering, nothing substantive, nothing really helpful to the people who are affected.

I invite Canadians who are watching this debate to listen to the concerns that are brought forward by their representatives and to examine the bill for themselves. It is a very short bill. As I said, it is just a little bit of tinkering on the eve of an election. Consider the bigger issues that will be affecting the employment picture of our country in the years to come, particularly for those that are struggling the most to have the kind of employment prospects that they need for themselves and their family.

This is a bill that violates fundamental principles of sound policy making. It violates the principle of doing the most good for the most people. It also violates the principle of putting public interest before self-interest. The bill should not be supported and I urge members of the House to vote against it unless it is substantially changed. I believe it is so fundamentally flawed that the government should simply go back to the drawing board on this whole issue.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

4:05 p.m.


Paul Crête Bloc Kamouraska—Rivière-Du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, QC

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.

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4:45 p.m.


René Canuel Bloc Matapédia—Matane, QC

Let it pay the money back.

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4:45 p.m.


Paul Crête Bloc Kamouraska—Rivière-Du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, QC

As the hon. member for Matapédia—Matane puts it, now that we know for sure that the government stole from them, it should pay the money back.

To conclude, I would like to urge the people in Quebec and the rest of Canada to consider this bill as a first step toward an in-depth reform of the whole program. The Liberal government is going to have a very heavy political price to pay in the next election, if it does not go ahead with the reform.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

4:45 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Thibeault)

It is my duty pursuant to Standing Order 38 to inform the House that the questions to be raised tonight at the time of adjournment are as follows: the hon. member for Madawaska—Restigouche, Post-Secondary Education; the hon. member for Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, Employment Insurance; the hon. member for Winnipeg North Centre, Health.

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4:45 p.m.


Yvon Godin NDP Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Madam Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre.

I am pleased to speak today on Bill C-44, a government bill to amend the Employment Insurance Act.

The bill introduced last week is a big step toward addressing the critical situation of Canadian workers, especially those who are working in seasonal industries such as fishing, tourism, transportation, the auto industry, construction and forestry.

As the NDP critic for employment insurance, I welcome this bill, but I am afraid that it does not go far enough for the workers who need help but cannot get any, because some provisions of the Employment Insurance Act make them ineligible for EI benefits.

Looking at the proposed changes, I am very happy to see that the government has finally listened to some of the suggestions made by the opposition. I would like to say a few words about these changes.

The government is abolishing the intensity rule. Claimants will therefore receive 55% of their salary. The benefit repayment provision is being amended; first time claimants will be excluded from this provision.

For those taxpayers with a net income of $48,750, the maximum repayment will be 30% of the net income exceeding $48,750. Canadians receiving sickness, maternity or parental benefits will also be excluded from this provision.

For parents re-entering the labour force following the birth of a second child or who were out of the labour force for an extended period, the retroactive period will be six years.

The premium will be set at $2.25. The maximum insurable earnings will stay at $30,000 until the average salary in industry reaches that amount. After that, the maximum insurable earnings will be set according to the new average salary in industry.

On May 9, 2000, this House voted unanimously in favour of my motion M-222 calling for a review of the employment insurance program, which has been done, according to the government. However, these changes do not totally reflect the unemployment situation.

It would be a great pleasure for me to rise in this House today and to be able to congratulate the government for having finally seen the light. It would be a great pleasure to hear it say how it has made Canadians suffer over the last four years.

When we suggest positive changes, we are told, “What is wrong with these people, they are never happy”. It would have been nice to finally be able to say that we are happy because the changes are going to fundamentally fix employment insurance in Canada.

I took a personal interest in the issue. As many Canadians know, I toured Canada. I visited every province of our country. I went to 22 cities and towns. I took part in over 21 town hall meetings.

From coast to coast to coast, as they say, from Newfoundland to Atlantic Canada to the Pacific, everywhere I went, employment insurance was an issue. Whether in British Columbia, the Madawska, Gaspé or the Acadian peninsula, a lumberjack is a lumberjack.

The member for Calgary—Nose Hill said today in her speech that employment insurance led people not to work and companies not to create jobs. This is wrong, completely wrong. The problem with Alliance members is that they do not understand what seasonal work is all about.

One of my constituents whom I know quite well—I believe he is listening tonight—Jean Gauvin, a former fisheries minister who intends to run for the Canadian Alliance, said last week that he talked to the Leader of the Opposition and that the leader of the Canadian Alliance had told him he was going to make changes to employment insurance. I am afraid, because if he makes changes to the EI program, it will be to tighten it up.

I hope people in my riding are listening to me tonight, so they can really understand what the message of the Canadian Alliance is.

I am sorry to have to say tonight in the House that when it comes to employment insurance, the Canadian Alliance and the Liberals are not much different. It is a pity.

When the government says it is prepared to increase EI benefits by 5%, I will tell members what this means. In the Atlantic provinces, it means that most of the people working in the tourist industry and in the fishery are working for minimum wage, and $5.75 an hour x 50% works out to $2.88 x 5%, or 14 cents an hour x 35 hours, for $4.90 x four weeks, which is not even a $25 increase.

The government has not understood, or does not wish to make real changes. Every time we have risen in the House to ask questions about EI, we have never been given a clear answer. The government has never come out and said that it has hurt Canadians and that it is going to make changes.

The minister has always boasted about her EI cuts “It forces people to get out and work, it forces companies to create jobs. Today, there are fewer people on EI”. This is the same thing we are hearing from the Canadian Alliance. That is why I say today that unfortunately I do not see much of a difference between the two.

As I mentioned earlier, I toured across Canada and I met various people, including Jack McLellan, of Nanaimo, British Columbia, who had this to say:

Last fall, I attended the funeral of a co-worker, Brian Gellhoed, who was a victim of cutbacks in social benefits. Brian committed suicide after his EI ran out. Too proud to sell his home and the personal belongings he had accumulated over his lifetime in order to qualify for social assistance, he preferred to take his own life.

Another individual, a resident of Richibouctou, New Brunswick, told me this during the tour:

I am 22 years of age and I am affected by the cuts. I used to need 20 weeks of work to qualify for benefits. Now, with all the cutbacks and the tighter eligibility criteria, I need 26 weeks of work and I am unable to find anything for that long. My parents have helped me out financially, but they have their own problems. I am not receiving EI and I cannot pay my debts. I need money to live and I do not have a cent in my pockets. I am discouraged and fed up with the system. This morning, I stayed in bed. I seriously contemplated committing suicide and this was not the first time. Employment insurance must be made more accessible for young people and the discriminating criteria must be changed. We young people are discouraged and desperate. We no longer know what to do.

Another person told about a bill introduced by the hon. member for Sackville—Musquodoboit Valley—Eastern Shore, Bill C-493, asking that a worker who voluntarily quits his or her job to care for his or her family get employment insurance benefits.

My time is almost up, but the message that I want to convey is that the change that is needed is the one concerning the number of hours required to get benefits: 420 and 910 hours, this is discrimination against young people. For women going on maternity leave, 600 or 700 hours is too much.

There are no seasonal workers in Canada. There are only seasonal jobs, and workers have no control over them. It is the employers and the government who have control. It is for all these reasons that changes, major changes, are required.

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4:55 p.m.


Yvan Bernier Bloc Bonaventure—Gaspé—Îles-De-La-Madeleine—Pabok, QC

Madam Speaker, I know that we have a staunch defender of the victims of unemployment in the hon. member who has just spoken, a staunch defender of seasonal workers. I know that the hon. member has studied the employment insurance legislation in depth. The proof is that he has travelled throughout Canada to give people the chance to express their opinions on this.

I would like to ask a question of my colleague as an expert and a neighbour of my riding in the Gaspé. Can he confirm to this House that the Liberals already possess, in the 1996 legislation, a clause that makes it possible to reduce to zero, or close to it, the 5% increase connected with abolition of the intensity rule?

I will give an example, that of the dividing factor. In the crab fisheries, in certain cases—decided upon by the federal government—the fishery is closed, sometimes after seven weeks because of biological factors. Sometimes people manage to accumulate the 420 hours in those seven weeks. However because of the dividing factor, they divide by 14 the benefits these people get, not by the actual number of weeks. Hon. members will agree with me that 7 divided by 14 is 50%.

By abolishing the 5% intensity rule today the minister is only offering seasonal workers 2.5%.

Does my colleague intend to support the amendments the Bloc Quebecois would like to present, for example those concerning the definition in the act of what constitutes a seasonal job?

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5 p.m.


Yvon Godin NDP Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Madam Speaker, I would like to thank my colleague for his question. He is my neighbour on the Baie des Chaleurs. I come from the Acadian peninsula, and he comes from the Gaspé.

It is surprising to see that the same problem occurs right along the Baie des Chaleurs. We share the same problem in my region and in his. I am happy he asked me this question. It gives me a chance to explain this part.

With the dividing factor, the necessary hours can be accumulated over 52 weeks. It is possible to go back 52 weeks in order to qualify for employment insurance. That means that someone who works 420 or 450 hours can go back 52 weeks. But when it comes to money to be paid out, it is possible to go back only 26 weeks.

If most of the hours worked are at the start of the season, for example, 400 hours worked at the start of the season, and the individual is without work mid season because of fishing quotas—and this applies to factory workers and loggers—and then works only 20 hours at the end of the season, the hours are calculated over 52 weeks. In other words, the person qualifies for employment insurance, but the benefits are calculated on the 20 hours worked. Accordingly, the person could end up receiving $38 a week.

In the report about my tour across the country on the human impact of EI, I provide examples of this. People wrote me saying “I earned an average of $400 a week, and I am getting only $38 or $50”.

The Liberals' paltry 5% does not go far. It means absolutely nothing. This is why I said that Atlantic Canada could not be bought for 5%. It is not for sale. They are not crazy back home. There is television. Tonight they are watching the news and I am sure they are watching our debate. We are not for sale.

We supported the Liberals and the Conservatives for the past 100 years, and we are the poorest in the country. They never managed to create jobs, and today they tell fine tales saying they have again created jobs. It reminds me of Les Belles histoires des pays d'en haut . It does not work this way in Atlantic Canada.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

5 p.m.


Pat Martin NDP Winnipeg Centre, MB

Madam Speaker, Bill C-44 calls itself an act to amend the Employment Insurance Act. I think the Liberals should be honest. They should call it what it is. It is an act that is intended to tinker with the EI system so that they can buy back some of the votes of the millions of Atlantic Canadians who abandoned the Liberal Party out of rage and fury for the Liberal Party abandoning them. Pre-election cynicism is what it really is. It is no wonder that Canadian voters get cynical about the electoral process. They can surely see right through this.

Bill C-44 is an insult to Canadian workers. It is an insult to building trades workers, Atlantic fisheries workers and forestry workers all across the country. Workers should be offended. They are calling my office and telling me that they are offended because the Liberal Party did not listen to the experts on this issue. The experts are there. The experts have done the research. They have made that research available and the Liberals have chosen to ignore it.

Nobody in the country knows more about EI than the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst who did a cross-country national tour consulting with Canadians. The Liberals chose to ignore that. The national building trades council has studied every aspect of unemployment insurance and made reasonable, balanced recommendations and the Liberals ignored that. The Canadian Labour Congress, the Canadian Manufacturers Association, industry representatives from labour and management have told the government that the EI system is broken, the wheels have fallen off and it does not work anymore and the Liberals still have chosen not to fix it.

If the Liberals were honest they would change the name of the employment insurance fund because to use the word insurance is fraudulent in itself. The word is misleading and deceptive. It should really be called the Liberals' big cash cow because that is what it has been in the years since they made the devastating changes to it. What were the changes?

In my riding alone, $20.8 million a year has been sucked out. Already it is the third poorest riding in the country just because of these EI changes. What happens to these people? They get pushed on to provincial welfare. It is a way for the federal government to offload its responsibilities to provide income maintenance and insurance on to the provinces which then have to pay city welfare. It is no wonder people are furious.

The bill tinkers with the EI problems. It does two things. It eliminates the intensity rule. Big deal. The member for Acadie—Bathurst pointed out how insignificant and trivial that is. The bill changes the clawback provision back to where it used to be, not to improve it, not even all the way back. It used to be that EI did not get clawed back unless a person made $63,000 a year. Then it went down to $48,000. Then it went down to $39,000. Now it is being put back up to $48,000 and the government expects us to celebrate.

Two things that really cost Canadian workers are the divisor rule and the eligibility rule. They have been structured so nobody qualifies for EI anymore, but everybody has to pay into it. It is no wonder there is a surplus, a $750 million a month surplus. No, I was not heard incorrectly; that is per month, not per year. The amount of $750 million per month is being taken out of the system by the Liberals and it is not being put back into income maintenance where it belongs. What kind of insurance policy is that?

What if someone were forced to pay insurance on a house year after year and when the house burned down the person had a less than 35% chance of ever collecting any insurance benefit on it? That is no longer an insurance policy.

To deduct something from a person's paycheque for a specific purpose and to use it for something entirely different in the best case scenario is a breach of trust and in the worst case scenario is out and out fraud. The Liberals have been perpetrating this fraud on Canadian people all these years and milking it for every cent it is worth. Thirty-four billion dollars that should have gone into income maintenance for the people who arguably need it the most, the unemployed workers, have gone to pay down the deficit. This is a misuse of funds and a breach of trust. It is dishonest and I say it is out and out fraud.

I do not think I have to explain the divisor rule. Every working person in this country knows the EI system and knows what the divisor rule is. That is what has really cost workers. The dead weeks are factored in when averaging out the benefit. It used to be the benefit would be calculated by averaging out the weeks worked. Now it is averaging out all of the weeks in the previous 26 weeks even if the person did not work in those weeks.

I used to represent the carpenters union. A couple of years ago members of the carpenters union would make $400 or $450 a week as their EI benefit, 55% of their gross earnings. Now with the divisor rule which factors in the dead weeks, the amount is $180 or $220 week, almost 50% less.

With the tinkering that goes on, the Liberals chose very selectively the two things that are not going to cost them squat. The government will still have a gross surplus of funds that will not go into an EI fund because that is a misnomer, but into general revenues for the government to use for whatever it wants. That is where the breach of trust comes in.

My party did a comprehensive brief on this issue. I see it on the desk of the member for Acadie—Bathurst. It is a well developed, comprehensive document that was the result of a national cross-country tour. We received input from concerned citizens from all walks of life, not just labour, but management as well who are very concerned about our dysfunctional, completely broken EI system. The government chose to ignore those meaningful recommendations.

The building trades council arguably has the most knowledgeable people on the EI issue in the labour movement because it directly affects so many of its 400,000 members. It had a good seven point plan with realistic proposals that would have made the system work. In other words, the money taken off paycheques would go toward income maintenance or training, one or the other. None of these things were picked up.

Even the detail about apprenticeship has been ignored by the government. When I was going through my apprenticeship the first two weeks of an EI claim were paid. It was not treated like an unemployment insurance claim; it was a training benefit. That aspect of the EI fund was very beneficial. Using EI money, seats were purchased at the community college. Now apprentices are charged tuition at community colleges as if they were going to university or something.

Again in a situation where the fund is showing a surplus of $750 million a month, how does the government justify squeezing that last little bit out of something like the apprenticeship system? It is unconscionable. I am really horrified by the whole thing.

People thought with some optimism that leading up to an election they could expect some improvement, that the Liberals would make it right again. They thought they could expect the Liberals to use the money that is deducted from their paycheques honestly. What do we get? Instead of real improvements, we get this little package, Bill C-44, with tiny tinkering steps that will not benefit very many workers.

Thirty-five per cent of unemployed people quality for benefits, 25% of women. There is a huge gender bias in the current EI system which the Liberals have failed to address as well.

Less than 15% of unemployed youth qualify for EI, even though under the new hours bank system contributions are credited by hours. Youth working part time have to pay in. They never had to pay in before if they worked under a certain number of hours per week. Now everybody has to pay in but there is a less than 15% chance of ever collecting any benefit.

It ceased to be an insurance program a long time ago. It is dishonest and disingenuous to call it such any longer. Let us call it what it is. It is a cash cow. It is a transparent attempt to buy back some of the votes of the good people of Atlantic Canada who so resoundingly rejected the Liberal Party for being so callous and indifferent to them in the first place.

The Liberals take money off a worker's cheque for heaven's sake and use it to pay down the deficit or to give tax breaks to the wealthy. As I have said before, it is like some perverted form of Robin Hood, to rob from the poor and give to the rich. That is what we are witnessing here. Incredibly that is what we are watching the Liberals do but we will not stand by idly. Fortunately I think we are going into an election and that will give us a platform to expose those guys, to expose this travesty, to expose what they have done to Atlantic Canada and what they seek to do again by buying these votes back. The electorate is very knowledgeable these days. People read the newspapers and watch television. People pay attention to their paycheques first and foremost. They know what is going on.

When I was a practising carpenter I paid $45 every paycheque to EI and my employer paid 1.4 times that amount. That is a lot of money. Of every paycheque, $80 or $90 was being paid into the fund on my behalf in case of the unfortunate situation that I would become unemployed and would require income maintenance.

Where is all that money going? The Minister of Finance stands and crows about paying down the deficit. He is paying down the deficit on the backs of unemployed workers. Are the Liberals proud of that? They will not be for long. As soon as we get on the doorsteps in the coming election they will not be proud of that. We will ram it down the Liberals' throats, especially in Atlantic Canada. I almost wish I were running in Atlantic Canada. It would be a cakewalk. It would be fun to remind people of what those guys have done to them over and over again. People will not need much reminding. It is a top of the mind issue. It is first and foremost. The Liberals will pay a political price, mark my words.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

5:10 p.m.


Stan Keyes Liberal Hamilton West, ON

Madam Speaker, the hon. member certainly must think there is an election in the air by the way he rambled on. I have never heard such nonsense. Imagine. He is an hon. member who considers—

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

5:10 p.m.


Pat Martin NDP Winnipeg Centre, MB

Madam Speaker, I rise on a point of order. The member on the Liberal side is saying that the speech I just gave is nonsense. It is unparliamentary—

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

5:10 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Thibeault)

That is strictly debate.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

5:10 p.m.


Stan Keyes Liberal Hamilton West, ON

Madam Speaker, the member should know it is not a point of order but he has not been around for very long.

The New Democratic Party member was talking about tinkering steps. He said it was little bits. We have premium reductions totalling $1.2 billion, program changes coming up to $500 million, a total of $1.7 billion. I am sure the hon. member could not count to $1.7 billion never mind admit that it is a lot of money for EI.

Here is what his brothers and sisters are saying.

The hon. member has the unmitigated gall to stand in this place and say that this is only vote getting for Atlantic Canada when his own brothers and sisters in the AFL-CIO say in today's paper in a full page ad that this is nothing at all about votes on the east coast, that this benefits working men and women from coast to coast to coast.

The Canadian office of the building and construction trades council says that repealing the intensity rule and restoring the single income tested clawback rule is sound policy for all unemployed workers from coast to coast to coast, that taking this action reveals a government with courage to take corrective steps when they are needed at any time during its mandate.

I have a question for the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre. Is $1.7 billion about tinkering? What about his brothers and sisters in the AFL-CIO and other Canadian building and trade councils who fully endorse the actions of the government and the Minister of Canadian Heritage?

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

5:15 p.m.


Pat Martin NDP Winnipeg Centre, MB

Madam Speaker, this is what is particularly cheesy about Bill C-44. It is frankly forcing groups like our own caucus to vote for Bill C-44. Nobody denies that for a long time we have wanted the intensity rule eradicated. Frankly some of the labour groups likewise have to acknowledge that they have wanted to get rid of the intensity rule for a long time as well. It was one of three or four irritants in the system.

I spoke to the carpenters union today. I spoke to the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades. I spoke to the IBEW and members of the building trades council who are terribly disappointed that nobody touched the divisor rule. Nobody touched the eligibility requirements of 920 hours to qualify and 700 hours to requalify. That is almost double the requirement there used to be to be eligible for benefits.

The proof will be in the pudding on election day because these groups will remember who the advocates for EI were and what party tore the guts out of the EI program to the point where it is dysfunctional and nothing but a cash cow for that party to spend.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

October 4th, 2000 / 5:15 p.m.


Lee Morrison Reform Cypress Hills—Grasslands, SK

Madam Speaker, I hope the ceiling does not fall, as I would like to compliment the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre for his brilliant analysis of the EI rip-off and the multibillion dollar surplus that has built up on the backs of Canadian workers. I deeply appreciate what was said.

It has to be said over and over again, and I hope by all parties, that we cannot balance the budget by setting up a slush fund. That is all that EI has become. It is a slush fund.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

5:15 p.m.


Pat Martin NDP Winnipeg Centre, MB

Madam Speaker, I very much appreciate that comment. I think all parties are aware that the EI fund ceased to be an insurance program a long time ago. It is a misnomer. It is actually fraudulent to even call it an insurance program because it is anything but that. It is a cash cow for the Liberal Party to use for anything it chooses, anything other than income maintenance.

There was another point that came up. The hon. member over there mentioned the $500 million in savings. That $500 million per year in savings by eliminating the intensity rule and the change in the clawback provisions accounts for 1.5% of the $34 billion that the Liberals have taken out of the fund, with no excuse. Thirty-four billion dollars compared to $500 million is 1.5%, and the Liberals will pay a political price for it. I guarantee it.