Mr. Speaker, I am very happy to be able to talk to Bill C-44, which changes some of the rules of the employment insurance program.
As far as I am concerned, Bill C-44 on employment insurance makes very minor adjustments and can be considered an electoral goody. The Liberal government had no choice but to amend the Employment Insurance Act.
It is but a short-sighted revision and not a comprehensive reform of the Employment Insurance Act.
It is a bill without substance and clearly inadequate for the large numbers of workers without jobs. It is a cosmetic bill, which will cost the government a mere $500 million when all is said and done. That is not much, compared to the $32 billion accumulated in the government's coffers. We know that this year alone $7 billion went directly to paying down the debt.
Many of those excluded will not qualify for EI benefits. That means that two people out of three will continue to be excluded, in spite of the fact that a few major changes were made.
Before I begin my short speech on the Employment Insurance Act, I wish to inform the Chair that I would like to share my time with my colleague from Charlevoix.
Bill C-44 consists of three meagre measures. Some might find them interesting since much needed to be done with respect to the employment insurance program. Let us begin with the intensity rule.
That rule will not apply any more. That is good for those who were penalized because they were considered frequent claimants. They will no longer have to lose 1% on their salary. There will no longer be any penalty. The unemployed will no longer have benefits reduced to 50% or 55% of their salary. It is a step in the right direction, but it is too little.
The maximum insurable earning threshold will be raised from $39,000 to $48,000 for the purpose of the clawback on EI benefits. The government is giving a little break to those who earn up to $48,000.
For a new parent who leaves the work force, it will be possible to go back four years, instead of one year, to calculate the number of eligible hours for employment insurance.
I repeat that this is a step in the right direction, but Bill C-44 does not respond to many inequities facing several workers. First, young people will still have to work 910 hours to qualify. We know very well that it is difficult for a young person to accumulate 910 hours. The work force no longer provides stable jobs. Instead, it provides insecure and part time jobs. Consequently, it is too much to require 910 hours for a young person to qualify.
The whole issue of independent workers has not been dealt with. We know that, in Quebec, they represent 16% of the population. In this bill, the issue of independent workers is not being dealt with.
The Bloc Quebecois had made several proposals for refunding premiums for people who earn up to $5,000. We know that, today, a person who earns $2,000 pays premiums, but that above that amount, premiums are never refunded. We would have liked that cap set at $5,000. Students work in the summer, pay employment insurance premiums and do not get a refund of premiums paid on income over $2,000.
There are special benefits that include maternal benefits. Again, there will be some irritants for pregnant women. They will have to work 600 hours, contrary to workers in some regions who will receive benefits after working for 420 hours. This is a double standard. If we want to encourage women to have children, they will not find adequate measures to deal with their situation.
We are well aware that the government's proposal to double the maternity leave is clearly inadequate. We know that many women do not use the maternity leave—I think the ratio is about 52%—because they cannot afford to stay home for any length of time with benefits that represent only 55% of their salary.
Very often, women who do stay home with their children do not use the whole maternity leave. It does not make sense to give a one year maternity leave to women who cannot afford it, who cannot afford to stay away from work for a year.
The government did not seriously address the Employment Insurance Act and all its ramifications. It did not address the status of seasonal workers either. In Baie-Comeau, Trois-Pistoles or Rouyn-Noranda, there are inequities in the treatment of seasonal workers. The government has not dealt with their problem. Discrimination will continue. The proposed measures are meagre compared to the huge surplus piling up in the EI fund.
The Prime Minister is quite pleased with the accumulated surplus. As he said so clearly in the House “Let me enjoy this, if it is the only problem I have”. He thinks this is a minor problem. When workers are excluded from the EI benefits, or have their meagre benefits reduced under the intensity rule, the Prime Minister is not, as we know, the one who is faced with the problem of being jobless.
Also, the government has not really dealt with reduced benefits for seasonal workers. This category of workers is only entitled to reduced benefits. For instance, the government refused to increase the benefits to 60% of the wages of the workers to take the increase in the cost of living into account. It could have indexed EI benefits.
The EI program has been and continues to be totally out of touch with reality, even if the government wants us to believe that the program is in sync with the labour market. It is not; it is totally out of whack.
The figures speak for themselves. When the reform was implemented in 1997, there was a decrease of 16.4% in the number of EI claimants, compared to a 4% drop in the unemployment rate. It was the same for several years. But those figures only apply for 1997. Between 1993 and 1999, the number of regular claimants decreased by 52.4% and the unemployment rate was at 28%. As members can see, the number of claimants dropped twice as much as the number of the unemployed. In percentage, the number of unemployed workers is decreasing more slowly than the number of claimants.
That is why we believe that this reform is far from suited to the realities of the labour market. We can say it is a small victory, a half-victory for the Bloc Quebecois, as the numerous demands made by my party for a comprehensive reform of the new employment insurance legislation have led to three small measures taken by the government in Bill C-44. This will bring some comfort to certain workers who have lost their jobs. However, a lot of people have been forgotten, including women, young people and seasonal workers. The government should have made other changes to allow more people to qualify.
The premium rate was reduced; it is all fine and well to lower it to $2.25, but if the majority of unemployed people are not covered, I think we are missing what the main purpose of such legislation should be, that is, helping those who find themselves without a job.
In closing, I would like to repeat a word used by the person who was responsible for this issue before, who said he was “shocked” when I was putting questions to him and telling him that this reform would be devastating for thousands and thousands of unemployed people. We certainly cannot give the government high marks for these three very small measures.