Mr. Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to speak on this motion, the amendment and the subamendment which calls on the government to restore employment insurance benefits to seasonal workers.
I should say from the outset that while I do not agree with the motion as it is currently worded, I would support it should it be amended as proposed by the member for Miramichi.
I also cannot support the subamendment just proposed because I can think of nothing that would slow down more the kinds of changes that the mover of the original motion is looking for than the requirement for cross-country hearings. All that testimony would have to be collected, all that testimony would have to be analyzed. It would cost the government a lot of money and the main thing is it would cost parliament a lot of time.
I share the concern of the member for Acadie—Bathurst for the well-being of Canadian seasonal workers. I must disagree with the phrasing of his motion as it now reads. The fact is that seasonal workers in Canada do have access to employment insurance benefits. Why then should we adopt a motion calling on such benefits to be restored?
I would like to take a few minutes to share some ideas and insights on how EI might do an even better job of helping unemployed workers, including seasonal workers, to improve their employability, to return to work and to prepare for the challenges of our new economy. As members know, these have been key priorities for the government since our very first day in office.
For example, we have worked hard to spur economic growth and to promote job creation. Canada's strong economic and job growth statistics suggest that we have made considerable progress in this area. Last year alone 400,000 jobs were created, 85% of which were full time. Moreover, the national unemployment rate has dropped to 6.8%.
During 1998 jobs for young workers increased 5.3%, the strongest showing on record, while jobs for women increased over 3.2%, the biggest rise in a decade. We are also focusing our efforts on helping those workers who are out of work. In some cases this has meant setting up new programs. In other cases it has meant making sure existing programs really help unemployed workers.
When we looked at the old unemployment system, we realized something had to be done since the rising cost was not sustainable over time. It was not keeping pace with the new labour market and its demands. It sometimes discouraged people from working and encouraged them to become dependent on benefits, and it treated some workers unfairly, like part time and seasonal workers.
As a result we introduced the new employment insurance system which is designed to do five things. First, to be sustainable. Second, to be fairer by opening up access to many workers, including seasonal and part time workers who were not previously protected. Third, to encourage work and discourage reliance on benefits. Fourth, to target those most in need and, fifth, to help workers get back to work faster and stay employed longer.
While EI seeks to help all unemployed workers, we also recognize that some groups such as seasonal workers have special circumstances that must be addressed. EI therefore contains features that particularly benefit seasonal workers. For example, the hours based system takes into account the special nature of seasonal work which often involves long hours of work per week. As a result many seasonal workers find it easier to qualify, receive higher benefits, and collect benefits longer.
Our small weeks pilot projects make it possible for many seasonal workers to take all the work that is available and provide them with higher weekly benefits.
Family supplements help low income families with children, many of whom depend on seasonal work or the fishery. By topping up benefits and exempting them from the intensity rule, over 200,000 Canadian families benefited from this supplement last year. Reflecting its importance, our expenditures in this area increased from about $105 million to nearly $150 million. In addition, EI's active employment measures help many seasonal workers upgrade their skills so they can get back to work quickly, or go into another line of work. This was underlined by the recently released third annual EI monitoring and assessment report which found that frequent users, of which seasonal workers form a significant share, have in fact benefited from features introduced since 1996.
Frequent claimants received about 43% of all regular and fishing benefits, up from 41% the year before. Benefits paid to unemployed workers in most seasonal industries increased substantially with the highest increases taking place in fishing and trapping. Those benefits were up 70%, and in mining, oil and gas they were up 52%.
Weekly benefits for frequent claimants, which were already higher than the average, increased again from $303 to $305, in contrast to the declines in weekly benefits seen in the two previous years. While the entitlement of frequent and seasonal claimants declined from 33.4 weeks to 32.8 weeks, this was still three weeks more than in 1995-96, thus indicating the positive impact of the switch to an hours based system. In addition, our eligibility system is reducing the impact of the intensity rule for many workers. They are finding the extra hours of work needed to qualify for EI and are receiving higher benefits than before, 8% higher than the average for regular benefits.
I urge all members to work with us to ensure that EI does the best possible job of helping unemployed workers return to work quickly, including seasonal benefits.