Mr. Speaker, in listening to the parliamentary secretary, one would think that the government did not have any money when it comes down to the high rate that is charged to businesses and workers for these much reduced benefits. The government is pleading poverty where it need not. It could use some of that extra money it is taking to study the thing.
I am glad to have this opportunity to speak on this important issue. Although we may not agree on the solution to ensuring that seasonal workers have incomes adequate to meet their needs and aspirations, I do appreciate the concerns that motivated my colleague for Acadie—Bathurst to make this motion.
The hon. member stated in his speech that his motion was meant to achieve two objectives. The first is to reform employment insurance and the second is to stimulate proposals to diversify Canada's seasonal economy. Both objectives are laudable in and of themselves, but the text of his motion calls for the immediate restoration of employment insurance benefits to seasonal workers. I believe that the effect of his motion, if adopted, would be to stifle any efforts to find solutions to the structural problems currently forcing many workers into the seasonal economy.
Neither workers nor the companies that have benefited from easy access to EI would have the will to make any effort to search for constructive solutions to the problem. There would be neither any pressure nor any incentive to make the changes he wants to see.
The hon. member rightly points out that most seasonal workers are not in favour of the seasonal nature of their jobs. Nevertheless saying it does not address the problem. There are businesses that by their very nature are seasonal. The obvious ones are in forestry, agriculture, tourism, fishing and construction. Some of these sectors pay their workers very well and those who choose to work in them are able to bridge the gaps in their employment. I have personally spoken to some people in that category. Other sectors are not able to pay enough to enable workers to make ends meet when there is a break in their employment and I have also spoken to many people in that category. The problem is not simple, but in fact extremely complex.
There are many factors that contribute to the seasonal economy. An abundance of seasonal jobs could be an indicator of a sector of the economy in decline or it could equally indicate an emerging sector of the economy. Take for instance just two examples.
A local economic development authority may decide it wants to focus on tourism which is actually an emerging sector in my hometown. At first the emphasis was on the things it knew. Sport fishing, for instance, is a summer activity that the community has built on over a number of years and guided hunting is a fall activity in the same way. These were sufficient to maintain a small hospitality sector that was subject to seasonal employment variations. In recent years, through the development of cross-country skiing and snowmobile trails, the sector has expanded its infrastructure and extended the seasons in which work is available. This has had a positive effect on the local economy and of course the employment picture. These innovations, while possible, would not have been driven by business or employment considerations in an environment that failed to reward creative solutions to the problems facing businesses in the region.
Returning employment insurance to its previous function in the seasonal economy would act as a reverse incentive to the search for ways to build and diversify local economies.
There are many factors that are considered by businesses when they decide where to locate or when to expand. Among them are location, transportation, amenities, infrastructure, educational and cultural opportunities, recreation and housing.
The other factors businesses consider are the incentives such as government subsidies and grants. Employment insurance for many years has been a tool of government to subsidize businesses, allowing them to reduce their workforces in times of reduced economic activities and to recall them when prospects improve. This has enabled businesses to avoid making long term commitments to their workers and encouraged workers to stay in depressed areas of Canada and in uneconomic sectors of the economy that are dependent on government for their survival.
In my previous life I was a businessman and I have firsthand knowledge of these matters. A part time worker of mine who was, by the way, one of the best workers I ever had, finally left to take full time employment in another part of Canada and in a different sector of the economy. He is happy with the change even though it meant major changes in his life. He is one of those people who wanted full time work but could not get it where he was geographically located, nor in a sector in which he wanted to work.
One of the reasons this loyal employee and friend left was due to changes in the EI program. One of these changes relates to the rule that differentiates between frequent and infrequent recipients of benefits under the EI program. Sometimes this works, but frequently it fails to produce the intended results.
As HRDC's 1998 EI Monitoring and Assessment Report stated:
Communities with high levels of seasonal employment were more likely to have industries that showed declining benefits levels.
This report was published three years after implementation of the changes. The data used in its production would have been collected well before that. Before considering any other changes to the program it would be wise for the government to initiate further studies to see if there have been significant shifts in behaviour and attitude since then. It is a well known fact that there is always considerable resistance to change and that consistent monitoring and explanation of programs is vital to the success of any initiative.
However, with respect to what I have just said, a 1999 assessment of the program tabled in the House yesterday has confirmed that EI clients in Atlantic Canada and other parts of Canada are continuing to use EI benefits to supplement their incomes on a regular basis.
Other than what I just stated, there are other good reasons for not making the changes proposed by the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst. The most dramatic, and I would argue the most unwarranted, change would be to make EI into a wage subsidy program again rather than maintaining it as an insurance program.
Employment insurance should have as its primary goal protection against involuntary temporary job loss. Any other purpose militates against the program acting in accordance with insurance principles.
My colleague, the hon. member from Wanuskewin, has identified many of the problems and has suggested some solutions to the problems facing workers and government in implementing changes to the system. I want to restate and emphasize one of them.
Some industries have a pattern of laying off workers at the same time each year. This takes advantage of EI as surely as a worker who manages his work time in order to take maximum advantage of the program. He suggests that differential premiums imposed on such companies would be one method of motivating companies to change their work patterns.
To lay the entire burden of the changes solely on the workforce is to address only half of the problem. I do not know whether such a scheme would be advisable or if it would work, but it certainly deserves a look.
One other change the government could and should make is to reduce the unconscionably high rates of employment insurance premiums charged that really bear no relation to the benefits to either workers or businesses. This tax on business chokes off the entrepreneurial spirit that creates the good jobs which will withstand seasonal variations and have a strong demand throughout the year.
I believe that the evidence points to the need to do a thorough review of aspects of employment insurance, with particular emphasis on the intensity rule.
I will be supporting the motion as amended, although it would have been far preferable to have the matter referred to the appropriate standing committee for study and recommendation.
I would rather have seen included in the NDP amendment a call for immediate action so that it would not depend on the leisure time that the minister might decide to devote to it at some point in the future.
It needs to be dealt with, and I thank the House for the opportunity to address this very important issue.