Mr. Speaker, let me begin by saying that I am confident that members of all parties will support the amendment proposed by the hon. member for Miramichi which asks that the government take immediate action to review the employment insurance benefits for seasonal workers.
Canada's economy is such that we have always had and always will have seasonal industries. These industries are vital to our economic well-being. However, these industries by definition employ people for only part of the year. We must always remain watchful to ensure that our economic and social programs do not exclude those workers from the rewards and benefits of living and working in Canada.
Let me remind the House that the Government of Canada introduced employment insurance after long consultation and much deliberation. Even then, we built in a monitoring and review process that would report back each year for five years.
The new employment insurance package was aimed precisely at ensuring fair and equitable treatment of all Canadian workers, whether their work was seasonal, year round, part time or full time.
Let us not forget the very good reasons why an extensive redesign of the EI program was carried out. The old unemployment insurance system was questioned for its sustainability. It was not responsive to the new labour market that prevails in Canada. It tended to discourage attachment to the labour force.
What is most pertinent to Motion No. 222 is the fact that the system was unfair in its treatment of some workers, most notably part time and seasonal workers.
The resulting employment insurance system is designed specifically to be sustainable and fair, while encouraging work and ensuring benefits are provided for those in the greatest need. Of course the ultimate goal is to help workers get back to work faster and stay employed longer.
EI also recognizes the reality of Canada's labour market where seasonal workers are prevalent in certain industries. Seasonal workers have particular needs and the program does indeed have special features built in to assist seasonal workers. Is it enough? Possibly not.
The hours based system takes into account the fact that seasonal work often involves long hours of work per week. As a result, many seasonal workers therefore find it easier to qualify and receive higher benefits for longer periods.
Another example is the introduction of small weeks pilot projects. These would allow seasonal workers to take all work that is available, even a few hours a week, without it resulting in a lower benefit rate at their next claim.
Also, the family supplement targets low income families with children by topping up their benefits each year. Those families are also exempt from the application of the intensity rule which normally reduces benefits for claimants who make repeated use of employment insurance.
Then there are the active employment measures under the EI program which are helping many seasonal workers upgrade their skills, enabling them to get back into the workforce more quickly.
The effects of the EI program are being monitored continuously. There is a requirement for monitoring and assessment reports for the five years following its introduction. Yesterday the Minister of Human Resources Development tabled in the House the third annual report, which showed that EI has affected frequent claimants less than claimants overall and that benefits paid to unemployed workers in most seasonal industries have increased substantially. While the entitlement of frequent and seasonal claimants declined from 33 weeks to 32 weeks, this was still three weeks more than in 1995 when the EI regime was introduced.
In short, frequent and seasonal claimants appear to benefit from the switch to an hours based eligibility system, even though frequent and seasonal claimants often have fewer insured hours during the year than other claimants.
I believe that the EI regime provides better coverage for seasonal workers compared to the system it replaced. Is it perfect? No, it is not. Is there room for improvement and change? I hope so. As for providing for the well-being of all Canadians, without doubt the government can stand on its record. More than 427,000 were created last year alone and 85% of them were full time jobs.
We need to make changes in the employment program, especially for seasonal workers and those men and women in Atlantic Canada who work in the fisheries. We need to find some improvements. I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure that happens.