Mr. Speaker, I rise today to join in the debate on Motion No. 222 which reads:
That, in the opinion of this House, the government should take immediate action to restore employment insurance benefits to seasonal workers.
I note that there has been an amendment by the Liberal member for Miramichi and a further subamendment by the member for Bras d'Or—Cape Breton.
In beginning my participation in the debate, I wish to assure hon. members present that although seasonal workers are often referred to in speeches on the east coast, I am very familiar with the impact of seasonal employment. My own riding of Nanaimo—Cowichan has its share of seasonal workers. These workers are primarily found in three different occupations: fishing, tourism and, although members may not believe it, in forestry today.
As we all know, the fishing industry has been particularly hard hit on both the east and west coasts. Declining fish stocks brought about by poor management, changing water temperatures, cyclical changes and other factors all resulted in a loss of jobs for fishermen and the support industries.
The forest industry actually is no different. Due to the poorly drafted softwood lumber agreement, the crash in the Japanese economy, the glut of newsprint on the worldwide market and the slowdown in the number of housing starts all across Canada, many forestry workers are faced with seasonal work rather than the level of full time employment that they once enjoyed.
Tourism is fast becoming the number one source of new jobs in Canada today. Indeed, tourism is truly seasonal employment. Many cities and towns are doing what they can to build upon and expand the resources that they have in their communities, all in an effort to draw tourists.
I have previously spoken in the House about my own home town of Chemainus, the little town that did, and the enormous number of tourists that arrive every year between May and October, about 400,000 of them. The Nanaimo Dive Association is about to sink a second artificial reef just outside the harbour. Why would they do that, one may ask. It is simply because the first artificial reef has attracted thousands of divers every year since it was sunk.
Why do I talk about these three industries today? I know that seasonal workers are found in each one of these industries. I also know that each one of our ridings has its share of seasonal workers. Whether they dig potatoes in the Fraser Valley, pick peaches in the Okanagan Valley, custom seed or combine across the Prairies, work in summer camps or vacation lodges in Ontario and Quebec or are part of the tourism trade in the maritimes, each one of our ridings is certainly affected by seasonal workers. This is a very real problem and one that each of us should take very seriously.
We may have different solutions however. Most of us can agree that there are problems within the system. It appears to me that one of the problem areas is the so-called intensity rule. As hon. members will know, the intensity rule was introduced in the 1995 Employment Insurance Act and distinguishes between frequent and infrequent recipients of EI benefits. Those who are frequent users of EI have their benefits reduced. While the intention appears to have been to discourage the frequent use of EI, I do not believe that the intensity rule has really worked in this manner. On this issue I do agree with the government amendment that there is a need to review employment insurance benefits for seasonal workers.
Unfortunately the limits of time in this debate are not sufficient to adequately address nor seek solutions to the problems that are part of the 1995 Employment Insurance Act. Systemic problems require more than a cursory debate in order to be resolved. While I see a need to review and address the problems within the EI system, I believe that the wording of the original motion will not solve any of the real problems. Rather, it will perpetuate them.
In resolving the inadequacies of the EI system there are a multitude of issues that must be researched and resolved, issues such as how businesses are using or abusing the EI system, the rates of benefits for frequent and infrequent users, as well as the premiums for businesses that are frequent and infrequent employers of seasonal workers.
I note that the 1998 EI monitoring and assessment report produced by the Department of Human Resources Development acknowledges that communities with high levels of seasonal employment were more likely to have industries that showed declining benefit levels. The concern I have regarding this is that the data used in writing the report would appear to have been gathered in the time immediately following the implementation of the revised 1995 EI act. I would question what has changed since that time. Is the data all relevant? Do the assumptions and conclusions in that report remain true today?
The government clearly hoped that with the implementation of the intensity rule the workers would have an incentive to move out of seasonal industries and regions. I question whether the rationale of seasonal workers receiving lower benefits has moved anyone out of seasonal work altogether. While some may have moved out of seasonal work, no doubt there are others who have moved in simply to take their place.
Why has the implementation of the intensity rule not changed the number of seasonal workers? Simply put, most seasonal workers state that they have few employment options outside their current seasonal jobs. According to the 1998 monitoring report, the intensity rule did not appear to be an incentive to look for non-seasonal work.
As part of an intensive review of EI legislation we must begin by looking at what was the original intent of employment insurance. If employment insurance was intended to protect workers against the risk of temporary, involuntary unemployment, we must ask ourselves whether the program is working. If it is not working, what are the options to fix the system? Should companies that hire primarily seasonal workers be assessed higher premiums? Does this place an unfair burden on some businesses but not on others?
With regard to seasonal workers, is it not a matter of risk that they will be unemployed? They already know that when they begin. Seasonal work clearly has different factors affecting it than full time work. Some of those factors may be due to the size of the crop or the length of the season.
Let us be clear in this debate. I believe that Motion No. 222, as originally struck, may prove to stifle any efforts to find real solutions in the debate over seasonal EI recipients.
There are markets that are and will remain seasonal and they should not be unduly penalized. There are other markets that would appear to be taking advantage of the current legislation and, of course, this is not right either.
Employment insurance should not be used as a wage subsidy program. I understand that the original role of the EI program was to be protection against involuntary and temporary job loss. There is no question that the EI program has assisted many individuals and families and this should not be overlooked.
As part of this debate we must note that there are other factors to contend with. The use of excessive EI premiums by the government to fill the finance department coffers is inappropriate. I must wonder, if the premiums were not excessive and the money left in the pockets of the businesses, could the businesses better afford to hire additional workers? If this were the case, would some of the seasonal workers actually have the opportunity to become full time employees?
I strongly believe that money left in the pockets of the businesses and workers of this country is the wisest investment that government could ever make. Canadians are wise people and know when they are being taken advantage of. Currently they know they are being overtaxed. Businesses and individuals alike are not prepared to work under a prohibitive taxation structure. The flaws that we have before us will not be resolved by this one motion, but it could be a starting place if we can look at it systemically and not just in isolation.
I thank the hon. member for his motion and for the opportunity to take part in this important debate today.