Madam Speaker, I am always very interested in talking about the employment insurance bill.
I have to say that I opposed the bill. I opposed it and I still oppose it, but a little less today because now I have hope.
I will first explain why the Bloc Quebecois and I oppose this bill as currently defined. First off, clause 9 of the bill gives the government the power to set the premium rates for 2002 and 2003, on the recommendation of the Minister of Human Resources Development and the Minister of Finance.
Under the existing act the premium rates are set by the commission, with the approval of the governor in council, on the recommendation of the Minister of Human Resources Development and the Minister of Finance.
The nuance is significant since with the ousting of the commission for the rate setting process the rates could be adjusted according to the needs of the government and its deficit, rather than according to the needs of the unemployed and the amount of contributions received, as the chief actuary recommends.
If passed, clause 9 would legalize theft and the government's having full possession of the fund.
This morning people talked about a real employment insurance fund. However, with clause 9, we are making it legal for the government to draw from the fund surplus as it wishes. I therefore appeal to this government to have this clause repealed. If it were, I would vote in favour. The Bloc Quebecois would vote for the bill. Why?
If members read over my last speech concerning Bill C-2, they will find that I was very critical of that bill, which had nothing to do with the reality of the area I represent where seasonal work is a fact of life.
Why am I less critical today? It is because I have hope. Nevertheless, I remain concerned. I have hope, given the fact that a motion was adopted by the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development which was put forward by the hon. member for Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques and which said:
That the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities report to the House of Commons other recommendations related to the Employment Insurance Act and that this report be tabled to the House no later than June 1, 2001.
Hearings were held and people from Saguenay—Lac-Saint-Jean gave testimony before the committee. We were very happy about that. Several witnesses said that the actual reform was nonsense since it does not answer the needs of our fellow citizens.
I am still concerned today, but I see a glimmer of hope. What will be the content of the report tabled on June 1? I do not know. However my colleague from Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques has all my confidence, because he is a man full of compassion and understanding toward Quebec workers. There are many things I would like to see in this report, and I hope it can generate major changes in the present plan.
The Employment Insurance Act as it stands now has a negative impact on my region and that of the hon. member for Charlevoix, because we both experienced the same kind of situation on July 1. This is not a problem affecting all our colleagues.
The act provides for a review of EI zones every five years. The number of hours and the number of weeks of benefits vary between an area with high unemployment and an area with a strong economy.
When the zoning is sensibly done it reflects the reality of regions. A new zone was established on July 1 last year without any real consultation. There were token consultations. I wrote to the minister to tell her I disagreed with this new EI zone. In Saguenay—Lac-Saint-Jean her officials told her to keep the status quo. In spite of it all, the chief actuary established the new zone. Actually I do not know whether the actuary or the minister was involved, but that is not relevant. Still, a major change was made in that instead of having to work 420 hours to qualify workers from the Saguenay—Lac-Saint-Jean region will now need 525 hours to get a maximum of 22 weeks of benefits, instead of 31.
This may be of little significance to us, in the comfort of our seats. This morning, I listened to the passionate speech made by the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst on the realities experienced by the families and workers who will not qualify, or who will qualify but will only receive benefits until February. How will these people survive? From February to May when the tourist season starts and seasonal economic activities resume, these people will have to rely on income security, on welfare.
Do hon. members think this is what these people want? Absolutely not, particularly since they often have a house or a car, which is perfectly normal and something I wish on everyone. Because of that they cannot qualify for provincial income security. These people then find themselves without any income, and governments wonder why people turn to the underground economy. There comes a point where people have to get into survival mode. When the government comes up with measures like this one, with measures that do not reflect the workers' reality, some turn to the underground economy because they need to put bread and butter on the table.
That is why the minister, faced with an outcry from workers in our regions before the election was called, agreed to change the rules to propose transitional measures so that workers would have the time, the minister put it, to get used to the new EI rules which restrict eligibility and decrease the number of benefit weeks.
People do not get used to poverty. Even if we wanted to extend the tourism season, and we are working on it, the weather must be factored in. When the ground is frozen it is frozen, with the result that there are certain activities which are impossible during the winter season. Seasonal work is a reality in this country and must be taken into consideration.
I mentioned earlier that I hoped the committee would submit a report and that it would lead to amendments so that the Saguenay—Lac-Saint-Jean and North Shore regions would see a return to measures reflecting the economic reality of the Saguenay—Lac-Saint-Jean area. The result would be that seasonal workers could make both ends meet and that they would not find themselves facing poverty. This does not mean that they do not want to work. Far from it.
Once again, I listened to the speech by the member for Acadie—Bathurst who had heard in the House that some people are lazy and want to live off income security. There may be a percentage who do, but it is not true of most workers. Far from it. What people want are working conditions, work and decent pay, to which everyone is entitled.
If the existing rules are not amended the impact on the economy of my region and on businesses will be disastrous.
I mentioned workers who will face a gap in benefits in the spring. Businesses will be affected as well.
Unfortunately that is all the time I have.