Mr. Speaker, I would like to congratulate the hon. member for Sackville—Musquodoboit Valley—Eastern Shore for having launched this important debate on a matter that cannot help but interest large numbers of Canadians. It is, in fact, a matter of interest to the country as a whole, since it impacts upon the workplace, the health care system and society in general.
Last year I had an experience that made me more aware of this situation, when I was involved in fundraising for Leucan. I came to know parents who had left their jobs to be with a sick child and was able to see the many difficulties and constraints parents have to deal with during this painful time.
I must acknowledge that the bill introduced by my hon. colleague addresses concerns that are shared by the Government of Canada.
Bill C-206 needs to be seen in relation to the commitment made by the Government of Canada in the last throne speech.
In the September 2002 Speech from the Throne, the government announced its intention to make changes to existing programs The government will also modify existing programs to ensure that Canadians can provide compassionate care for a gravely ill or dying child, parent or spouse without putting their jobs or incomes at risk.
These commitments show the government's concern with the difficulties being faced by many Canadians in balancing work and family.
There is no question about my colleague having his heart in the right place. He is concerned about the difficult situation being faced by nearly one in four Canadian workers. These workers or other family members are looking after a family member who is elderly, disabled or seriously ill.
My colleague's deep concern for these devoted people who are having to reconcile family responsibilities and work pressures is obvious. Theirs is a superhuman task.
It is also undeniable that the efforts required to establish this balance among all one's obligations, often incompatible obligations, is a heavy burden for many Canadians. We know that close to half of all Canadians experience average, if not high, occupational stress levels. That figure is close to twice what it was 10 years ago. We also know that women who have to reconcile work and family responsibilities are twice as likely to experience considerable stress.
This personal conflict does not only impact on individual health and well being, although this is enough of a concern in itself. Mental or physical health problems also have repercussions on the economy.
These repercussions are directly related to job satisfaction, to loss of interest in the organization and burnout, which can ultimately lead to someone leaving their job. Work-related absences represent approximately 20 million work days and $2.7 billion annually for Canadian businesses.
Taxpayers are affected too: health care spending is increasing. The cost to the Canadian health care system resulting from the difficulties of balancing work and family life has been estimated at over $425 million per year.
What concerns me is that the proportion of employees caring for both elderly parents and children has risen from 9.5% to 15% over the past decade. Given these demographic trends, the situation can only get worse. That is why the Romanow and Kirby reports recommend that the Government of Canada ensure income support and job security for caregivers.
What the member is trying to accomplish with Bill C-206 is an act of compassion worthy of praise. There is no doubt that we must look at this issue.
In the Speech from the Throne, the government recognized the vital importance of job protection and income support to workers whose family is in crisis because, for example, a loved one is seriously ill or dying.
I think that it is not acceptable to any of the members that 56% of Canadians dealing with these types of responsibilities must take time off work without pay.
That is why Human Resources Development Canada is developing policy options for a new leave for family reasons. Our first goal will be to effectively meet the needs of Canadian workers and their families.
We made a commitment to change our existing programs to allow Canadians to provide care for their child, spouse or parent who is seriously ill or dying.
I would like to mention one concern I have regarding Bill C-206: the fact of having to choose between work and providing care for a family member.
On this point, I am very happy that the member for Sackville—Musquodoboit Valley—Eastern Shore was open to amendments to his bill. This is something that could be done in standing committee.
According to the amendment proposed, people would have to leave their job or be laid off in order to receive employment insurance benefits.
I am sure that all members would agree that the last thing we want is for Canadians to have to choose between their job and being a caregiver for a family member who is seriously ill.
The new compassionate leave that our government is proposing would allow Canadians to miss work temporarily to provide care for a child, spouse or parent who is seriously ill or dying.
The benefits the government is considering providing would add to the support measures intended for families who need them the most. This would avoid having vulnerable families slip into poverty. This would also help Canadian companies keep their skilled employees, an issue of great importance for all employers at a time when the labour pool is diminishing and there are not enough qualified workers. Our compassionate approach to people's personal problems will contribute to a more productive economy.
Our initiative will also meet one of the key recommendations of the Romanow report and will help to achieve the targeted results in a federal jurisdiction.
I can assure the hon. members that we are consulting with provincial and territorial governments, employers and stakeholders in order to move forward with this initiative. We are confident that we will have their support.
According to a recent COMPAS survey, 60% of CEOs and senior managers of companies are in favour of the government providing temporary financial support to employees who have to stay away from work in order to take care of members of their immediate family who are seriously ill.
I should also point out that according to surveys, Canadian companies have adjusted well to the extended parental leave that we implemented a year ago to promote balance between family and work.
Of course we are well aware of the cost of such programs and we want to create a program suited to the most practical needs of Canadians.
We understand our colleague's generosity of spirit. We must turn good intentions into good results for Canadians who have to cope with serious family health problems. Our goal is to come up with an effective and economical initiative that will meet needs yet be flexible and practical.
Let us make no mistake. The Government of Canada fully recognizes the challenge faced by many Canadian workers. We are determined to give them the support they need to cope with this difficult situation.
I am certain that the new leave for family reasons that is being developed will take into account the hon. member's concerns. I hope I can count on his support.