Madam Speaker, I want to begin by congratulating the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst for his commitment to seasonal workers. I also want to thank him for having raised this very important matter in the House of Commons.
I also want to begin by thanking of the Minister of Human Resources Development. I have had the pleasure of working with her over the last number of months in a very difficult situation. I have found her to be interested and responsive to the particular concerns of workers, and it is important for Canadians to understand that the government and the minister in particular have shown a great willingness to try to bring improvements to a very difficult national program.
The situation is my riding is a very difficult one as a result of seasonal work. In my opinion, this situation is deeply unfair and affects thousands of people and their families. I am talking, naturally, about investigations by HRDC of large fish processing plants, particularly ones in the Shediac and Cap-Pelé areas and in Kent County.
These investigations are a source of great stress and tension for the families of seasonal employees who work hard. The department claims that the practice of accumulating or banking hours, as we say at home, is widespread. And suddenly, the law has to be applied in a very harsh and unfair way, in my opinion, in southeastern New Brunswick. I find this unacceptable.
The problems of employment insurance and seasonal work are as profound as they are unfair and they need to be addressed urgently. I have worked over the last nine months with a remarkable group of local citizens led by two dedicated and articulate persons named Aline Landry and Rodrigue Landry. We had strong support from the mayor of Cap-Pelé, Mr. Normand Vautour, and the mayor of Bouctouche, Mr. Raymond Duplessis, and the provincial member for Shediac—Cap-Pelé in the Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick, Mr. Bernard Richard.
This committee consisted of employees, employers and community leaders. They did remarkable work for the Minister of Human Resources Development. They proposed solutions to the unfairness in the current employment insurance program, solutions that will give a modest yet adequate income to seasonal workers during periods when work is not available, especially in the fishing industry where access to the untreated product is uncertain. That is not the workers' fault. Also, the product is perishable.
These workers deserve an employment insurance program that will allow them to live and take care of their families during the winter, when the fishery is closed. In my view, today's program does not pass this fundamental test of social justice in a rich and generous country like Canada.
In my riding, this committee reviewed the special situation at fish processing plants. It found that the method for calculating employment insurance benefits discouraged people from accepting work at these plants if the work was only for a few hours or a day or two. Their benefits would be reduced because of what is called small weeks. In effect, employment insurance punishes those who go to work under very difficult conditions.
I visited these plants. It is very difficult work. There was not enough lobster, crab or herring for a certain time or certain week to provide work for 40, 50 or 60 hours a week, as is the case in the spring. The lobster season often provides workers with 60- or 70-hour weeks, except when the fishers cannot go out because of the weather, for instance. There is just not enough lobster.
The unfairness in my constituency can be illustrated by two simple examples. For example, a national park employee who works 18 weeks in a row, let us say 40 hours a week, earns $10 an hour and works 720 hours would have gross earnings over those 18 weeks of $7,200. That person at the end of the 18 weeks would be entitled to an employment insurance benefit at a certain rate.
If a fish plant worker in my riding works the same number of hours, 720 hours, at $10 an hour, that worker would have exactly the same gross earnings as for example a national park employee. However, instead of being able to work 18 weeks in a row at 40 hours a week, this person may only work 28 or 30 weeks and some of the weeks will be short weeks and represent a smaller number of hours of work. When that person goes to apply for employment insurance in December or January because the fish plant closes until the season opens again in May, that person will have a significantly reduced employment insurance benefit. Yet that person has worked 720 hours and earned $7,200 in gross wages. Compared to a national park employee, I believe that is unfair.
Another unfairness has to do with the rate calculation period. In my constituency most of the fish plants open in late April or May for the spring lobster season and over the last number of years they have been able to extend the season to stay open as late as December and January. When the workers finish and go to file an employment insurance claim, the rate calculation formula says that they look back 26 weeks to determine the average weekly earnings.
The problem is if the fish plant closes in December or January and people go to apply for employment insurance benefits that they have paid into, the 26 week period that is used to determine the rate of their benefit and the amount of their cheque does not take into account the weeks in May and June where they may have worked, as I said previously, 50 and 60 hours. It is an arbitrary rule to look back six months. I think it might be fairer to say nine months or 12 months for example and these workers then would not have this injustice.
Improvements to employment insurance legislation are needed quickly. The act is designed to reflect the reality of year-round work in regions of the country that are not as dependent on natural resources or seasonal tourism, for example, as is my area of southeastern New Brunswick. The reality of seasonal industries, and it is not only in the fish processing sector, requires an EI system that is both responsible and fair. Seasonal industries contribute enormously to the economy of Canada, but they need the generous understanding of the government as they move toward longer seasons, better wages and stronger financial postures.
Workers cannot afford to live on ridiculously low EI benefits at a time of the year when work is not available. Workers in my riding do not pay less for a litre of gas or for their car insurance or for babysitters because they work hard in a fish plant. They have to go to work, many times very early in the morning before government offices even open, and they get out of bed and go to work in difficult conditions. Yet they are asking for a fairer employment insurance system to reflect the reality of their industries.
This is an ongoing dialogue that we have had with officials at Human Resources Development Canada. It is important for Canadians to understand that this is a national problem. I have used a local example which I believe is fundamentally unfair, but the issue of banking of hours for example is national. That is why we need national changes to this program to make it fair.
Until we get there, I will not stop fighting for the workers of my riding who deserve better.