Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise today to address the motion moved by the hon. member for Charlevoix and seconded by the hon. member for Rimouski--Neigette-et-la Mitis. I will read the motion again, because I think its wording says a lot:
That, in the opinion of this House, the government should modify the Employment Insurance (EI) program to establish specific status for seasonal workers, regardless of the EI economic region in which they live.
Seasonal workers are people who work in nurseries such as the ones in Saint-Modeste and Rivière-du-Loup, in peat bogs, in the tourism industry, in the forestry sector or in the agricultural industry. These people work between 12 and 20 weeks per year at these jobs. From year to year, they do the same type of work and accumulate roughly the same number of weeks.
The part of the motion which says that we should “establish specific status for seasonal workers, regardless of the EI economic region in which they live” is important. Indeed, we found out that, when the unemployment rate goes down in a region, workers are asked to work more weeks to qualify for the employment insurance program and they get fewer weeks of benefits.
This may be acceptable for someone who works in a thriving economic sector, provided it is not a seasonal job. However, in a sector where work is seasonal, the number of weeks of work remains the same, even if the economy of the region improves. In fact, economic growth has a reverse effect on these seasonal workers. Indeed, it reduces the quality of their living conditions, because they are asked to work more weeks to qualify for employment insurance.
These people are often unable to qualify. Either they get fewer weeks of benefits and must go through the dreadful spring gap, or else they work 12 weeks in the summer, collect benefits for about 30 weeks and suddenly find themselves without an income for the other 10 weeks.
Imagine the case of two persons from the same family working on a seasonal basis at the Saint-Modeste nursery. Suddenly, for 10 weeks of the year, there is no longer any money coming in to pay rent, make car payments and provide for the children. These people must find an alternative.
This type of situation is unacceptable because the employment insurance system has generated astronomical surpluses over the past 10 years. The current government owes $45 billion to employers and workers who have contributed to this system and not been paid.
Meanwhile, as with any other insurance plan, this is a very specific situation. The government allocated this money to a completely different category of expense, using it to pay down part of the debt, reduce deficits and cover increased federal government operating expenditures. Paradoxically, here in the central federal system, there were higher operating expenses, but the money came directly from regions already affected by tougher EI criteria. It is vital that this be corrected as soon as possible.
In the past we managed to get rid of the intensity rule. Hon. members will recall the 1994 reform. It was terrible. Anytime someone used 20 weeks of employment insurance benefits, 1% of their benefits was eliminated. This was truly unacceptable and we managed to fight this and win. Now, we want seasonal workers to have special status, regardless of the economic activity, in order to be protected and given an appropriate number of weeks.
Will we win this battle? In 2001, the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development presented a unanimous report to make 17 amendments to the employment insurance system. It was soon after the election in 2000, and the Liberal candidates had all promised to make changes in the employment insurance system. Do the hon. members know how many recommendations the government accepted? Not five, not four, not three, not two, not one—zero. None of their recommendations were accepted.
The EI program has been the cash cow for Mr. Chrétien's Liberal government and the cash cow for the Minister of Finance who today says to anyone who will listen that he has put the fiscal house in order. He has done so on the backs of workers, employers and the unemployed, who have seen their benefits drop substantially.
In 1994, they began to decrease the amount of employment insurance benefits. The weekly benefit amount went from 60% to 55%. In the second phase, they tightened the screws. People must now work more weeks to qualify and they receive fewer weeks of benefits. Ever since then, when election time comes, I get nervous.
I have seen it again. The candidate who will be running against me for the Liberal Party of Canada, the Liberal Party of sponsorships, has said that something will have to be done to help the seasonal workers and that it is important for the election campaign. What I tell the people is that if they truly want change in the regions affected by the problem of seasonal work, then they absolutely must elect the smallest possible number of Liberals.
The last time, if there had been a house-cleaning in the Maritimes—if we had eliminated them the way we did in the Quebec ridings—there would not have been enough Liberal MPs to form a government. Rest assured that they would have listened to us more and taken this result into account. If the Liberals are re-elected because people think there might be something for the seasonal workers, we will not have won.
A month ago, we had a throne speech. Tuesday, we had a budget speech, with nothing in it about this. If the government wants to do something, it may have just a few weeks to do so. So it better move quickly, pass some concrete measures to make sure, before the election, that something is place for our seasonal workers, our seasonal industries, which they can count on.
This has an impact not only on individuals, but on whole industrial sectors. In my region, they are having a great deal of trouble getting workers for the tourist industry, hotels, inns and restaurants, because they barely get enough weeks to qualify for EI. They need to go elsewhere, Montreal for example, to accumulate enough hours, and then, they do not come back.
So we train workers and familiarize them with this kind of work, and then, in the end, we lose them. This has a very negative impact on the economy in our regions. Tourism is an important industry, which generates revenue and, moreover, provides people with affordable and enjoyable holidays. So, there must be continued solidarity.
I call upon all members of this House to support the motion of the member for Charlevoix. He represents an area where there are many seasonal workers. A number of important initiatives have come from that region. As well, the present PM made certain commitments when he was running for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada, commitments he did not keep in the throne speech or the budget.
Today, in voting on this motion, we need to know that there will be real money forthcoming from the government, not a year or two down the road, but right now. We need our seasonal workers to have the status they deserve starting with the 2004 season.
For people working in a sector where there is a finite number of hours of work in the year, they need assurance that they will be able to make ends meet. These people need an employment insurance program that will really help them have enough to live on when their work has run out. That is what the motion is about and that is why I call upon all members of this House to support it, so that we may have a concrete recommendation, a concrete action to improve the situation of seasonal workers.