Mr. Speaker, before I begin, may I say how interesting it is that members never stay on topic on the other side of the House, especially the official opposition.
I am pleased to speak in this House today to the Bloc motion on the need to reform employment insurance in a way that will serve the interests of Canadian workers.
Our goal since we came to power has been to help Canadians adapt to the labour market and the economy, which have evolved over the years. Our intentions have remained the same. Canadians can be proud of this country's strong economy, which has produced more than three million jobs since 1993.
The reforms introduced by the government to modernize the Employment Insurance Act have resulted in improved eligibility criteria and better benefits for Canadian workers. They help Canadians who are too sick to work, those who are not working because they have just had a child, or have to assume family responsibilities or provide care to a dying family member, and they help people who need temporary income support during periods of unemployment.
There is no doubt that many changes made to the act have benefited Canadians, including residents of Quebec. The changes have resulted in everything from improved parental leave to community solutions for the challenges faced by seasonal workers.
We realize that we constantly need to look at ways to improve the system so that it can continue to meet the needs of today's workers and adapt to changing economic conditions.
As we have seen over the past few years, economic conditions can quickly take an unexpected downturn.
That is why the program is constantly evolving based on solid evidence for change. The act has a monitoring and assessment process built in. However, there can be no debate that EI is achieving its primary objective of providing temporary income support to people who lose their jobs and helping them return to work.
In fulfillment of our commitment to address issues raised in the report of the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills Development, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, “Beyond Bill C-2”, we have instituted several of the recommendations put forth by the committee. There are hon. members of the opposition who say nothing was done in terms of the committee's report and I would like to outline a few of them.
Among them, we modified the EI program so apprentices need only serve one two week waiting period over the duration of their apprenticeship program. We also made--and this is a very important change for seasonal workers--a small weeks provision a national and permanent feature of the EI program on November 18, 2001. The EI regulation relating to the way undeclared earnings are calculated was repealed in 2001.
Since 1996, the government has brought in some changes in the legislation to meet the changing needs of Canadians.
Yet, we should not forget the many problems we had to address in the previous unemployment insurance plan.
I would like to remind the House that, when we modernized the plan and replaced the previous legislation with a more progressive Employment Insurance Act, many part-time workers were not covered by the EI plan. Many of them were prisoners of the 15 hours a week rule, because employers were giving them the minimum number of hours of work in order to avoid paying EI premiums. When we switched to first dollar coverage, some 400,000 Canadians previously denied the EI benefits became covered.
This important change and other reforms we effected make for a plan that can change at the same pace as our economy and our society.
The variable entrance requirements, for example, make it possible to adjust requirements every four weeks, in each and every region of Canada, according to recent unemployment figures. It means that when workers are laid off overnight, eligibility requirements vary with the regional unemployment level.
Another example of our progress is the way we have responded to the needs of working parents. We extended EI maternity and parental benefits from six months to a full year and reduced the number of hours needed to qualify for the benefits from 700 to 600 hours. In fact, the Province of Quebec has one of the highest take-up rates for parental benefits in the entire country. As well, the entrance requirements for special benefits, whether maternity, parental, sickness or compassionate care, is also now 600 hours of work.
Our primary focus in reforming EI has been on enabling Canadians to acquire the new skills needed for jobs in the knowledge economy. The Government of Canada provides over $2 billion a year to the provinces and territories under EI part II to deliver employment measures to help Canadians find and keep work.
We have worked closely with the private sector and communities, funding a range of learning and skills development opportunities in communities all across the country, something recommended in “Beyond Bill C-2”. For instance, we have worked with regional partners developing innovative strategies that build on the work of local seasonal worker committees established in Quebec and New Brunswick in 2000.
Let me mention one of the projects funded by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, that is the Labour Market Innovations Program in Charlevoix. The community develops strategies to increase tourism and consequently the employment period for seasonal workers.
Those types of initiatives help upgrade the skills of the work force to ensure that seasonal workers have access to a large range of job opportunities. Up to now, we have invested more than $4 million in projects of this kind.
I would like to point out that since 1996, the Government of Canada has continually improved the EI program to meet the priorities of seasonal workers with an annual investment of more than $500 million. The changes that have been made helped those workers to have access to the EI program and prevented a reduction in the amount of benefits by frequent use. In 2001-02, seasonal workers received about $2.5 billion in regular and fishing benefits, or about one-third of the total benefits being paid for that type of benefits.
At the same time, however, among the many important changes we have made to the programs, there is an increased emphasis on the necessity of a strong workforce attachment. That is why we call it employment insurance instead of unemployment insurance. This serves as a reminder that EI provides temporary financial help to unemployed Canadians while they look for work or upgrade their skills. One of the ways we have reinforced this point is through the small weeks provision that encourages people to take all available work.
Our government will make adjustments to EI if they respond to the real needs of workers in a changing labour market.
Just in case my honourable colleagues have forgotten these additional facts, we have also, and there is proof, eased up the qualification requirements and increased the benefits paid out, as per the recommendations of the “Beyond Bill C-2” report. For example, we have reviewed the clawback provision.
This provision does not apply to those Canadians seeking temporary income support for the first time or getting special benefits anymore. Moreover, the intensity rule has been abolished because it did not increase the employment participation rate. We have also changed the rule for parents who re-enter the workplace after staying home for a while to take care of young children.
I would like to add that we have responded to the needs of workers, and to those of their employers. The employment insurance premiums have been reduced for ten years in a row, from $3.07 in 1994 to $1.98 in 2004. Canadian workers and Canadian businesses will save $10 billion compared to what they were paying ten years ago.
Budget 2003 launched consultations and a new permanent rate setting mechanism for 2005 and beyond. Today, in the human resources committee we listened to the employers who are in fact asking for a 10 year fixed rate.
The results of those consultations are currently under review. As we reinforced in budget 2004, it is our intention to introduce legislation to implement a new EI premium rate setting mechanism that better reflects the 21st century economy.
The bottom line is that these reforms are working and producing results for Canadians. EI is there for Canadians when they need it as a temporary measure.
In 2002-03, close to 1.87 million Canadians received approximately $12.3 billion in benefits. Moreover, according to data, 88% of workers in paid employment would be eligible to benefits if they lost their job. Even more relevant, since 1993, over three million new positions were created in the country, including 640,000 in Quebec, which represents an employment growth rate of 21%. Also, to date this year, in a few months alone, 61,000 full-time jobs were created across the country.
According to Statistics Canada data, general participation in the workforce is now 67.4% and a little better in Quebec, with a 67.8% rate, while it is 61% for women. These are almost record levels.
As the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development indicated, Canada is next to last of all OECD countries for long-term unemployment rate. In 2002, less than 10% of all unemployed in Canada remained without work for 12 months or more.
There is always room for improvement. That is why we have reports from committees and that is why we take the reports that come from committees very seriously. I can assure hon. members of the opposition that we will make ongoing changes as we continue to monitor and assess the EI program.
The Auditor-General has said that the mechanism that is used by the government is actually one of the most competitive in terms of assuring that the system responds to the need. We are determined to ensure that this vitally important social program remains responsive to the individuals and communities its serves, as well as the economy.
However, all members in this place need to remember that EI is only part of the solution. The Government of Canada's priority is to ensure a strong economy that stimulates job creation, and invests in the skills and knowledge of Canadians so our country can be on the leading edge of innovation. We want to ensure Canadians are equipped with the tools they need to capitalize on opportunities in the knowledge economy and to prevent them from having to depend on EI.
I think everyone wants to work rather than collect EI.
Mr. Speaker, this issue demands the commitment and support of all Canadians. We must all work together, with the Government of Canada and our partners, employers and employees, to create an even stronger economy and a better future for all of us.