Mr. Speaker, I thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to this motion on employment insurance reform. This motion asks the government to implement all the recommendations in the report that go beyond Bill C-2, including those that will provide eligibility and increased benefits.
Since many of these would directly affect seasonal workers and the companies that employ seasonal workers, and the communities in which seasonal workers live, I would like to provide a little background on seasonal industries and the challenge they face so that we can better assess how this motion might impact them.
To begin with, this is a particularly important debate since it involves a key segment of the economy that does not always get the attention it should, namely seasonal employment. Seasonal work patterns can be found in most regions of the country, in most industries, and in most occupations.
The economic impact of seasonal work is even greater in some rural regions where seasonal industries often represent the main source of employment. In fact, as I was listening to my various colleagues, every one of them from different regions made sure they put the accent on seasonal work and the impact it has on their own communities.
Some industries rely much more heavily on seasonal work than other industries; for example, mining, forestry, agriculture, hunting and trapping, fisheries, oil and gas exploration, and certainly tourism. All these are vitally important sectors that provide employment for many Canadians. In fact, some would say, in naming these industries, a majority of Canadians.
Thus, seasonal industries have an economic impact far beyond their particular sector because of the additional economic activity performed by a myriad of companies serving them. All these companies, one way or another, contribute to our gross domestic product.
For example, in the forestry sector where the harvesting of trees, which is in itself a highly seasonal activity, provides raw materials for sawmills, pulp and paper, plywood, panel board plants, operations not all are seasonal. Really, the industry itself is far more permanent than some of the employment that constitutes its mainstay. For example, if forestry workers spend time in the forest on an off and on basis, given that logging only takes place at certain times of the year, that does not mean to say that the industry itself is not far more permanent in its scope and operates on a constant basis the whole year. However, for some segments of the workers in that particular industry, obviously they are greatly impacted because their work is purely done during certain periods of the year.
Workers in these companies are in turn served by community businesses which again are far more permanent businesses than the seasonal workers that are in the field at certain times of the year, but yet contribute to the general economy which itself is far more constant and permanent. For example, in a particular community grocery stores, dry cleaners, gas stations and restaurants, all these various industries depend on one community, a central industry, where a lot of workers in that main industry are seasonal workers themselves.
While many of these industries are part of what economists would call the service economy, this does not mean that they are neither technologically advanced nor innovative as shown by the ongoing process of change in which companies are using technology to radically transform their own operations. We can take the example of any major industry, and the same evolution and process of change is taking place at a tremendous rate, in some cases.
At the same time, seasonal industries, by their very nature, are often vulnerable to factors beyond their control: weather, crop conditions, diseases, and global market conditions. We have seen what has happened, for example, in the agricultural industry which employs a great number of seasonal workers. Certain conditions completely extraneous to the process itself have happened without the control of the industry itself and totally outside the control of governments or anybody else.
There is the whole question of the mad cow disease, droughts in the prairies, weather changes, and forest fires. Suddenly, there are all kinds of extraneous factors that could impact on the industry itself, especially seasonal workers who find themselves, from one season to the other or from one day or one month to the other, without any possibility of work because the type of work that they do requires certain conditions which are totally impacted by conditions outside of their control.
All of these various exterior conditions such as weather, crop diseases, and global market conditions can create considerable fluctuations in supply and demand for products and in their costs. To respond to these challenges many companies have modernized their operations and diversified product lines. While these will create new opportunities for these various industries, modernization also displaces workers by reducing the number of seasonal jobs. This is why I put the accent on seasonal jobs which I feel are one of the elements of impact which are the greatest regarding employment generally.
The shift in business activity has also created problems for employers themselves for whom new technology, improved management capabilities, and the development of new products are obviously vital to success. These employers very often find themselves in the paradoxical situation of not being able to get the workers they need even in very high unemployment areas because the workers are not suited to the new technologies that are needed today to modernize industry. This really leads us to the crux of today's debate.
I think we all agree that this motion is well-intentioned. I do not think anybody is questioning the validity of the intent of the motion. The problem is that the focus of the debate is primarily on making it easier to collect EI and increasing benefits.
Instead, we should focus first, on a multi-faceted approach aimed at helping seasonal industries to cope with these new economic realities, some of which I have described. Certainly, the new technological world is changing employment totally. Second, we must ensure that seasonal workers get the education and skills upgrading needed to take advantage of alternative employment opportunities that might come along in a completely different type of industrial economy; and third, we must ensure that communities diversify the economic base as far as is possible.
I realize that this is not always easy, especially in rural areas. Rural areas might be less vulnerable to changes in any one industry or company.
Last year, for instance, I took part--with one of my colleagues, the regional economic minister at the time--in a really almost very sad and terrible circumstance in the fishing industry on the north coast. I became involved in that because most of the employees were English speaking and they wanted some people they could relate to in their own language. Some of them only spoke English. They were affected by the fact that the fishery was stopped in that area.
Suddenly, overnight they found themselves without any economic means of livelihood. Some of them could not even afford food to send with their children to school. It was a drastic situation where the Quebec government and the federal government cooperated in trying to find, overnight, some instant programs to try to fill the gap on an emergency basis to keep them in the support system, at the same time try to provide more long term alternative ways of skill building so that employment could be shifted from the basic and only employment they had, which was fishing, into various other types of livelihood, such as ecotourism, artisan work, wood crafts and so forth.
It is only through this kind of process, where we try to provide alternative skills and employment, that we will be able to target areas where there is one central industry, especially in outlying areas. Any peril or hardship to that industry has a tremendous economic and social impact on the area and affects the livelihood of people.
To create this, it is essential to listen to all the partners involved, such as the seasonal workers and their families who are the first impacted, the private sector, provincial and territorial governments, unions and community groups, to find out how we can best address the needs of workers in seasonal industries in their communities.
This is what we did on the north shore. We worked with the community base. We worked with volunteer groups. We worked with local municipalities. We worked with the provincial government and federal government to see how we together could find ways to create support systems on an emergency basis and then skill training on a more permanent basis.
We should encourage community and economic development so that regions dependent on seasonal work can diversify their economies. I know it is easier to say than to do. However, unless we make an effort in that direction, I think we will always be faced with emergency programs, employment insurance, short term stop-gaps, but the problem will always endure. This means building on existing initiatives, supported by various agencies. We could cite many of these agencies in various parts of the country that are geared principally to help our communities and seasonal workers.
Many of my colleagues have indicated that this sometimes happens community by community and sometimes regionally in different ways. However, the aim must be to try to ensure that employees and citizens do not rely on seasonal work in one central industry that can be affected by change or situations outside of its control. We need to have alternatives and diversification.
As the Speech from the Throne has outlined, we are supporting the growth of the social economy, the social power of entrepreneurs which has done so much to help communities create jobs, improve skills development and make communities safer and more prosperous. We have to work with all our partners to find ways to help seasonal workers and industries to benefit from new opportunities created by changes in the economy.
I mentioned a number of elements in the employment insurance program that are important to workers in seasonal industries. There is the adoption of an hours-based system. This now means that all the hours of work are taken into account to determine eligibility. This change takes into account the different patterns of work and generally contributes to increase the number of weeks of benefits to which workers were eligible.
Several workers in seasonal industries, who often work many hours during a reduced number of weeks, have benefited from this. This measure has been beneficial to part-time workers, women, seasonal workers. Over 400,000 people, who were working part time or had short-term jobs, were able to receive benefits for the first time following this change.
As for seasonal workers, the length of their benefit period was extended, and their benefits are about 10% higher than those of other recipients.
I will conclude with this, and say thanks.