Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to participate in this opposition day debate.
It is very important that issues surrounding employment insurance, issues surrounding workers, their needs, the needs of their communities and the industries be given the highest priority by this government, or any government for that matter, in order that our economy remains strong. We want to ensure that those are able to work can find the work for which they are suited. We also want to ensure that those who are unable to work, whether they are disabled or whether they are laid off for whatever reason, are provided with the supports required to make them feel that they are a part of this great country of ours.
The motion calls on the government to implement all of the “Beyond Bill C-2” report recommendations, including those that would ease employment insurance eligibility requirements and improve benefits. The motion provides us with a great opportunity to debate some of the important points relating to employment insurance.
Many of those recommendations would significantly impact seasonal workers. Therefore we need to provide some context for this issue by taking a closer look at the characteristics of workers in seasonal industries, how their work differs from that of other workers and the unique contribution they make to our economy.
As I mentioned a few moments ago, I have the honour to chair the Prime Minister's task force on seasonal work. In the visits to communities we have made thus far, and from my own experience as the member of Parliament for Algoma—Manitoulin and soon to be Algoma--Manitoulin--Kapuskasing, I want to underline that the government recognizes and values the importance of seasonal industries, of seasonal work.
A great number of our citizens depend on the fishery and fish processing, on forestry, on agriculture and horticulture. Trappers are seasonal workers, as are construction workers. There are many more whose livelihoods depend on the seasonal, cyclical nature of their work. These are important industries and these workers are important to our economy. We must value them. Their communities depend on them. The fact that their work is seasonal does not in any measure take away from their importance. Without these seasonal industries, the country would suffer greatly.
Because the government takes all work and the employment insurance system seriously, there is a system in place for monitoring the impact of changes on the system. It is through monitoring, consultation, and talking to citizens that we find better ways to ensure that the EI system responds to worker needs, industry needs and Canada's needs.
I will be one of the first ones to admit that the changes that were made a few years ago in some respects may have gone a bit too far. That is why the government in the meantime has made a number of ameliorating measures. A number of steps have been taken to reverse some of the measures that turned out not to achieve the purposes for which they were put in place. That does not mean they were put in place because anybody was meanspirited. They were put in place to try to make the system better for everyone, but things do not always work the way we plan.
It is quite surprising when we look at the list of measures the government has put in place since the adoption of the 1996 reform package, which has done a lot to improve or to bring the pendulum partway back to a point of balance. That is not to suggest that we do not have some way to go. I propose strongly that we do have some way to go.
Let me outline some of the changes that have been made since 1996 to bring the pendulum back. There was the introduction of the small weeks adjustment pilot project in 1997. There has been the enhancement of maternity and parental benefits. These benefits have been extended from six months to a full year for parents of children born or placed for adoption on or after December 31, 2000.
The passage of Bill C-2 occurred in May 2001. Its highlights include: the elimination of the intensity rule; better targeting of the benefit repayment provision, known as the clawback; adjustment of the re-entrant rule for re-entrant parents; and extension of the monitoring and assessment process until 2006. Further, there is the creation of the new compassionate care benefit introduced in January of this year. This allows workers and their families to share six weeks of leave when a spouse, child or parent is dying or seriously ill.
These measures underline the fact that the government believes that the EI system is not simply an economic system. Rather, it is a system which includes social and economic development, and local regional development. We must keep this in mind. Finding a balance between the needs of the broader society and the needs of workers is very important. After all, it is about people and their families, and their communities at the end of the day.
In March the Prime Minister appointed the task force which I chair. A number of excellent colleagues from the House of Commons and from the other place have undertaken, with me, the serious task of pursuing a very strong and purposeful mandate given to us by the Prime Minister.
I will outline the mandate. The mandate will prove to all members that the government is very serious when it comes to the needs of seasonal workers. When we look at the whole picture, it is not just about EI, as important as that is, but it is about a broad variety of measures that we need to undertake to make sure that seasonal workers are well served as full citizens of our country.
That mandate, given to us by the Prime Minister in March, includes the following points. These are in no particular order of precedence. They are all important.
First, what are the specific needs of seasonal industries and their workers in the area of skills development, lifelong learning and literacy?
Second, what are the ways to promote greater economic diversity and stronger local economies, particularly in rural and remote communities across Canada? These communities are typically those most dependent on seasonal industries.
Third, what is the support required to help seasonal work dependent communities to adapt to seize opportunities provided by the new knowledge based global economy?
Fourth, what are the ways of lowering barriers to regional and interprovincial labour mobility?
Fifth is how to align income support programs, such as employment insurance and provincial social assistance programs, to improve income support while promoting full year-round participation in the labour force.
Sixth is how to address the challenges and opportunities offered by temporary foreign workers. Typically, we see the agricultural sector in most need of temporary foreign workers.
Seventh is the potential role for government in encouraging new approaches to community development, i.e., the social economy.
Eighth is an assessment of the opportunities and challenges specific to seasonal economies in promoting the safeguard of our natural environment.
It is clear that the government recognizes that the ledger has a very important social side. It is not all about dollars and cents. As important as we have made balancing the budgets of this country, we also recognize that people, their families and our communities are an essential and fundamental part of society. We must not get lost simply in balancing the books. The government recognizes that.
I would like to outline some of the messages we heard in our recent travels as a group through eastern Quebec and Atlantic Canada.
A few weeks ago our task force had a chance to visit about 10 communities in the five provinces of the eastern half of this country. The messages we heard from citizens, from union leaders, businesses, big and small, mayors and reeves are messages I am sure colleagues in the House have heard from their own constituents. These messages remind us that we need, at all times, to examine and re-examine government policy to ensure that we are doing the best with the tools that governments have.
Again, in no particular order of precedence, this is a sampling of some of the things we heard, which I mentioned in my question earlier to the proponent of the motion today.
The current EI system fosters the underground economy. We know that workers, laid off and otherwise, want to work. They do not want to go around the system to avoid taxes, to report income, to bank hours or to the take steps they feel are needed simply to feed their families, because the rules in many cases create disincentives to honest behaviour. This is not their fault. This is a situation where some of the rules, with no intent to harm when they were originally put in place, have inadvertently created disincentives and provided pressure to drive some funds underground. We need to address those measures so workers can behave the way they want to, which is honestly, and take the work that is available to them.
We also heard from many people that the work is seasonal, not the workers. Workers who live in areas where seasonal work is predominant are not to blame for the seasons. They are not to blame for the fact that ice is over the water and they cannot fish. I know in my own riding there is an inland fishery in Lake Huron and Lake Superior. We know that right off our shores in my home town of Spanish they cannot get out to fish much of the year. The same applies to our coastal fishing areas. These are factors out of their control and we have to recognize that.
We also heard that the EI system was too complicated for the average citizen. Being a parliamentarian, I found it complicated enough to understand the system. Imagine the average citizen on the street, whether they need EI or not, trying to understand the complexity. We need to find a way to make it simpler and more user friendly. The government is committed to doing just that. That is part of dealing with the democratic deficit. The democratic deficit is not just about how we run our affairs around here. It is about engaging all citizens in a government that is more accessible, more open and more reachable.
We have discovered that EI benefits paid to seasonal workers, especially those in the east, have fallen drastically over the last number of years. There are many factors for this, but we have to examine carefully if there are things in the system which have caused this to the detriment of workers.
The changing demographics of seasonal industries are a primary concern for employers and communities in general. The seasonal workforce is aging, while the younger population is leaving. Part of this are the barriers to the EI system caused by the higher bar for the entry of new workers. We have to recognize, because seasonal industries are important, that we have to ensure that workers are there to support those industries. We cannot afford to lose forestry, fishers or agricultural workers. Farmers, fishers and forest companies need these workers.
Seasonal employers spend a lot of money retraining staff at the beginning of every season, partly because of the disincentives they cannot always get the people they need to work. Those who go to work and take limited numbers of weeks will pay in reduced benefits the following year.
We also heard from many that the skills of seasonal workers need to be enhanced in part to increase their productivity in season and also to provide more ability to move between and among different types of seasonal work, if and when that is available. We also heard that the economic EI boundaries do not reflect labour markets in a number of given localities. We feel we need to look at this very seriously.
In many communities we heard that employers were finding it more and more difficult year in and year out to find workers, especially when processing fish. Unlike a log that can lay in the yard for a period of time and not rot, when fish arrive, they need to be processed right away. It is important to have workers available at all times. Unlike other areas of work, seasonal work is on-demand work. There needs to be workers available when the work comes up.
I also want to give credit to a number of communities, including Woodstock, New Brunswick. Because of the nature of the local economy, they have dealt with the shortage of workers in a rather unique way. They have a pilot project to create an information bank of employers and employees. Combined with some good changes to the employment insurance system, they feel that over the long run they can grow their local seasonal economy by providing greater opportunities for diverse application of seasonal workers. In so doing, they can provide opportunities for employers to grow their businesses, which could otherwise not grow for lack of seasonal workers. Therefore, I give credit to folks in the Carleton country and Woodstock area for their efforts to deal with this creatively, as we have seen in other parts of the country.
It is important to note that the characteristics of seasonal workers vary considerably as to the jobs they hold and the challenges they face. For example, the recent Statistics Canada study on seasonal work and employment insurance use found that many seasonal workers did not fit the stereotypical image: that is, people with limited education who live in have not regions and rely heavily on seasonal industries and government assistance. This is not the real picture. In fact the real picture is that seasonal employment is found across Canada in virtually every industry and occupation, with the largest number of workers being found in Ontario, Quebec and then the Atlantic region.
Seasonal work is characterized by individuals with a variety of educational backgrounds. While some workers have limited skills, others are highly educated. Some depend on seasonal work. Others choose to work in a seasonal industry or in non-standard employment because of the flexibility it offers.
All of this suggests that government initiatives need to be flexible so they can allow for these differences. I fear, even with the changes we made in 1996, some of which have been modified in response to real reaction, that the system is still a little too inflexible and that measures need to be taken to reduce that.
The prevalence of seasonal work is even greater in some regions and industries where it can represent the main source of employment.
It is clear that seasonal work will continue to be an important feature of our economy in the future, given its role in such key industries as forestry, agriculture, particularly horticulture, some mining, the fishery, whether it is inland or coastal, tourism, construction, trapping and others. I am sure I have missed some. This is with no disrespect for those industries that I may have missed in my short speech today. They are all important.
Companies will continue a sometimes frantic search for enough workers during busy periods, and layoffs will continue to be a defining feature of slow seasons. All this makes it imperative that we have programs in place that are capable of helping workers acquire the skills needed for good, stable jobs, whether they are permanent jobs or whether they are jobs in other seasonal industries. It is imperative that programs ensure the industries in need of seasonal workers have those workers. It is imperative that programs encourage community and economic development, so regions dependent on seasonal work can diversify their economies to create jobs to employ these up-skilled workforces. Providing seasonal workers with temporary income is also an imperative when other employment opportunities are not available.
I want to compliment my colleague for bringing this motion forward, but it oversimplifies the situation. I personally would support a major review of the EI system, not only to eliminate or reduce disincentives, but also to find ways to better allocate those dollars so the social and human side and community development side of the equation is properly covered.
There are good examples of some pilot projects in Lac-Saint-Jean--Saguenay and the Bas-Saint-Laurent regions where workers and communities have tried some new ideas to ensure that we get some good advice from our local communities.