Mr. Speaker, it is obviously a pleasure for me to speak on this Bloc Quebecois motion which reads—and I shall take the time to read it so that everyone in Quebec and everyone in Canada listening to us, even the Liberal members and members of the other parties in this House, understands the meaning of the words:
That, in the opinion of this House, the government should propose, before the dissolution of the House, an employment insurance reform along the lines of the 17 recommendations contained in the unanimous report of the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities entitled “Beyond Bill C-2: A Review of Other Proposals to Reform Employment Insurance”.
I took the trouble to read the motion aloud because many of the Liberal members in this House, and others, have made speeches that tried to make us believe—especially those from the government side—that this good government is making or has made all necessary efforts to find a solution to the problems of people who have trouble collecting employment insurance benefits, particularly seasonal and other workers.
This is quite difficult. Once again, we are having this debate just before an election. It was right after the election in 2000 that a committee studied the whole issue, and it reported in May 2001. In 2000, all those elected and all the candidates of all parties—especially the Liberal Party—who travelled throughout Canada could obviously feel how disgruntled Canadians were with the employment insurance plan.
People were very unhappy because since 1996, when the then finance minister and present Prime Minister decided to change the plan, the federal government has not put any money into the EI fund. Only employers and workers are contributing. This should be an independent fund.
All those who contribute think that, if they are the ones who pay, they should manage the plan. But with the EI plan, it is just the opposite. Employee contributions are deducted from the paycheque, and employers also make their contribution at the same time. The federal government does not put in any money, but it is managing the fund and, to make things even worse, it takes the surplus, puts it in the consolidated revenue fund and uses that money.
During the 2000 electoral campaign, the Bloc Quebecois candidates across Quebec decided to fight a merciless war against the Liberal Party and said “Look at the astronomical surplus that you have built up with the EI fund. You have not given the money back to the workers who needed it, especially the seasonal workers, and to the self-employed workers”. There was an important debate on that issue.
The public then realized that the figures given have never been challenged. Since 1996, the government helped itself to $42.5 billion from the EI fund surplus. The government took $42.5 billion from the money that the employees and the employers had paid into that fund.
Many terms have been used to describe what the government did. Many come to mind, but there is only one reality. This is why the Liberals insisted, after the 2000 election, that the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities study this issue, and it produced a unanimous report.
I am amazed today—because I was only elected in 2000—to see members of the Liberal Party give speeches in this House and tell us, “You know that the unanimous report of the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities was one report among many”.
Members of the Bloc Quebecois who are chosen to sit on a committee are experts; they are the best. Theoretically, if I use the same reasoning, the Liberal Party should have sent to this Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities its best people, the men and women who are the most able to find a solution.
All of us, in the Bloc Quebecois, the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party, the Alliance, the NDP, everyone made 17 unanimous recommendations. Once again, three years later, we are debating these recommendations, which should have been approved immediately after May 2001. We should not be discussing this today in the House. Why? Simply because the Liberal Party, which accumulates billions and billions of dollars, is not in a rush to deliver the goods or to increase its expenditures in the employment insurance program.
People are again upset across Canada and across Quebec. Everyone is upset. It is not the employee's fault if he works in a seasonal industry. There are many in my riding of Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel. Tourism, agriculture and forestry are all industries that, because of the weather, have many seasonal jobs.
If, tomorrow morning, it was decided that there would no longer be any seasonal work, imagine the impact on the economy of the regions of Canada and Quebec. This is more or less the message that the Liberals have been sending over the past three years. That message is “If some are not happy, then they should change jobs”. Quebeckers are proud people. They want to continue to work in their regions. We would like to be able to occupy the whole territory and to continue to have regions that develop and that are economically strong. This is why employers and employees have an employment insurance fund, pay premiums and expect to be able to negotiate the content.
The hon. members who sat on the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities made those 17 recommendations after hearing all the stakeholders, including employers and employees from all types of industries.
The reason the Bloc Quebecois is tabling this motion today is because these 17 recommendations were not accepted by the Liberal government.
What we find difficult and hard in the Liberal discourse is to be told “We will make proposals”. First, it will not be those 17 recommendations. Everyone realizes that. It is clear to those who have been listening to us today that the Liberal government will not propose these 17 recommendations. Otherwise, what would the Liberals have done? We asked that our motion be a votable item. Therefore, they would have voted and they would have supported our motion today. But this is not what they have decided to do.
There will be some changes before the election. We will be happy to see some things done. But we want the EI problem fixed. We in the Bloc Quebecois are here, in this House, to fix problems, not to fix them partially or put the whole thing off.
The government is getting richer and in the meantime it is dragging its feet and putting it off for another two or three years once again. The government keeps on getting richer on the backs of workers and the unemployed. Once again, it is going to try to drag things out because, in the meantime, it can use the money for something else. We have heard all kinds of comments in the House today. Some Liberal members told us “We put that money into health care”.
But that is not what workers wanted when they allowed part of their paycheque to go to the EI fund. It does not say “medicare premium”, or “pharmacare premium”. It says “EI premium”. That is the reality. That is why workers pay into the fund. Employers pay the premium to get a service they do not get.
The reality behind the Canadian Labour Congress figures is that, since the Liberals came to power, fewer people have been getting benefits and their overall income has been dropping. In 1993, 57% of people without a job received EI premiums. In 2001, it was only 39%.
So, since 1993, 22% fewer men and women have been eligible for EI. Moreover, for women the change is even more significant as the percentage has dropped to only 33%. The average is 39% and only 33% of women receive EI benefits.
The government tried to give us all kinds of explanations, telling us that when the Canadian Labour Congress carried out its study, it calculated that among the unemployed, there were some who did not contribute. One of the recommendations is to allow self-employed workers to pay into the EI fund and be able to receive benefits since they are contributing and paying taxes in Quebec and Canada. They would like to contribute to the EI fund also.
The Liberal government is opposed to that, once again, because those additional expenses would lower the $42.5 billion surplus it has been accumulating in the fund over the years. Sadly, the scheme we have currently has created gaps in various regions, especially in the spring.
That means that for seasonal workers, families go for 8 to 12 weeks without any revenue according to where they live.
Some will say that each province has its income security scheme. However, that is not real income security because when someone applies to the income security program, there are further delays. Households can be another month and a half without any money coming in.
That does not bother Liberal members in this House. That is the problem. We are creating poverty, when the Chrétien government had declared in 2000 that it would reduce child poverty. What is being created right now are families in need. The government is creating poverty by leaving families without any revenue for 8 to 12 weeks.
Creating poverty in Quebec will never be acceptable to a Bloc member, be it the member for Laurentides, the member for Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques or myself. All Bloc members will fight to the end to avoid the creation of pockets of poverty in Quebec and in Canada, and we are proud to do so.
Bloc members do not fight only for Quebeckers. We also fight for Canadians who pay their EI premiums and do not receive what they are entitled to in return but are caught in the gaps if they work in seasonal sectors like tourism, resorts, forestry or agriculture. It is the same thing for self-employed workers, whose number is always increasing.
That is what Canadians and Quebeckers expect from us when we come to this place to represent them. They want us to work on changing the legislation, and that is what the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development did in 2001. All political parties adopted a unanimous report. I repeat that I personally consider that the most competent of Bloc members on the issue sat at the committee and I assume that all parties sent their best people.
They came up with 17 unanimous and very important recommendations, the precise purpose of which was to use funding to establish a little more social justice in Quebec and in Canada. As I said, since 1996, since the Prime Minister, then Finance Minister, cut off the federal share, this program has been financed solely by employers and workers. Not one cent comes from the federal government any more.
The only problem for workers and for the unemployed is that the government is administering the fund as if it were the owner. It has helped itself to the contents and spent them on other things than solving the problems of the unemployed.
What the committee wanted to do with its 17 recommendations was to improve a harsh reality. That is also what the Bloc Quebecois wants to do, and the reason behind our motion today. We do not want piece-meal reform. That is true. What we want, before the election, is to solve, for once and for all, the problems raised by the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development.
We cannot be accused of partisan politics because, once the problem is solved, the Liberals will be able to go about claiming that they are the ones who did it. That is what they will do: claim they have partially solved the problem. The Liberal members have already started saying that not everyone will be satisfied, that this is not what people want, that the government cannot afford it, while it is squirrelling away billions of dollars in surplus funds.
Next year's surplus is estimated at $5 billion. We are already estimating for next year, because an $8 billion surplus was accumulated this past year. Once again, close to one-third of the federal government's surplus comes from the employment insurance fund. It is a kind of tax in disguise taken from the paycheques of workers, and from the revenues of their employers, in the form of EI contributions, but not returned to the men and women who need it so badly.
It is interesting to see what this EI fund surplus can represent on an annual basis per riding. In my riding of Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, it represents $35.7 million annually.
It is a riding with about 100,000 inhabitants. For the riding as a whole, the unemployment rate is about 9.5%, but in certain areas, certain regional municipalities, it is over 10 or 12%. That means $35.7 million, after all.
For my colleague in Laurentides, it is $62.5 million that is not being returned to the working people each year. Imagine if each riding had an independent fund that managed this money for the well-being of the workers. Imagine what could be done, what kind of a system the workers could have, if they could manage that.
For the riding of Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, the amount is $48.2 million. That is the riding of my wise colleague taking the lead on this matter today, who has worked hard and prepared our arguments. In the Lower St. Lawrence region, there is not the kind of wealth found in downtown Toronto. The same is true of my riding. In the Laurentians, it is the same thing. We have a lot of seasonal workers in fisheries, agriculture, forestry and tourism.
Obviously, that is the picture for every area outside urban Quebec and urban Canada. That is what regional Quebec and Canada look like. That is most of the ridings in this House. The members here are affected by this reform.
Today, I was blown away to see the Liberals get up and ask us to agree that they are not insensitive. They are not insensitive; they are simply confident that they can take the money in the fund and do other things with it than what the people have paid for. It is as simple as that. They are not insensitive; they are profiteers. I would go that far. There are other words that cannot be used because they are unparliamentary. We will admit that you profit from the system; you profit from the workers and from the EI premiums deducted from their pay.
As I said earlier, I was blown away by remarks to the effect that the surplus was used to invest in health care. In theory, when this money is taken off the pay cheque, it is under employment insurance premiums. It should go to EI. Only the federal government can help itself like that. As individuals, we cannot collect money and not report it at the end of the year in our income tax return. We cannot establish funds in which to put this money and use it for purposes other than those for which it was collected. Only the federal government can do that.
I could take one riding after another. There are losses in every riding in Quebec. There is a deficit, a financial deficit, resulting in workers not getting full benefits when they are in need after losing their jobs. For seasonal workers, this gap usually occurs in the spring and lasts from 8 to 12 weeks, depending on the region. During this gap, their families have no income, and they are forced onto the provinces' income security systems. That is terrible, of course.
There are self-employed workers, women who have decided to work from home, who created their own business in order to be able to take care of their children, who are unable to contribute. Even if they were willing, the government does not want them to contribute to the employment insurance fund. In fact, they do not want any more claimants. Currently, the system is so profitable they do not want to expand it. They are afraid of losing their cash cow. The Liberal position is as simple as that.
They take money from the fuel tax, but do not reinvest it in the highways. They invest only 25% in the highways. They take this fuel money and put it back in health. In the meantime, they create other infrastructure programs, but they do not want to use the fuel tax revenues because they have already said this tax would not be used for the highways and was allocated for something else.
From one mistake to another, we ended up taking $40.5 billion out of the workers' pockets. As I said, the federal government, since 1996, since this Prime Minister, when he was finance minister, decided that the federal government was no longer contributing to the EI fund, all workers and employers have been paying higher premiums. In the last ten years or so, $42.5 billion have been paid in excess to the federal government. This is the harsh reality we, as members of the Bloc Quebecois, have to live with.
The members on the Standing Committee on Human Resource Development were not only from the Bloc Quebecois. Most of the committee members were Liberals. In fact, for those who would not know, all committees of the House of Commons are controlled by a majority of government members. That is the way things are and we do not have anything against it.
Except that, in this case, even the Liberals who were in a majority voted unanimously with the opposition parties in favour of adopting those 17 recommendations; and today they refuse to adopt them. They will not dare tell us it is because they lack the funds. Forget that. It is not that there is not enough money. That fund generates a $2 to $3 billion surplus each year. So the reason is not a lack of money.
The reason is they simply put that money to other uses. That is what they should tell us right now. They should tell workers: “Yes, we are punishing you, we are not giving you the benefits you deserve; yes there are families without income for eight to twelve weeks because we have decided to use the money for other purposes”. That is the harsh reality. They should also tell the independent workers: “You will pay income tax at the end of the year but you will not be eligible to employment insurance benefits. If you lose your job, you will not have access to that income because we refuse to give you the money. We have other things to do with it”.
That is what most of the Liberal members should have done today. They did not. They will deny that fact of course, because the election is fast approaching.
I will repeat why the committee met in May 2001 to prepare its report. After the 2000 election, cries were heard from people in the regions all over Quebec and the rest of Canada; they wanted the government to stop taking money from workers because it did not fix the problems experienced by families when the wage earners lost their jobs. So this committee was created. Great things were expected from this committee.
I remember the pressure that was put on the committee. We produced a unanimous report, and the pressure fell on the Liberals who formed the majority and who adopted the report unanimously. However, today, some Liberals are opposed to this motion. Furthermore, when the motion was presented in the House, some Liberal members of the committee voted against it even if they had adopted and signed the report. Of course, these members will have to live with their conscience. It is as simple as that.
It has been a pleasure for me to take part in this debate. I hope that we will have succeeded in moving things forward, and, above all, in convincing Quebeckers that one must never stop applying pressure. Of course, the best way to do it is to vote for the Bloc Quebecois in the next election.