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House of Commons Hansard #49 of the 37th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was benefits.

Topics

Question No. 81Routine Proceedings

10:10 a.m.

Progressive Conservative

Greg Thompson Progressive Conservative New Brunswick Southwest, NB

No, Mr. Speaker, I have a right to stand in my place and speak, and if he does not like the message, that is his problem.

The fact is that we want answers to some of these questions on the aboriginal fisheries before the election is called. Everyone is entitled to those answers, including the aboriginal community, which would indicate the impact to them on some of these policies which the government has yet to define in terms of how much the program would cost.

I am asking the government to please move on some of these questions so that we will know what the answers are and we can actually talk intelligently about it. I know that the Liberals do not like to do that during a campaign period on these particular issues.

Mr. Speaker, can we get some--

Question No. 81Routine Proceedings

10:10 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

Order, please. The hon. Parliamentary Secretary to the Government House Leader.

Question No. 81Routine Proceedings

10:10 a.m.

Sarnia—Lambton Ontario

Liberal

Roger Gallaway LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

The member, if he would read the rules, instead of decrying against what he does not like, would understand that the question he is saying the government is avoiding or evading in response was only tabled by him in or about mid-April. It is a very complex question. In fact, he was so anxious to get a response he did not star it, in other words mark it urgent for response within 45 days.

This is the second day that he has risen on this point. If he were to look at the rules, he would know that it was his delay in tabling this question. He is making political statements around this. This is a matter of the rules of the House and he ought to be told that he cannot persist in this way.

Question No. 81Routine Proceedings

10:10 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

It would seem to me that the rules have been followed.

Question No. 81Routine Proceedings

10:10 a.m.

Yukon Yukon

Liberal

Larry Bagnell LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of order. Yesterday in the debate on Bill C-23, when I listed a number of first nations that were in support of the bill, I listed the Union of Ontario Indians which has 43 first nations.

I received a phone call from Grand Chief Commanda this morning saying this was not true, there was no such resolution supporting Bill C-23.

I want to apologize to the House. I had no intention of misleading the House. I want to set the record straight that there was no resolution as far as I have now been informed by Chief Commanda, and I apologize for any misinformation I might have provided.

SupplyGovernment Orders

May 6th, 2004 / 10:10 a.m.

Bloc

Paul Crête Bloc Kamouraska—Rivière-Du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, QC

moved:

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”.

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to speak to this motion today. I think that it is important to provide a brief historical overview and to say that we want to provide the government with a new opportunity—almost the final opportunity—to propose, in this House, an in-depth reform of insurance employment.

Historically, Mr. Jean Chrétien had made commitments before his election as the Prime Minister in 1993. Indeed, in a letter to a lady in my riding, he said that Liberals would put back in place a real employment insurance program that would ensure adequate income, protect seasonal workers and do other things.

Unfortunately, following the election, his government did the opposite. It took the employment insurance program and turned it into an arrangement to collect as much money as possible to fight the deficit. Thus, it tightened the screws.

For example, in two successive reforms, in 1994 and 1996, the rules for eligibility were limited and the length of the benefit period was cut back. They also arranged things so that everyone had to contribute, particularly young workers and part-time workers, who generally cannot receive benefits. They used not to contribute, and when they did start being required to pay into the program they did not get benefits in return. There are many contributors who cannot get benefits. So that is what led up to the elections in 1997 and 2000.

The Liberals reformed the EI program but, instead of making it more human, they made it more strict, more restrictive, more limited. The negative effects of this reform hit people hard, particularly those in the regions of Quebec and of Canada, until the election in 2000.

During the 2000 election campaign, the Liberal Party made a commitment that there would be a parliamentary commission after the election with a mandate to review the entire act and improve it. But following the election, the government produced precious little.

Despite what had been requested, Bill C-2 withdrew from the Employment and Immigration Commission the right to determine the contribution rate for employment insurance and handed it over to the federal government. At that time, the rate was set, not according to the program's needs, but rather according to the needs of the government in general. As a result, since that time, that is since the Liberal Party of Canada started these negative reforms, a $45 billion surplus has built up in the employment insurance fund.

After the 2000 elections, Bill C-2 did away with determining the contribution rate according to the needs of the plan. This did not go over well with the members, with the House as a whole, moreover. The Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities decided to look into the matter, stating that it wanted a true employment insurance program, a true reform, which the one in place was not. It therefore wondered what could be done to remedy that situation.

The committee heard witnesses from all groups in society. It ended up with 17 recommendations, all to be found in the report tabled three years ago in May. It was hoped that the government would use it as the basis for changes in the employment insurance system, which has not happened. The proposed changes were of many kinds. I would like to direct the House's attention to a number of them that clearly demonstrate our point of view and what we wanted to achieve.

The first of the recommendations was to eliminate discrimination against young people. We know that, at present, a young person entering the labour force for the first time must work 910 hours in order to qualify for EI benefits. Therefore, we had a proposal to eliminate this discrimination. It was the same thing for discrimination against women returning to the labour force.

We also wanted benefits to return to an adequate level. Another recommendation proposed that ways be found to increase the amount of benefits to an adequate level. A specific proposal on this was made in the unanimous report of the Standing Committee onHuman Resources Development and theStatus of Persons with Disabilities. Another recommendation said it was time to reinstate the program for older worker adjustment.

That was a program to assist people laid off when they are about 55 or 58 years old. In the riding I hope to represent after the next election, Rivière-du-Loup—Montmagny, on May 12, in less than two weeks from now, 600 workers will be laid off, including a hundred or so over the age of 55.

In many cases, these people have contributed to the employment insurance system for 15, 20 or 25 years, and they are full-time workers. When they are laid off they are not entitled to any additional benefits. After receiving EI benefits for 40 or 45 weeks at the most, they will themselves with no income and often unable to bridge the gap until they retire at 60 or 65.

We want this program restored. Improving eligibility, enabling people to receive better benefits, providing older workers with a system that would permit them, when laid off, to survive until they get their pension—these are all measures aimed at attaining an equitable system, in the end.

Some say those are costly items. However, let us keep in mind that, over the years, the federal government has accumulated a $45 billion surplus in the EI fund. There was a $45 billion difference between the premiums paid by workers and employers and the benefits paid out. For a long time, people thought that this money was sitting in a reserve and that the government was keeping it for the appropriate time to put it back in the system. That was not the case. It took the $45 billion first to eliminate the deficit and then to pay down the debt.

Lower income people, those who need EI benefits from time to time, those who make less than $39,000 a year, contributed 100% to the fight against the deficit. However, people who earn more than $39,000 no longer pay into the plan, some do not contribute at all. For instance, members of Parliament do not contribute to the EI plan.

A lot of people therefore did not contribute to the fight against the deficit, whereas people who already had a lot of trouble making ends meet every month were asked to do more. Here too, the problem is blatant. The situation must be remedied.

Just as an example, between the time this unanimous report was adopted by all the committee members, from all parties--that does not happen everyday--and today, three years later, the government has accumulated a further $11 billion surplus.

It could easily have implemented the recommendations in the report while making sure that the plan was properly funded. Wealth would have been distributed more evenly to the satisfaction of society in Quebec and Canada.

Moreover, some of the 17 unanimous recommendations were aimed at adjusting the EI plan to the new reality of today's labour market. For instance, self-employed workers in Quebec and Canada do not contribute to the EI plan and are not covered by it. However, we know that they account for 16% of the workforce, 16% of all workers in Canada.

Some of them would benefit from a plan tailored to their needs. We are not talking about a universal EI plan necessarily, but something more along the lines of what was done for fishermen, a special plan that would provide them with an income when they are left without contracts for extended periods of time.

This has all kinds of impacts. It is not just about making sure people get a cheque. Self-employed workers are often young women who have freelanced for several years and who decide with their partner that they will not have children because it would not necessarily be financially responsible to do so.

These are the kind of recommendations made in the unanimous report which should have been implemented by the government. The government has taken no action in the last three years to implement these recommendations.

This is why it is rather astonishing to hear the Prime Minister say that he will do something about seasonal workers just before the election. What is more, the Minister of Heritage was heard saying that there will not be enough time to implement a comprehensive reform before the election and that it will be done after.

Elections are not held on a set date. Whenever the government is ready to introduce a real employment insurance reform, we are ready to sit, cooperate and pass the legislation. During the next days and weeks, the government could count on the cooperation of all parties in this House in order to do that.

This would send a clear message that we want a fair distribution of wealth in Quebec and in Canada. It might also remedy a number of injustices committed by this government against the unemployed in the last 10 years. However, we still have no indication that this will happen.

Six months ago, the Prime Minister said, “We will do things differently. I am ready. I will introduce measures”. In this case, as in others, he is very hesitant. Today, he is being given another chance to propose a reform of the employment insurance system.

I introduced this motion in the House last Friday. I hoped it would be passed, but the Government House Leader refused to give his consent. The refusal did not come from a Liberal member or from an opposition party, but from the Government House Leader himself.

There is a flagrant contradiction between what Liberal members and ministers say in public and what is really happening. The government has not prepared a real reform of the employment insurance system. We need one and we are giving them an opportunity to propose a plan as soon as possible because right now people are very wary of Liberal election promises.

In 2000, the government made promises. We were told “A parliamentary commission will be set up; you will see, we will examine this whole issue”. That parliamentary commission wrote the report that was released three years ago. However, the government made no move at all follow up on this document, with the result that the hon. member for Madawaska—Restigouche, who is a responsible Liberal member, attended a meeting with labour unions on Tuesday and asked them “After three years, what have you done in this regard?” The unions told him that an in-depth reform was necessary.

This hon. member, who will not run again in the upcoming election, was very disappointed by his government's behaviour. He was very unsatisfied, because he worked with us on this report. He thought there were some interesting things. He expected the government to make a similar proposal. We are not asking the government to implement the report down to the last letter. We are asking it to take this unanimous report into consideration and recommend a new reform of the employment insurance program that will go in the direction opposite to that of the last reform, which was used by the government to fill up its coffers, fight the deficit and reduce the debt, but at the expense of people living in regions, young people and women.

In the report—and perhaps this is why the government is reluctant to follow up on it—there was also a recommendation on the setting of the premium rate. There are people, including Bloc Quebecois members and all opposition members who support our position, who want the employment insurance fund to be an independent fund.

Conversely, there are also people who want this fund to remain under the authority of the government. Perhaps we should at least consider the possibility of going back to the system under which the premium rate was set by the Canada Employment Insurance Commission, and was based on the needs of the employment insurance program. Since Bill C-2 was passed, the rate is set based on the needs of the government, and it was announced in the last budget that this would continue for another two years.

This means that the government is trying to justify the fact that, currently, we could have a premium rate whose purpose is not to fund the employment insurance fund, but is simply a payroll tax. This is what the EI program has become.

That is why we insist on reform of the employment insurance program. The solution is to have the employers and employees, those who contribute to the program, run it themselves one day. Nonetheless, we must ensure that, if there is a surplus at the end of the year, either the premiums are lowered or the benefits improved for a certain group of workers, but the money must never be accumulated and used for something else, which is what happened over the past 10 years with $45 billion. It is totally unacceptable.

The recommendations in the unanimous report went quite far. It was a serious piece of work and all the political parties contributed. There were recommendations on the employment insurance regions. We wanted to ensure that the regions reflected the reality of the labour market because there were many inconsistencies in the current definitions of the regions. We wanted the map to be redone in a well thought out way.

We also wanted to look at the possibility of raising the ceiling for yearly insurable earnings to $41,500. People currently contribute up to $39,000, meaning that someone earning $25,000 is contributing 100% of their share to the employment insurance program. However, someone earning $75,000 does not contribute to the program for the $36,000 difference between the $75,000 they make and the $39,000 ceiling. This creates unfairness and inequity and should be examined closely.

To show how serious hon. members were in their recommendations, they also addressed the issue of fraud. Hon. members know that we had to deal with Mr. Chrétien's approach when he was prime minister. Unfortunately, he said that the unemployed were a bunch of beer drinkers, that that was why there was a problem, and that we had to crack down on them in order to get anywhere.

The government and the finance minister, who has now become the Prime Minister and who jumped on the opportunity to rake in all the money he could, rode on this statement for several years. They eventually realized that there is not more abuse of EI than there is of income tax or any other program. Only 3% of the people abuse the system.

The committee did make recommendations to ensure that those who truly abused the system were penalized, which is the normal thing to do. At the same time, it was acknowledged that the majority of the unemployed really wanted to find a job. It would be nice for them to have enough income.

Members pointed out that the legislation is based on the presumption of guilt, which is quite horrifying. For instance, when employment is found to be uninsurable because the worker is related to the employer, it is up to the applicant to show his job should have been insurable. However, the legislation clearly stipulates that, in such a case, the employment is not insurable. That is something else we wanted to change.

As you see, the proposed reform is quite reasonable. It is not over the top. We are not trying to revert back to the days where people were getting incredible benefits for minimal contributions. What was requested was quite reasonable.

Also, for quite some time, we had in Canada a social pact whereby the industrial sector, which was concentrated mainly in Ontario but also in Quebec and generating full-time jobs, and public servants at the various levels of government had agreed to contribute to EI so that workers with seasonal jobs in resource areas were able to stay in their regions and get enough benefits to make it through some rough times in winter and the spring gap. There was a kind of balance, a proper redistribution of wealth.

In 1994, the Liberals put an end to this social pact. Consequently, several regions in Canada saw a significant decrease in their revenues. And I am not talking only about the individual income of the unemployed, but also about millions of dollars in lost revenues for the affected regions. At the same time, industrial regions continued to buy wood, fish and agricultural products. They continued to benefit from the system, but the resource regions suffered a considerable loss of revenue.

All this is caused by the attitude of the federal government, which decided that, instead of having our national debt in the hands of foreigners, it should be shouldered within the country by the workers. That is unacceptable. And it was not done in a way where everyone shared equally in it. Instead of that, the government decided to take money from the poorest, the most disadvantaged and the least organized in our society.

These people have so little savings that when the crisis arrives, they have no money left to get through the spring gap. In the fall, seasonal workers are often told to prepare themselves and to organize demonstrations to force the government to take action. But the government does not take action until it is faced with reality. Now the crisis has become so serious that we saw people on the North Shore, as in many other regions, rise up because they find that reality very difficult to bear.

Following up on the unanimous report of the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development would be an extraordinary gesture on the part of the government.

I will conclude by saying a few words about those aspects that seem important to me. This debate is not about defending the position of the Bloc Quebecois. It is about defending the position of a committee of this Parliament, made up of members from all parties. Everyone had to compromise for the committee to agree on that position.

There are things that the Bloc Quebecois would have liked to see included in the report that were not included at that time. For example, the Bloc said that the reduction from 910 to 700 hours was a step in the right direction, but that any kind of discrimination should be eliminated.

All parties made compromises. We have a unanimous report before that committee. The new Prime Minister has said that he wants to address the democratic deficit. He has an extraordinary and unique opportunity to do so. Today, he should make the decision to table this reform of the employment insurance program.

In conclusion, I ask for the unanimous consent of the House to make the motion votable tonight, and ultimately to urge the government to put in place a real employment insurance program.

SupplyGovernment Orders

10:35 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

Does the hon. member for Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques have unanimous consent of the House?

SupplyGovernment Orders

10:35 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

SupplyGovernment Orders

10:35 a.m.

Some hon. members

No.

SupplyGovernment Orders

10:35 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

There is no unanimous consent.

SupplyGovernment Orders

10:35 a.m.

Bloc

Pierre Paquette Bloc Joliette, QC

Mr. Speaker, I wish to commend my friend, the hon. member for...

SupplyGovernment Orders

10:35 a.m.

An hon. member

Chicken, hypocrite.

SupplyGovernment Orders

10:35 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

The words that were just uttered are unparliamentary. I respectfully ask the hon. member to refrain from using such words.

The hon. member for Joliette.

SupplyGovernment Orders

10:35 a.m.

Bloc

Pierre Paquette Bloc Joliette, QC

Mr. Speaker, first, I want to congratulate my colleague from Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques on his very fine speech. I think it is clear proof that common sense is on the side of the suggestions this week of the standing committee on human resources development and unions in Quebec. I congratulate the hon. member also on his fine work in this area when he was the Bloc Quebecois critic on human resources.

My question to him deals with something that is beyond me. The Prime Minister and the Liberal members are aware of the problem. They know about this gap in regions with seasonal industries, and they know about the difficulty for young workers, women who re-enter the labour market and older workers to access EI benefits. They are certainly aware of that, because they promised repeatedly to bring in reforms. That means they know about the catastrophic situation many of our fellow citizens are in.

How can the government be so cynical about the needs of the unemployed? How can it be so indifferent when it does not put even a cent in the EI fund? That is really beyond me. Perhaps my hon. colleague can explain that to me.

SupplyGovernment Orders

10:35 a.m.

Bloc

Paul Crête Bloc Kamouraska—Rivière-Du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank the member for Joliette for his question. I will start off by reminding members that this has been a concern of the Bloc Québecois since we arrived in this House.

I have been doing my share but, before me the member for Mercier had done very serious work on the issue, as had the member for Rimouski--Neigette-et-la Mitis, our critic for human resources. We have been hammering at this over and over, in terms of analyses and specific actions. Among other things, we have had employment insurance weeks and an “employment insurance horror house” and raised all sorts of concerns, which have contributed to the adoption of this unanimous report.

The question is very appropriate. Why are we not sensitive? The basic problem is that all the money from employment insurance premiums has been spent as fast as it has been collected. Therefore, today, the reserves we should have kept are not there to make EI better.

According to the auditor general, we need a surplus of $10 billion to $15 billion based on the opinion of the plan's chief actuary. They said that if the government had such a reserve it could take initiatives and adapt to labour market realities. However, things have been allowed to balloon so much that the government now owes $45 billion to workers and employers, those who in fact pay into EI, whereas the government does not contribute a single penny.

The government's insensitivity may therefore be due to the fact that it does not recognize what the labour market is really all about. Some Liberal members behave this way. One Montreal area MP, who was in committee on Monday, was causing the member for Madawaska—Restigouche to tear his hair out. The member for Ahuntsic was saying that everything was fine, that things needed tightening and this was the way things ought to be done. So the issue is still being debated within this government.

There is also the fact that we might not have a good understanding of what people are really going through. However, we should heed a unanimous committee report. Imagine that! All the members of the House are elected. We regularly work in committees. We have to make a lot of efforts and the level of frustration is quite high. We often have to choose between a minority report to put our opinion forward, or an unanimous report in which everyone has to soften its stance. This is what we have done for this report.

Why did the government not implement any of the 17 recommendations? It is because it deliberately decided in the last three years to accumulate $11 billion and to use that money to pay off the national debt instead of putting at least part of it back into the pockets of the people who helped to eliminate the deficit. This is the main reason why we are now in this situation. We need this government to make a political choice and not only cosmetic changes that will cost $100 or $200 million. It is a lot of money, but $200 million is nothing compared to $45 billion.

A political decision has to be made. We must hear today what the government thinks about all this. I am looking forward to hearing what the liberal members have to say. Will those who were at the committee and who unanimously adopted this report stand up to defend the same point of view? This is the point of view that we are presenting today on behalf of the unemployed. We are hoping for some positive results and are expecting the government to introduce a reform before the next election.

SupplyGovernment Orders

10:40 a.m.

Liberal

Brent St. Denis Liberal Algoma—Manitoulin, ON

Mr. Speaker, let me say to my colleague whose motion we are debating today that we appreciate the opportunity to participate in the debate on the entire system of supporting workers, those who become unemployed from time to time or those who, because of their participation in seasonal work, become unemployed on a cyclical basis. They are all of importance to Canada and of concern to us.

I have the opportunity to be the chairman of the Prime Minister's task force on seasonal work, so I have a special interest in this matter, particularly in regard to the weeks and months ahead.

I would like to ask a question of my good friend across the way, because he has seasonal workers in his riding and I have them in my riding in northern Ontario. One of the things we hear consistently from our communities is that the current employment insurance system has built within it certain disincentives. We have heard from laid-off workers themselves that the system does not encourage them to take work, because if they do sometimes their benefits will go down for the next year. I know that my friend has heard that from his own constituents as I have heard it in my travels across the country. As well, there are certain provisions in the current system, which we will acknowledge is not a perfect system, that encourage the underground economy.

Does my colleague have some ideas that are not included in the list of recommendations we are debating today, ideas that will decrease disincentives and reduce the temptation of the underground economy?

SupplyGovernment Orders

10:40 a.m.

Bloc

Paul Crête Bloc Kamouraska—Rivière-Du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, QC

Mr. Speaker, the first thing that comes to my mind is that the hon. member should have given consent for making this motion votable today. That would have been a first step, a concrete contribution toward making some progress on this file, which has been dragging for some years now because the current government refused to assume its responsibilities. This is the case for the seasonal workers, and for other workers as well.

When he says that the system is a disincentive to work, my answer is that we must dispel the myth that most people do not want to work. Seasonal workers want to have more weeks of work, because they will then be able to draw benefits for more weeks. The problem is that, as a result of the restrictions brought in between 1994 and 1996, which are still in effect today, the people in my region would, if it were not for transitional measures, be left facing a 20 to 25 week gap next winter. Imagine what would happen if we had no earnings for 15 to 20 weeks. How would we react?

In this case, it is not a matter of 15 to 20 weeks without earnings, but 15 to 20 weeks without EI benefits. The decision was made to tighten things up. When the economy in a region picks up, this penalizes seasonal workers because they are required to have more hours in order to qualify. So, in the end, there are fewer weeks of benefits.

Although we rejoice that there are more jobs, the end result for people working in the peat bogs, in agriculture, in forestry, picking berries or fruit, and many others doing similar work, is that there will not be any more weeks work from one year to the next just because the economy has picked up. That does not affect the size of the blueberry crop.

So a way must be found to acknowledge the existence of these seasonal industries. We must replace Mr. Chrétien's phrase about the jobless being beer-drinkers, which dates from 1993, with another phrase: “Seasonal industries are real industries, ones that contribute to the development of our regional economies”.

The way to do that is to implement a good employment insurance plan that will allow people to get through the year, work 15 weeks and then be eligible for 37 weeks of benefits, so that they can continue to work in our regions and not find themselves forced to leave. The young person who starts working in the tourism industry in a region, works for 800 hours and finds that his or her services are no longer required when he or she is missing 110 hours more will just move to the big city and never come back to the region. We trained that young person for nothing. That is the kind of situation we see.

The first thing the member should do, since he is the one who refused to make this motion votable, is to say that the motion should be votable so that we can exert some pressure on the government to force it to propose a thorough reform of the employment insurance plan to the House so it can be approved before the next election.

SupplyThe Royal Assent

10:45 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

Order please. Before we hear the next speaker, I have the honour to inform the House that a communication has been received as follows:

Rideau Hall

Ottawa

May 6, 2004

Mr. Speaker,

I have the honour to inform you that the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, Governor General of Canada, signified royal assent by written declaration to the bills listed in the Schedule to this letter on the 6th day of May, 2004, at 10:00 a.m.

Yours sincerely,

Barbara Uteck

Secretary to the Governor General

The Schedule indicates the bills assented to were Bill C-7, An Act to amend certain Acts of Canada, and to enact measures for implementing the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, in order to enhance public safety, Chapter 15; Bill C-17, An Act to amend certain Acts, Chapter 16; and Bill C-11, An Act to give effect to the Westbank First Nation Self-Government Agreement, Chapter 17.

The House resumed consideration of the motion.

SupplyGovernment Orders

10:45 a.m.

Liberal

Brent St. Denis Liberal Algoma—Manitoulin, ON

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.

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11:05 a.m.

Bloc

Marcel Gagnon Bloc Champlain, QC

Mr. Speaker, I have listened carefully to the speakers since the beginning. This is the second member to speak on behalf of the government on this extremely important motion.

There is one thing that saddens me in the speech we have just heard. The hon. member has explained what a seasonal worker is. He has explained various things about what kinds of seasonal workers there are in Canada. I think we know this.

The motion asks the government to make an effort to solve the problem of those who are eligible for benefits but who do not receive them. These people know very well who they are.

I heard the government representative say that employment insurance is a tool for economic and social development. He also said it was a tool available to the government. The government wields this tool so well that it makes the workers pay $45 billion, and, instead of giving benefits to those who are and should be entitled to them, the government takes the money to pay off the national debt.

I do not understand my colleague's speech and I would like him to tell me whether it is normal that workers who contribute to the employment insurance fund are penalized. This insurance fund belongs to those who contribute, not to those who do not contribute, and not to the government.

Let us take the example of the POWA. More than 15,000 workers were covered by this program and needed it. It was abolished. These people had paid into employment insurance all their working lives. At the age of 55, if they lost their jobs, the POWA helped them get through this difficult period, but the program has been abolished.

Does the member think it normal that the government banks this money rather than using it for the benefit of the workers who contributed it?

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11:10 a.m.

Liberal

Brent St. Denis Liberal Algoma—Manitoulin, ON

Mr. Speaker, this government has only been in office since the swearing in of our new Prime Minister last December. We have to look at what the government has already done. In being asked to chair the task force, I submit that demonstrates how serious the government is in finding some solutions that respond to the needs of all workers, particularly seasonal workers.

With regard to the EI fund, it is included in the general revenue of the government because the auditor general recommended that some years ago. There were years when the fund was in a deficit and had to be covered by the general revenues of the government. The auditor general simply recommended that we accept reality for what it was. In bad times the government would cover the deficit and in good times there would be a surplus in the fund. Hopefully, there will never be bad times again. If we have a good election result, we will not have bad times for a while.

With regard to older workers, those my colleague claims were hurt by the changes made some years ago, I mentioned in my remarks that no system is perfect. I listed a number of measures that have already been taken to ameliorate some of the unexpected consequences of the policy changes of the mid-nineties. I am convinced that more will come to respond to the needs of our workers.

The new cabinet and Prime Minister need to be given some time to build upon the knowledge base that we already have. The task force needs to be given some time to allow it to continue its consultations. I know the minister is serious about this process as well.

I would ask the member to be patient. No system can be perfect. If we work together in this place, we can always make it better. I am very confident that in the weeks and months ahead we will see improvements to the system of which we can all be proud.

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11:10 a.m.

Bloc

Pierre Paquette Bloc Joliette, QC

Mr. Speaker, we really have in front of us a member and a government struck by amnesia. We are told that this government has been in place for five months, but actually it has been there for ten years. Amnesia seems to be the rule because in the ad scam some ministers and the Prime Minister himself have also been struck by amnesia. They are also suffering from amnesia when it comes to their promises.

We must remember that during the last election the president of the Privy Council travelled to Chicoutimi where he promised construction workers that changes would be made to employment insurance. They never were. Workers confirmed this last week; they remember and they will keep an eye on the Liberals during the election campaign.

The Prime Minister himself travelled to Charlevoix a few months ago and promised changes to employment insurance, especially about the gap. Nothing happened.

I will ask a simple question of the hon. member. Why did he oppose unanimous consent in the House to have this motion made votable tonight?

In conclusion, I will read the opposition motion:

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”.

Why did the member oppose the motion's being made votable?

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11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Brent St. Denis Liberal Algoma—Manitoulin, ON

Mr. Speaker, the government is not paralyzed. I totally and categorically reject that notion. We have had an excellent throne speech and an excellent budget. The country is now going into, I believe, its seventh straight surplus year. The management of our country, by the past administration which was an excellent administration, but particularly by the new administration, is excellent.

I am not quite familiar with the Treasury Board commitments with respect to his own riding but, as far as I am concerned, in a new mandate, which hopefully we will see fairly soon, there will be measures taken to deal with the concerns that he has raised.

As far as not supporting the motion, I am not sure I can even address that. I am entitled to vote the way I feel is appropriate in the House so I am not sure it is appropriate for the member to ask me to explain why I would object to unanimous consent to a motion. However, if I were allowed to explain I would say to him that, as chair of the task force, our work is not done.

I do not feel the government needs to be held to account on a motion presented by Bloc members in this fashion. They have the opportunity to spend the day debating their point of view. I do not think it is necessary for the government to vote on their motion of the day.

The government's actions in the past and the ameliorating measures I have mentioned are clear. I think, in the weeks and months ahead, the government will continue acting on the urgent needs of workers as they are supported through the employment insurance system and other measures that support our communities.

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11:15 a.m.

Progressive Conservative

Greg Thompson Progressive Conservative New Brunswick Southwest, NB

Mr. Speaker, I would like to put a few comments on the record. I most likely will not take up the full 20 minute allotment.

I will begin by talking about the Conservative Party position on the employment insurance program. Obviously, we support it. We want to make sure, as I think most of us in the House do, that the program provides adequate income protection for Canadians in the event they lose their jobs. Simply put, the program is supposed to be about protection for Canadians when they lose their jobs.

It often is unfairly identified as a social program. It is not a social program. We pay premiums. It is an insurance program, which is what it is supposed to be.

The old expression that has been heard around this place for many years is that the best social program is a job. I guess most of us hope that we never have to use the protection provided under the EI system. We all want to be productive and working but, unfortunately, sometimes the best laid plans of mice and men go astray and we find ourselves unemployed. In fact, after the election probably a few of us will find ourselves unemployed. Hopefully, Mr. Speaker, it is not me or you or any of our colleagues but I guess that is the reality of this job of politics. We take our chances in the marketplace every three or four years or so.

I want to make a few points on this issue and on just how disingenuous the Prime Minister has been in terms of reforming the EI system. The track record of the government is not very good on this. In fact, as we stand here today the surplus that has been built up in the fund is in excess of $48 billion. I will to explain the term “fund” more clearly later on.

What that money means is that the Government of Canada has paid out less than what it has taken in to the fund. That is the simple arithmetic. In other words, the government has paid out benefits but the income that it has received from that fund, the premiums, have exceeded those benefits by $48 billion. In other words, there is a $48 billion surplus generated by the EI account, those premiums that you, Mr. Speaker, and I and every other working Canadian are paying, as well as employers.

What we have suggested, and I think most Canadians agree with us, is that we are paying too much in premiums. The numbers speak for themselves. That is how the $48 billion surplus was generated. The Auditor General has reported on this as well.

Where the Prime Minister is disingenuous is in the fact that he is using the EI surplus, because there is no such thing as a fund. I wanted to explain that for the listening public. There is no such thing as a fund. Basically those surpluses go into general revenues.

What did the Government of Canada do with those surplus funds? Simply put, it spent them. Many of the Prime Minister's projections and the boasting that he often does in the House about his management of the economy when he was finance minister, he would not have anything to brag about if he did not have that surplus.

I will point out some of what the Prime Minister said in the past on this when he was the finance minister. When the former finance minister, now Prime Minister, spoke in the House on March 10, 1994, he stated:

--the Minister of Human Resources Development was able to announce through the budget that we were reducing unemployment insurance premiums which are in fact a tax on jobs.

The Prime Minister admitted in the House on March 10, 1994, that it was a tax. He went on to say:

We have begun to attack this cancer on job creation in this country.

Over the years we have had to force the Prime Minister to reduce those premiums that we all pay but they have not been reduced enough. The chief actuary of the fund has told us time and again that the rates could be reduced even further. If we point to that very high surplus in the fund, the $48 billion, it tells us that the government has been using the EI fund, not as an insurance program but as a tax to get more money out of the hind pockets of average Canadians. That is wrong. The Prime Minister could have done something about that over the years but did absolutely nothing.

The interesting thing is that to keep the EI surplus growing, because the government did not want the surplus to shrink as it would impact on its financial statements, it used the surplus to enhance its numbers. However, to keep the EI surplus growing, Chrétien and the former finance minister introduced Bill C-2 after the 2000 election to suspend the rate setting requirements of the Employment Insurance Act for 2002-03.

The act, by the way, requires that the premium revenue cover the cost of the benefits over the business cycle and that the rate levels be relatively stable. The Auditor General concluded that premium rates exceeded the maximum range suggested by the chief actuary for 1998 through 2001 and that the rates for 2001 and 2002 were inconsistent with the intent of the EI Act.

The Auditor General is the person who the Liberals like to attack. We all know about the work she did on the ad scam and how some Liberals attacked her at committee suggesting that her numbers were wrong and that their numbers were right. The Auditor General reported that $100 million had basically gone missing or, as some people have said, stolen, or was given away to some of the Liberal-friendly ad firms. The Auditor General, of course, has stood by her assessment of what went wrong, much to the displeasure of Liberal members, I might add.

The Auditor General has identified some of the weaknesses in the EI system. I will quote some of what she had to say in her 2003 report on the EI system, which, as we all know, is run by HRDC. At that time she talked about documents that should have been on the floor of the House of Commons. In other words, she said that Parliament should have been aware of what was going on in that fund. She stated:

Parliament is not given the full picture of the service's performance.

She went on to say:

HRDC uses three documents to report to Parliament.

The Report on Plans and Priorities presents HRDC's planned results, while the Departmental Performance Report presents and explains actual results. The Monitoring and Assessment Report (MAR) is required by the EI Act and presents various information on the EI programs.

In our view, these reports have not given Parliament the full picture of the service performance of the EI Income Benefits Program. They have not described important performance issues, such as the uneven speed and quality of processing claims across the country.

She states:

Currently, HRDC reports only national averages for key measures, giving parliamentarians only a very broad view of performance. For call centres, it reports the percentage of calls answered by a service representative within three minutes. But it does not report the larger percentage of calls that cannot get into the queue. It also does not report how it plans to meet its service targets in all areas of the country.

In other words, there is some failure within the department, but also a failure by the department to bring this to the floor of the House of Commons for closer scrutiny.

She recommends that:

Human Resources Development Canada should report measures that better capture service performance in sufficient detail to meet the information needs of parliamentarians. The Department should describe plans to meet performance targets when required.

Again, it is a veil of secrecy by the government over programs that we have some legitimate questions about. So when the government is suggesting changes to the program, I think we require full and open accounting so that we can discuss what those changes might be. If we do not have the proper information before us, it is pretty hard to make intelligent choices.

The Auditor General goes on in her report to refer to the surplus, which I have already mentioned. Again she follows up with a recommendation for a more complete picture for Parliament so that some of these decisions can be made in the proper context. This is really what it is all about: some accountability by the Government of Canada on a program that from time to time is legitimately questioned by Canadians, not only the recipients of the program but those who are still working and paying into the program.

I think the government has to listen to some of the recommendations that are being brought forward on the floor of the House of Commons and has to consider some of them before it starts tinkering with the act. I think it is incumbent upon the Government of Canada to listen to the opposition and to provide us with the information, so that, again, when those choices are made and those policies are brought forward, we can discuss them with some level of knowledge.

I will leave it at that. Again, one of my party's biggest concerns is the fact that the government has used the fund for the wrong purpose. It has used it to enhance its financial position. The government would in fact be $48 billion poorer. It has used this fund to enhance its financial position.

Therefore, on the debt repayment that the Government of Canada often brags about, we could question whether it would have been in a position to pay down any debt without the surplus that was generated in the EI fund. The numbers again speak for themselves. In fact, the Government of Canada's balanced position would have taken about six years longer to achieve if it had not had the excessive premiums being generated by the EI fund going into the piggy bank.

Now I will read to the House from some of the information I put together earlier this morning. By applying the EI surplus in this manner, the Prime Minister hid the true deficit-surplus situation of the government from Canadians.

Thus he was able to tell Canadians that the books were balanced as early as 1997-98. In actual fact, without the application of the EI surpluses to official figures, the government would not have been in the black until fiscal year 1999-2000.

In other words, as I mentioned earlier, it means that the finance minister, today's Prime Minister, would have taken a full six years more to balance the budget, not four as he claims.

We are estimating that the EI surplus this year will again add about $2.4 billion to the total. We could easily be looking at a surplus in that fund, generated over the years, in and around $50 billion this year.

I will leave that for my colleagues to consider. I look forward to any questions and responses they might have.