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.