Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure today, not only as Bloc Québécois member for the riding of Manicouagan, but also on behalf of Quebec voters, to whom the Bloc Québécois have been making a commitment on this issue during election campaigns since 1993, to rise to ask the federal government to give back to workers the money from the employment insurance account.
Today, I am pleased to take part in the debate, at second reading, of Bill C-280, an act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (Employment Insurance Account and premium rate setting) and another act in consequence, which provides for the establishment of an independent fund managed by a commission. The commission would also have the power to set the premium rate.
First, the advantage to commissioners in managing an independent fund is that they would manage a real insurance program. As we know, employment insurance is an insurance for workers who lose their job, or whose employment is terminated. As regards these commissioners, the chairperson would be appointed by the House of Commons; the two vice-chairpersons could be the deputy ministers of the departments involved; seven representatives would be chosen by employees and seven by employers. After all, it is the employees and employers who contribute to the employment insurance account. The federal government does not invest any money in it. It only plays an administrative role with the fund.
The committee, which would report once a year to the Department of Human Resources and Development Skills, could also submit a report to the House of Commons. This means that the report could be made public, and those who contribute to the employment insurance account, namely employees and employers, would have access to it and would be able to see what is happening with the money that they paid through their premiums.
The government must also show greater transparency as regards the employment insurance fund. The fund must not be used, as it has since 1994, to fill the government's coffers. The Prime Minister or the Minister of Finance says that, this year, there is a surplus of $9.1 billion. There is a $4 billion in the employment insurance account. This means that the excess money in the EI fund is used to increase the surplus of the government, which then uses that money for purposes other than those for which it was intended.
The situation is similar in Quebec. I am addressing now voters in Quebec, who pay premiums to the Régie des rentes du Québec. All workers pay RRQ premiums. When they retire, they receive retirement benefits through the independently-managed RRQ.
Thus, we believe that the government should be clear and transparent and ensure that the money paid toward a certain end is not used toward another. We also believe that at least $15 billion per year should be set aside in the EI fund in case of an economic crisis. However, in 2004, according to the Auditor General, the government collected $48 billion in surplus from the EI fund.
The Bloc Québécois is proposing that the government hand back these funds to the employment insurance account management committee, into an independent fund managed by administrators completely independent of the government. This way the government could refund $4.6 billion per year. It would create a management fund and would give that commission the authority to set the premium levels.
The price is not the same when someone thinks he has insurance but in fact does not. This is what happens with respect to the EI fund. One hundred per cent of workers pay premiums; they have no choice, it is the law. However, only four out of ten workers are entitled to it.
The commission would also have the power to determine not only premium rates but to make recommendations to the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills Development, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities.
The government could make a whole slew of recommendations. Now, this government took the money from workers who contribute to the employment insurance fund in order to increase its surplus and be seen as a good administrator. This reform was brought in under minister Axworthy and Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.
Actually, the Axworthy reform was much too stringent. The year following the introduction of the reform, the employment insurance fund generated a surplus of $6 billion. In the following years, there was a succession of ministers. After minister Axworthy, there was minister Young. Then we had the present Foreign Affairs Minister, minister Jane Stewart. After her, we had the present Minister of Immigration, who administered the Human Resources Department. Finally, a new minister has been appointed, a member from Quebec and former Minister of Immigration. We hope she will understand workers of Quebec and give them the money which belongs to them.
When Prime Minister Chrétien decided to pay off the deficit with the surplus of the employment insurance fund, it became public robbery. Today, we have a commission of inquiry into the sponsorship scandal. There should also be a commission on the misappropriation of the $46 billion which served for purposes other than those intended.
Contributors to the employment insurance fund, employees and employers, have paid insurance to workers in case of job loss or severance. Now, those surpluses ended up in the consolidated revenue fund of the government, which was therefore able to increase its yearly surpluses by using those funds to pay off the deficit.
Therefore, this is a disguised tax for those who have access to employment insurance, since they contribute, not only as workers but also through their income tax and taxes like GST and PST. In fact, they are paying contributions which will be of no benefit to them. Only four workers out of ten will be paid employment insurance benefits.
The misappropriation of $46 billion justifies a public inquiry. In fact, it is a bigger scandal than that of the sponsorships. I would like the auditor general or even us, in Parliament, to ask publicly for an inquiry commission that could tell us how the government could take the workers money from their employment insurance fund to use it for other purposes.
The government remains insensitive to the situation of seasonal workers and we see more and more poverty in Canada because of the cuts in the employment insurance. Many families in the Manicouagan and Charlevoix areas and in the 75 ridings of Quebec and in fact, in the Maritimes and all of Canada, were penalized by the employment insurance reform.
With its bill, the Bloc Quebecois is calling for the creation of an independent fund that would be managed by independent managers and that could not be used to play politics at the expenses of the unemployed and the workers.
The commission could make many recommendations to the government. We already have a slew of unanimous reports from our human resources committee here, which include 17 recommendations.
The eight recommendations made recently include the creation of an independent fund. It is about time the Liberal government stopped playing politics at the expense of the poorest in our society. People who work two to three months a year do not contribute $20,000 to $25,000 a year to an RRSP. They have difficulty making ends meet. What is important for them, as the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst put it so well, is to put bread and butter on the table and to send their kids to school to get an education. They paid for insurance but, unfortunately, the government prevents them from getting their benefits.
I said earlier that it was a disguised tax. It is a disguised tax when people pay insurance premiums but are prevented from getting insurance benefits and when the money they pay goes to the government's consolidated fund and is used for other purposes namely to reduce the deficit. It is clear then that it is a disguised tax imposed on the unemployed.
Furthermore, it is incredible to think that only four people out of 10 are entitled to EI benefits, that is, six people out of 10 or 60% are not entitled. The majority of these are women, young people, seasonal workers, contract workers. By the way, more and more employers provide contract jobs to workers on call, part-time workers, casual workers, replacements for workers on holidays.
The Employment Insurance Commission is so ridiculous that it imposes contributions on students who interrupt their university or college education in May, enter the workforce during the summer and go back to school in August. The law forces them to contribute to the EI fund during their summer employment, knowing very well that these students will never receive EI benefits, since they must have worked 910 hours to qualify.
Let us take the example of a student who enters the workforce. He is a seasonal, on call, casual or temporary worker. As he cannot spend his whole life doing this, he decides to go back to school. The government, through the Department of Human Resources Development and Skills Development, does not give him employment insurance benefits. The first reason is that it is voluntary termination of employment. The second is that he is not available for employment. The young guy decides to go back to university to take an engineering, a technician's course or some other course required to be able to work in a trade on a longer term the year round. Once again, the student contributed for a few months or a year, or even more, to the EI fund. When, for some reason, he decides to quit his work to go back to university or college, he is not entitled to EI benefits.
Today, with early retirement systems, people are retiring younger and younger, for example, at 55, 58 or 60 years old. Young people will replace them. When these young people enter the workforce, which, by the way, is not easy in the regions, they must work at least 910 hours to qualify for EI benefits.
With the establishment of an independent committee and of an independent fund, non-politicized managers would have to issue recommendations with a view to improve the employment insurance benefits system. The 910-hour criterion is unacceptable for women and young people who are on the labour market.
This was not the first time that former Prime Minister Chrétien was grabbing jobless people by the throat. And yet, seasonal workers in the construction, fishing, tourism, forestry or paper industries need employment insurance. Jobs are seasonal, not the workers.
In closing, I would like to submit a request about the royal recommendation concerning this bill.
We have a majority in the House. Both the Conservative Party and the New Democratic Party support this bill, which was brought forward by the Bloc Québécois. I ask the Senate to allow the government to consider the bill at third reading. The Liberal government may be in the minority in this House, but it holds the majority in the Senate.
If the government wants to send the right signals, if it really wants to debate this bill and bring amendments, let it give instructions to the Senate. We are ready to debate the bill and to vote at third reading.