Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to speak this morning on Bill C-278, introduced by my hon. colleague from Trois-Rivières and so aptly defended earlier by my hon. colleague from Chambly—Borduas, the Bloc Québécois critic for human resources.
Before outlining the benefits of this bill for the workers, and the unemployed, I will take a moment to reply to the Liberal member for Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, who said earlier that the Bloc Québécois should get up to date because there is no independent EI fund any more. I would just like to remind the member for Glengarry—Prescott—Russell and all the Liberal members in this House that we are well aware of that. In fact, Bill C-280 will be introduced to restore the independent EI fund. We are well aware of the fact that it was abolished by the Conservatives.
The Liberal member for Glengarry—Prescott—Russell neglected to say, however, that since 1996, the Liberal Party of Canada has been skimming off the surplus in the contributions paid by employees and employers to finance other initiatives. Since 1996, the Liberal government has skimmed off nearly $54 billion from the program surplus to use this money for totally different purposes.
I do not wish to get too carried away this morning, but the Gomery commission is exposing some of the purposes for which the Liberal Party skimmed off the money. I can understand why the unemployed and the workers in Quebec as well as Canada are angry: since 1996, part of that money has been used to finance the sponsorship scandal. That is totally unacceptable.
That is what happens when people use money that does not belong to them. That is what the Liberal Party of Canada has done: it has taken money paid into the independent EI fund by the employees and employers and used it for other purposes. We can see the result. It has used this money that did not belong to it for all sorts of inappropriate purposes. Now, the Liberal Party will pay the price for that, as it did in the last election.
Why has the Bloc Québécois introduced Bill C-278 in the House? It is so we can finally restore order to the entire employment insurance program. The name says it all: this is insurance for workers in the event they lose their jobs. That is the reality.
They are paying for insurance; however, since 1990, the federal government has not put a single dime into the fund. It is completely independent; in other words, even if it does not exist, the employers and employees contribute to it, so they can benefit from such a program.
All the Bloc Québécois wants to do is return control of the EI program to the workers. To ensure that it is truly insurance, my colleague from Trois-Rivières is proposing, seconded by my colleague from Chambly—Borduas, a series of measures that I will list for the House. It is worth reviewing them one by one.
The first measure reduces the minimum qualifying period to 360 hours of work regardless of the regional rate of unemployment. Currently, it depends entirely on the region in which workers live and on whether it is the first time they have contributed to EI. The threshold varies between 420 and 910 hours of work. A total of 910 hours of work represents over 20 weeks of work.
However, regions such as mine, Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, depend heavily on agriculture, tourism or forestry. These are seasonal industries. The workers are not seasonal, the jobs are. Given the local climate, agriculture, tourism and forestry are industries providing seasonal employment. It is not the fault of the men and women working in these industries; these are seasonal jobs. When these workers pay for insurance, they deserve to be compensated during periods of unemployment.
The Bloc Québécois is proposing a single threshold of 360 hours of work. It is not complicated. This is one of the unanimous recommendations of the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills Development, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities.
Second, Bill C-278 proposes increasing the benefit period by five weeks. With regard to the most disadvantaged regions with the highest unemployment rates, we are asking that this five-week increase be universally applicable.
So the system would continue to pay EI benefits for a variable number of weeks. There would be variations among regions, but there would be a five-week increase. In the most disadvantaged regions, where the rate of unemployment is at its highest, people were entitled to collect benefits for 45 weeks. This arrangement created a gap. The effect of the additional five weeks is to enable seasonal workers to fill the gap. Employees and seasonal workers, especially, have been asking us for this for a decade now.
Earlier, the hon. member for Glengarry—Prescott—Russell mentioned that the Liberal party had cut contributions. That was not what EI contributors were asking for. They wanted something in order to avoid having times of the year when they had to turn to social assistance in Quebec. Both employees and employers were calling for this. There was no call for a reduction in contributions.
Workers and employers called for a review of the plan. The Liberal party, however, decided to cut contributions with an eye to getting good press and some of the windfall produced by the plan. It has always talked of money, while the workers were talking about the conditions of the plan. This was established by two unanimous reports of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills Development, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities
The third measure involves increasing the rate of weekly benefits from 55% to 60%. Currently, benefits paid represent 55% of the previous salary. What we are saying is that the unemployed deserve indexing, and their benefits could be increased from 55% to 60% of the salary they were earning. That is what they would receive as EI.
Under the fourth measure, the waiting period would be repealed. This is probably the only insurance in the world with a two-week penalty period. That is what was done, and it was called a waiting period. Ultimately, though, everyone who lost their job faced a two-week penalty period. They were not entitled to remuneration in the first two weeks.
Considering that the program belongs to them, it is high time, as the hon. member for Trois-Rivières and the Bloc Québécois are proposing, that the two-week penalty period, the waiting period, be abolished.
The fifth measure seeks to eliminate the distinctions between a new entrant and a re-entrant to the labour force. Of course, this refers to the difference between 420 hours and 910 hours of work to qualify for employment insurance benefits. These people are workers. Whether it is their first, second or fifth job, they must work a minimum of 360 hours to qualify for employment insurance benefits.
As the hon. member for Chambly—Borduas said, the cost of all these measures was calculated and, given the contributions made to the fund by employees and employers, there is enough money to implement what the Bloc Québécois is proposing.
We are not exceeding any limits and, unlike the federal Liberal government, which used the money of employers and employees, we are not spending any additional government money. We are not doing that. The money that is in the fund would allow us to implement these standards and new conditions.
The sixth measure eliminates the presumption that persons related to each other do not deal with each other at arm's length. In other words, when persons working in a company hire people they know. If they work as an employee, they are entitled to employment insurance. In seasonal, agricultural, tourism, or forestry work, or any other sector that offers seasonal employment, the employer's close circle of friends or relatives should not be penalized just to create work for public servants.
The seventh measure increases the maximum yearly insurable earnings from $39,000 to $41,500 and introduces an indexing formula. The maximum insurable earnings are $39,000, or currently 55%. We want the maximum to be increased to $41,500 and for it to be indexed.
We need this more and more. Many plants have had to close because of globalization. We have talked about this in this House. The Bloc Québécois has always decried the Liberal government's policy on job losses in light of other global market economies. More and more people go from having good jobs with good pay to being unemployed. That is why we want to increase maximum insurable earnings from $39,000 to $41,500.
We also want to require the Employment Insurance Commission to pay out, as workforce support measures, at least 0.8% of the insurable earnings—as estimated by the Commission—of all insured persons. We want to have a true workforce support policy. Like all the parties in this House, we want all Quebeckers to have employment.
The problem is that because of Liberal policies, the unemployment rate in Quebec is still between 8% and 8.5%. It is the same in the rest of Canada. We have to be able to help those who need help the most and that is what my colleagues from Trois-Rivières and Chambly—Borduas are proposing on behalf of the Bloc Québécois.
I hope that all my colleagues in this House will show a little respect for the unemployed and vote in favour of Bill C-278.