Mr. Speaker, I thank the member for Burnaby—New Westminster for sharing his time with me.
I hear a great deal of talk in the House about how wonderful the employment insurance program has been for Canadians, but I need to focus people's attention on what some of the changes have meant over the last several years.
I applaud the member for Acadie—Bathurst for bringing forward this very important motion to deal with one aspect of the employment insurance program.
In 1990, 74% of unemployed Canadians were receiving what was then called UI. By 2001, only 39% of unemployed Canadians were entitled. That is a huge shift in public policy leaving some of our most vulnerable people at risk.
Because I am the women's critic for the NDP, it would be remiss of me not to point out that in 1990, 69% of unemployed women were covered, but by 2001 only 33% of unemployed women were covered by EI. That is a shameful record. It has actually driven more Canadians into poverty. These numbers are from the Canadian Labour Congress and they talk about the fact that EI cuts are the single most important reason for the rise in child poverty. Sixty per cent of the million workers cut from EI eligibility had incomes below $15,000. This loss in benefits averaged $4,832.
I have a couple more numbers to present before I put the face of a person on this reality. We have seen that in many places women have been disproportionately hurt. What we found is that only 33% of unemployed women receive benefits compared to 44% for men. In five provinces, insurance coverage for women is below 30%. In Ontario only 23% of unemployed women get EI. In some cities only 20% of unemployed women get EI. That is outrageous in an age where we talk about gender equity.
The member for Acadie—Bathurst did some investigation and there was a report called “The Human Face: Employment Insurance”. Someone from my riding, Jack McLellan from Nanaimo, British Columbia was quoted as saying that he had attended the funeral of a co-worker, Brian Gellhoed, a victim of our eroded social safety net. Brian had taken his own life after his EI payments stopped. Too proud to sell his home and the personal belongings he had acquired during his lifetime in order to qualify for welfare, Brian preferred to end it all.
It is absolutely shameful that we talk only about numbers and not about the human face of what happens to people in our communities who no longer have this very important social safety net. Not only do Canadian reports talk about the fact that this is a shameful state in Canada, but we have been cited under international conventions. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has specifically called for a gender based analysis of the employment insurance program because it so seriously disadvantages women.
In addition, FAFIA has conducted a gender based analysis of the last budget, but specifically talks about the fact that the employment insurance legislation has disadvantaged women who are often part time, seasonal workers and are in and out of the workforce due to factors well beyond their control. This very good motion by the member for Acadie—Bathurst would help redress some of these issues.
In addition, women often have to take on other responsibilities. They are often primary caregivers in their home. They are often involved in senior caregiving. Women are often in and out of the workforce through absolutely no fault of their own. If we are truly committed to equity and gender equality, for women's equality in this country, we must look at the employment insurance legislation in this light.
Many studies talk about the impact. Even Statistics Canada talks about it in a report which notes that not collecting EI has important implications for an individual's probability of being poor while unemployed. Regardless of the policy environment, poverty is significantly higher among those who experience unemployment but do not receive EI benefits.
About 60% of the million workers kept from EI eligibility had incomes below $15,000. We keep talking about strategies to address child poverty. We do not have child poverty unless we have family poverty. This translates to the fact that we have so many women who cannot access this important social safety net.
The tightened eligibility rules for employment insurance have done one thing. We talked earlier about the fact that fewer and fewer women were actually able to receive employment insurance. To put this into context, benefits were reduced to 55% of income and this is the lowest percentage in the history of employment insurance in Canada. The replacement rate of income was 67% in 1971, 60% in 1980, 57% in 1993 and 55% after 1997.
Given the fact that many women and men are earning less than $15,000 a year, we ask them to go on employment insurance earning only 55% of that. How do we expect Canadian women and men to feed, clothe and house their families? I challenge any member in the House to live on that kind of family income. None of us would be willing to do that. In fact, we are asking people to live in third world conditions.
When we talk about commitment to families and the importance of healthy families to nurture our communities, our economy and our social well-being, we must commit to employment insurance programs that support those values.
The steelworkers provided a report called “It's a Balancing Act: A Steelworker Guide to Negotiating the Balance of Work-Life Responsibilities”. That report talks about some real challenges and asks parliamentarians to take a stand as they move forward to improve the lives of Canadian women and men.
We often hear about the fact that these wonderful changes to maternity and paternity leave have made a huge difference in the lives of Canadian men and women. The problem is that many Canadian women and men no longer qualify. The steelworkers specifically say that although the length of maternity, paternity and parental leave has increased to a year, the benefit rate and eligibility requirements leave many families without protection. I applaud the fact that we have seen some improvements in those areas, but many Canadian women just cannot access it.
We are talking about workers who are disadvantaged by the current regulations. Currently women and men who are self-employed cannot access the employment insurance program. When we are talking about maternity and paternity benefits, we are talking about a great gap in wage supports for men and women who are actually a vital part of our Canadian economy.
We keep talking about entrepreneurial spirit. We keep talking about small business being the driver of our economy. Yet, the very people who are engaged in those kinds of activities and are self-employed do not qualify for benefits that would help them keep their businesses vital, active and contributing in the longer run.
In conclusion, the motion before the House is a small step toward ensuring that the Employment Insurance Act more readily meets the needs of workers in Canada. If we value our workers and communities and say that our families are important, we must ensure the social safety nets are there, so that Canadian men and women have some certainty after their employment ends that they have some income to feed their children and keep themselves stable.