Mr. Speaker, it is my privilege to rise and speak today to Bill C-55, the wage earner protection program act, which is before the House. I will be speaking generally in favour of the concept underlying the legislation while taking issue with some of the specifics which form part of the government's proposal.
I would like to acknowledge the work of a number of members of the House. First, the member for Winnipeg Centre did a great deal of work in terms of putting Bill C-281 before the House. I have worked with this member very closely. We do not always agree on issues, but I do respect the philosophy with which he has brought this matter forward and the private member's bill that he brought is a precursor to Bill C-55.
I would also like to acknowledge the hard work of the member for Edmonton—Leduc who is our critic in this area. He has worked very diligently, has examined this very complex legislation, and has led the Conservative Party in its very able response to the legislation. The member for Souris—Moose Mountain, our labour critic, has also worked with him and similarly been responsible for the carriage of this legislation.
My comments follow those of the member for Vancouver Island North. It is worth pointing out that he has been a very outspoken advocate on behalf of working Canadians and the protection of working Canadians under this legislation. He served on the subcommittee of the Conservative shadow cabinet which brought this concept to the House earlier this year in May.
There is some unanimity in the House in terms of the spirit which underlies this legislation, but there are important differences between the way the Conservative Party and the government has approached this issue. I wish to draw the attention of the House to the May 3 motion which was put before the House of Commons. It read:
That, in the opinion of the House, immediate steps be taken to amend the Employment Insurance Act to provide for the establishment of a workers' protection fund that is funded and administered under the Employment Insurance Act to protect workers wages, medical and dental premiums, and severance payments to an amount of $5,000 per employee in the event of a business bankruptcy or insolvency.
Herein lies the genesis or the concept behind Bill C-55, but there are important differences between the Conservative position and that of the government which I will underscore in my comments this afternoon.
Generally speaking, I favour the wage earner protection program aspects of Bill C-55 and I will direct my comments exclusively to those provisions of the legislation. There are equally complicated provisions that deal with other aspects of the Bankruptcy Act. I will not be turning my mind to those today. The wage earner protection program features of this legislation are quite important because they provide protection for everyday working Canadians who find themselves caught up in the nightmare of a bankruptcy or an insolvency or a creditor protection scheme.
This is a matter that I have some experience with on a personal basis. In my own family, I recall being a young lawyer many, many years ago and my mother, who was an employee of a company called the Betty Shop, found her employer to be in a state of bankruptcy and insolvency. I remember how difficult it was for her when she discovered that she had absolutely no protection or priority as a wage earner. That company went bankrupt and it was my mother who was out of pocket with her wages because there was no government program to cover the company. She had absolutely no security under the Bankruptcy Act. That was 15 to 20 years ago, so I am pleased to stand here today on behalf of her and other working Canadians who find themselves in similar circumstances.
It is important that the House is drawing together to protect working Canadians, so that they do not suffer those kinds of losses in the event of a bankruptcy.
It is important that the matter proceed to committee and that the committee conduct a very diligent and searching review of the legislation that is in front of the House. Bill C-55 is quite complex and detailed in terms of the priority regime that it creates and the legislative balance that it strikes.
It is important that the committee hear from people in the legal and banking professions and the labour unions to make sure that the appropriate balance is struck with the legislation, because it is a question of balance. It is a question of striking a balance between protecting wage earners on the one hand and making sure on the other that we do not disrupt the balance which is at the heart of creditor relationships in the country. This is something I know in particular the member for Edmonton—Leduc and the member for Souris—Moose Mountain have spoken about but it requires some emphasis.
The priority scheme in the event of a bankruptcy is extremely complicated. It strikes a delicate balance between those who work in businesses and those who finance businesses. We must be very careful with this legislation that we do not disrupt that balance, because the ultimate losers will be working Canadians. It will be working Canadians at the end of the day who will suffer the consequences if it becomes more difficult to finance a business.
No one should think that by according superpriority status to one category of claims, in this case past wage earning claims, somehow it will be simply the secured creditors, the banks, who accept that loss. In fact, the way it works in the law of the business world is that the banks and other secured creditors will make darned sure that they have adequate security ahead of time. They will simply add the wage claims to the security which they seek which will make it harder for people to finance businesses. Essentially it will add to the equity that business people need before they can finance a business, because there will have to be adequate equity ahead of the other business assets to protect the banks. We have to be very careful of the balance which is struck.
There is one thing I am puzzled by. The motion that the Conservative Party put forward linked the employment wage protection, which is so important, and the Conservative Party specified an amount of $5,000 per person, not the $3,000 suggested by the government, but it linked it equally importantly to the Employment Insurance Act by ensuring that those claims would be paid from the employment insurance system. The government in a sense would guarantee wage earner claims in the event of a bankruptcy, up to the amount of $5,000 and it would be covered out of the premiums that had been paid by employers and employees to the employment insurance fund.
What the government is proposing is something that is in fact quite different from that. First, the protection is offered only up to the level of $3,000 per employee, which is much less generous than what had been proposed by the Conservative Party, much less protective of working class Canadians. Second, there is this very puzzling feature such that the money which is paid out under Bill C-55, the $3,000, can then be recovered by the government from the bankrupt estate, yet it can only be recovered in the sum of $2,000. This is very puzzling. I hope that the committee has a look at this.
I do not know why we would put forward a legislated system that compensates wage earners for $3,000, yet allows the government to pursue recompense or security protection only to the tune of $2,000. That simply makes no sense. There is no reason that the Government of Canada, if it is protecting wage earners and being subrogated in its position, should not have the position to step forward and seek full recompense for the amount of $3,000.
There are other features of the legislation which I think are sensible. One concern that we must have in looking at the legislation is whether it puts forward a government system which simply involves more government. I do not find that in the legislation.
I note there are extensive responsibilities in clause 21 which have been imposed on the bankruptcy trustee and receiver. It is their responsibility to police the system, to make sure they have identified the claim, determined the amount of wages, informed the individuals and provided the minister with the report. There is also a sunset provision relating to this aspect of the legislation. From the way it will work, I do not think it will necessarily produce more government in this country, but it will provide protection for working Canadians up to the sum of $3,000 in principal. That is something we support as Conservatives, although we would have sought legislation which provided even greater protection for Canadians.