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House of Commons Hansard #2 of the 39th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was opposition.

Topics

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

October 17th, 2007 / 6:40 p.m.

Bloc

Johanne Deschamps Bloc Laurentides—Labelle, QC

moved that Bill C-269, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (improvement of the employment insurance system), be read the third time and passed.

Mr. Speaker, I am speaking again today and, this time, it is in the name of groups and associations who stand up for the rights of the unemployed, as well as in the name of everyone who does not qualify for employment insurance benefits as the insurance program stands, since it does not fit anymore the reality of workers in Quebec.

Bill C-269, which aims at improving the employment insurance program, is a message of hope for workers in the various regions of Quebec, who are being hit especially hard by the crisis in the forest industry and by massive closures of plants and mills.

Although there is not much time remaining, it is not too late for the government to finally grand the royal recommendation to this bill, which—I believe I should recall—is supported by all parties represented in the House, except the Conservative Party.

This bill aims particularly at reducing nationally each qualifying period by 70 hours. It also aims at increasing the benefit period from 45 to 50 weeks. This would end the “black hole” effect, where unemployed workers find themselves in distress for periods of up to 10 weeks.

This bill would increase weekly benefits from the current 55% of insurable earnings to 60%—unstable jobs are generally the least well paid, and these changes would provide claimants with the bare minimum.

This bill would also eliminate the waiting period between the time when people lose their jobs and apply for benefits and the time when they receive their first cheques—workers should not be penalized for losing their jobs, and they still have financial obligations even if the money is a long time coming.

The bill would also eliminate the presumption that persons related to each other do not deal with each other at arm's length. It is not up to workers to prove their good faith when they lose their jobs; it is up to the system to investigate if there is any doubt.

This bill would also increase the maximum yearly insurable earnings from $39,000 to $41,500 and introduce an indexing formula. The current contribution formula is actually a regressive tax that affects low-income earners the most. It is worth noting that the maximum was once $43,000.

This bill would calculate benefits based on the 12 best weeks so as not to penalize seasonal workers who sometimes work small weeks.

Finally, this bill would extend program coverage to the growing number of self-employed workers in the labour market who have no coverage should they become unemployed.

Today I would like to tell everyone I met in Quebec over the past year that the Bloc Québécois has fought long and hard to provide them with an employment insurance program that recognizes their realities as workers and that is there to provide insurance paid for solely by workers and employers.

As we all know, Bill C-269 requires a royal recommendation from the government. Without it, the House cannot pass this bill, and workers will never be able to benefit from this insurance fairly because of the program's current criteria.

What will happen to the multi-billion dollar surplus in the employment insurance coffers?

Why not give that money to workers by improving the program as set out in Bill C-269?

Why is this government not giving Quebec workers their due instead of sending its Minister of Foreign Affairs to hand out Jos. Louis cakes to the soldiers in Kandahar to boost troop morale?

Has he ever wondered about the morale of those losing their jobs in Roberval, Maniwaki, Saint-Raymond-de-Portneuf or Mont-Laurier, who do not qualify under the current system?

Has he ever wondered about their morale and the economic uncertainty of the families of these workers who cannot benefit from the employment insurance system because of the Conservatives' obsession with ideology?

The Conservative government has treated the unemployed with contempt and it did so again in yesterday's Throne Speech. The Bloc Québécois was looking for special measures to help workers in areas affected by the forestry crisis. What was the government's response? It had none. There was no plan and not even a hint of an assistance program for older workers.

The Bloc Québécois will make sure that it reminds Quebec workers, in the next election, that they have to make do with such a mediocre employment insurance system that does not at all meet their needs because of this Conservative government.

I would like to use the forum provided today to reveal the Conservative vision of the unemployed and the employment insurance system. At second reading of Bill C-269, the Parliamentary Secretary of the Minister of Veterans Affairs stated, and I quote:

It might be useful to take a moment to remind the House what those basic objectives are. The first, of course, is that EI is to provide financial assistance by replacing a portion of employment income lost in times of temporary unemployment. It is an insurance program. Premiums are paid and coverage is provided.

The second is that the program seeks to promote a positive attachment to the labour market. We do not want to create a culture of dependency on EI. Employment is the ultimate objective and our new government's priority continues to be to help Canadians participate in the labour market.

The third is that EI must be run on a financially responsible and sustainable basis. Any proposals for change must be looked at in the context of these three principles.

Using these three objectives, I want therefore to shed light on the perception of the Conservatives towards the unemployed workers and the employment insurance program.

First, the Conservatives say that this is an insurance program to which workers subscribe to receive guaranteed coverage. But in fact, the coverage is far from being guaranteed since, in the latest Employment Insurance Monitoring and Assessment Report, the beneficiaries/unemployed ratio was 44.8%. If more than half of the unemployed workers do not have access to this employment insurance program, how can the Conservatives talk about guaranteed coverage? While all workers subscribe to this insurance, only four out of ten qualify for benefits, and the situation is even more disastrous for women, since only three out of ten qualify.

The second objective, according to the Conservatives, is to promote active participation in the labour market by avoiding the creation of a culture of dependency on employment insurance.

This statement contradicts the first one by saying that employment insurance is to be used to work. While we are in favour of people returning to the labour market as quickly as possible, the program is quite hardly accessible as it stands. It provides only 55% of insured earnings, which is quite insufficient in creating a culture of dependency. You and I will agree that nobody wishes to be unemployed.

According to the Conservatives, there are workers who prefer to be unemployed even under favourable labour market conditions. I would like the Conservatives to come and say this to the people in my riding, especially these days. The whole northern part of the Laurentides—Labelle riding is being hit hard by the crisis in the forest industry, and the Conservatives are certainly not doing anything to help these people.

I am talking about 35,000 people who live in the Antoine-Labelle RCM, a one-industry municipality where more than 80% of the local economy depends on the forestry industry.

Currently, more than 80% of the plants and sawmills are closed—either indefinitely or permanently—and the ones that are still open have considerably reduced their operations, for an indefinite time.

Since 2004, the most significant job losses in Quebec in the forestry industry occurred in the north of my riding. The people in my riding want to work, but the Conservatives have done nothing to help relaunch the forestry industry and they are doing nothing to give the people at home a decent income to weather this crisis.

Having a system that better suits the needs of Quebec workers would not encourage the unemployed to live on the public purse; it would simply give back a bit of dignity to the workers. That is what Bill C-269 is all about.

The third objective expressed by the Conservatives is simply scandalous. Again, I will quote the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Veterans Affairs: “EI must be run on a financially responsible and sustainable basis”.

Since the mid 1990s, the fund has generated over $50 billion in surplus. Last year alone, $2 billion of it went toward the debt, while over half the unemployed were denied access to insurance and had to turn to social assistance. We all know that the fund will accumulate billions more in surplus this year. The measures in Bill C-269 are sustainable and financially responsible.

In light of these three principles expressed by the Conservatives, they must support Bill C-269.

I am putting the Conservatives on notice. If they do not give the workers in Quebec the employment insurance they deserve, the Conservatives will pay for it in the next election. I will make it my duty to remind the electors of Laurentides—Labelle of how their Conservative government took care of the morale of Quebec's unemployed during its mandate.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6:50 p.m.

Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia Manitoba

Conservative

Steven Fletcher ConservativeParliamentary Secretary for Health

Mr. Speaker, I understand this is the third bill that has proposed changes to the EI program and that it would cost the system over $6 billion. Moreover, it may have disincentives to encourage people to return to work. Given that our unemployment rate is at a historic low and that there seems to be a strong demand for skilled workers, it seems that at this time the bill may be redundant and may actually lead to unintended consequences.

I wonder if the member could explain or justify the billions of dollars that this would cost. Particularly I am surprised that this comes from a Bloc member, a party that generally does not like national programs like the EI in the first place.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6:55 p.m.

Bloc

Johanne Deschamps Bloc Laurentides—Labelle, QC

Mr. Speaker, if we were to again introduce a bill like this one, perhaps it would be more useful to the Bloc Québécois to ask that the employment insurance account be transferred to all the provinces, so that each one would manage it. This could be included in a future bill that would be introduced in the House. I think the Bloc Québécois would be more favourable to such an initiative.

I also find it awful to hear the hon. member say that the bill, with the changes that we want to bring to the current system, would tend to discourage people from rejoining the labour force. Since the forestry crisis, in 2004, a total of 1,500 jobs have been lost in my RCM, which accounts for one third of my riding.

I spent the summer with the 35,000 people who live in my RCM. I would like hon. members to come and spend some time there, just to feel the sullenness that prevails right now.

The benefit period has now ended and people no longer have any option other than welfare. People who worked in the forestry industry have assets, including homes, equipment, trucks, etc. In order to get welfare benefits, they must first dispose of all their assets. It is like asking a family that has worked for 30 years in the forestry industry to now do without all its belongings and rely on society, on welfare. Despite the measures taken by the Conservative government, out of the 1,500 workers who have been laid off since January 2007, only two were able to get training to return to work.

These people were confident and hopeful that the Conservative government would support Bill C-269. Whether in my riding, or during the tour that I and my colleague, the hon. member for Chambly—Borduas, did in Quebec, there is not a single day that I did not meet someone who wished me luck with Bill C-269, because they needed this legislation in their area.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6:55 p.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin NDP Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, would the hon. member for Laurentides—Labelle agree with me when I say that there is very little difference between the Conservatives and the Liberals when it comes to employment insurance?

A Conservative member just asked her if she was not worried about workers relying on employment insurance and refusing to go to work. Does she not agree with me that it is actually the Conservatives, just like the Liberal government before them, who really depend on employment insurance?

That is why they like to call it the employment insurance program. In reality, it is an unemployment insurance program. It is the governments in power that are dependent on unemployment insurance, not the workers. If the workers have a job to go to, they will go to work. It is the governments that depend on employment insurance, because they dipped into the employment insurance fund, taking $54 billion on the backs of the workers.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6:55 p.m.

Bloc

Johanne Deschamps Bloc Laurentides—Labelle, QC

Mr. Speaker, I agree entirely with my hon. colleague from Acadie—Bathurst. Under the Liberal government, the employment insurance fund was used to balance the budget. When the Conservatives voted in favour of an independent fund, the surpluses generated remained in the consolidated fund and were used for other purposes.

Whether under the Liberals or, now, under the Conservatives, this fund has been very useful. They probably also need it to finance, among other things, national defence, equipment and putting—

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Bill Blaikie

I apologize for interrupting the hon. member, but her time has expired.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7 p.m.

Blackstrap Saskatchewan

Conservative

Lynne Yelich ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development

Mr. Speaker, Bill C-269, a bill to amend the Employment Insurance Act, as put forward by my colleague from the Bloc, is a flawed bill and one that we cannot support.

As I followed the remarks of previous speakers, I have to say that I found it a little surprising to hear the Bloc asking us to support the bill. The evidence just does not support such a broadly expanded program.

What evidence shows is that the EI system is currently meeting the demands of the vast majority of Canadians. Eighty-three per cent of unemployed Canadians who have paid into the program qualify for benefits and this rises to more than 90% in areas of high unemployment.

The evidence also shows that even claimants in high unemployment regions rarely use more than 70% of the benefits. Where exactly is the evidence to suggest that the changes in the bill are warranted? It is not just that the bill is not supported by the evidence. We see the opposition asking for support of flawed bills with routine frequency.

What is so surprising is that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are asking for support on a bill that the sponsor's own party and all opposition parties cared so little about that they refused to do their due diligence. They brought forth no accurate costing estimates, had no public hearings, had no consultation with major stakeholders and had no study on the bill's ramifications to Canadians or to the long term viability of the EI program itself.

Canadians sent this Conservative government to Ottawa to clean things up, to provide accountability, sound management and good public policy. The bill provides none of this but our government does.

We cannot support any bill that has been given so little oversight and so little consideration by Parliament, let alone a bill that proposes such drastic and costly changes to a program as important as this, especially when the changes are not backed by a shred of evidence.

Routine motions and decisions about what to have for lunch are given more serious analysis and debate than the one hour and fifteen minutes Bill C-269 was given by the opposition at committee stage. It is even more puzzling to be asked to support the bill when the Bloc and the opposition parties have been heaping one EI related bill after another onto the order paper asking for implementation of all but prioritizing on none.

The implementation of this bill would cost $3.7 billion, $1.1 billion for Bill C-278 and $1.4 billion for C-265. There are 16 more EI bills to come, 9 of which are too complicated to cost but it is fair to say that they will not be free. It would cost $4.7 billion for the remaining seven bills. The cost of these bills is astronomical and the opposition has supported them all without giving them any careful study.

These bills represent more than $11 billion in new annual spending for the EI account. This would put the program into a deficit within a year and bankrupt the program. Canadians are looking to the government to act responsibly and carefully. They want a government that will ensure the long term viability of the EI system and protect it from a patchwork of proposals made by the opposition, and that is exactly what we are doing.

Canadians expect that if the opposition is proposing to spend billions, it might also spend more than five minutes figuring out whether that much money is needed and where it will come from.

Listening to the public who are affected by these types of changes in policy seems so basic and yet Canadians have not been consulted. Employers who pay into the fund are concerned. Workers who see deductions on their paycheques are concerned and small business owners are concerned but the opposition did not want to hear from any of these groups.

Workers are left to wonder if Bill C-269 is better than the measures that this government introduced to extend compassionate care benefits. Is it better than our pilot projects extending benefits for best weeks and seasonal workers, which Canadians were looking for and this government provided?

The member talked about the forestry industry. We do care and that is why we improved and implemented targeted initiatives for older workers to help the vulnerable workers in certain industries that have been affected by layoff, such as the forestry industry.

All of those initiatives have been implemented since the previous Parliament, which was when the Bloc last proposed this bill and the Liberals last opposed it. Does the Bloc want to scrap all these initiatives in exchange for its bill?

Canadians appreciate that their new government is getting things done for them in a measured but meaningful way and they expect the same from all the parties in House. However, they are getting the same old, same old from the Bloc Québécois because the same old, same old is all it ever has to offer.

One does not have to look further than the recent byelection results in Quebec to know what Quebeckers think about the Bloc's proposals for this country. Canadians are shocked to see the Bloc propose the same types of changes it has been proposing for more than a decade. It is becoming increasingly clear to the people in Quebec that the Bloc has simply run out of things to say.

We know what Canadians have to say about the Liberal practice of spending public money with little or no oversight. One can imagine the reaction of all Canadians to find that the Bloc now wants to travel down that same road.

We are all tired of seeing public funds disappear into black holes, only to be explained as a mistake or worse, as the Auditor General described, “a rule-breaking sponsorship program, a scandal of major proportions”. Canadians want better oversight when it comes to their money and they want better long term planning. This bill goes against all of those principles.

We have all watched the cost of the Liberal programs balloon to billions of dollars. We must be very leery of the Bloc's untested assertion that Bill C-269 will cost just over $1 billion to implement when all outside estimates put the real cost at triple or even quadruple that amount.

Who is right in their figures? Is the sponsor of the bill correct when she says that it will cost $1.7 billion or is the Conseil du patronat du Québec and others right in pegging it at $3.7 billion? This would have been a prime question for the committee to have considered but unfortunately they did not bother seeking the input of witnesses like the Conseil du patronat, hard-working Canadians or even the Department of Human Resources and Social Development.

How can Canadians have confidence in this bill when they were completely cut out of the process by the opposition? A true and meaningful inquiry into Bill C-269 and the many unanswered questions around the bill would have gone a long way toward giving Canadians and this government confidence in a bill like this. Unfortunately, the opposition did not care enough to do its due diligence.

When the Canadian public went to the polls to choose a new government, they elected a Conservative government because they knew that we understood accountability. We know that accountability does not just mean explaining money that was spent last year. It means being able to plan expenditures before they go out of control.

We are asking the questions Canadians want asked because we know that the answers are important. However, without those answers and without the confidence of Canadians we cannot support this bill.

This government's record of measured improvements to the EI program proves that we have made EI a priority by our approach. However, our approach will not be piecemeal. We will look at the entirety of the EI program and not just one small aspect of it. Canadians expect more from this minister than that. They want him to properly manage a program that benefits the whole country.

Last night's Speech from the Throne outlined this government's priorities and reconfirmed our commitment to make the EI system responsive to Canadians' needs. We will continue to take measures to improve the governance and management of the employment insurance account and we will ensure that these changes are measured and responsible. I look forward to the minister's next steps in improving the EI program, which I am sure will be presented in the House in due course.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7:10 p.m.

Liberal

Michael Savage Liberal Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

Mr. Speaker, I welcome the opportunity to speak in the final hour of debate on Bill C-269, an act to make improvements to the Employment Insurance Act.

Members will recall that last May the entire Liberal caucus stood in the House to vote in support of Bill C-269 at report stage. This followed significant Liberal efforts at the human resources committee along with our colleagues in the Bloc and the NDP to make this legislation better.

During that period we worked cooperatively with other opposition parties on amendments that we thought would improve the main elements of this bill. We negotiated not only with colleagues in this House, but also with organizations and unions that have long sought changes to the employment insurance system. At committee all parties, except the Conservative Party, supported our efforts to improve the EI system.

I would like to mention some of the colleagues on my side of the House who have worked so hard to see improvements in EI. The member for Madawaska—Restigouche has been a champion of EI reform since he was elected in 2004. The members for Cape Breton—Canso, Sydney—Victoria, West Nova, our very quiet member for Labrador and the member for Beauséjour have championed changes as well.

We had hoped that the bill would go to third and final reading and then to the Senate for deliberations there, but unfortunately that was blocked when the government refused to give royal recommendation. It does not want to give any more money to improve employment insurance.

Many of us wonder why the government would reject outright the effort of all opposition parties to make improvements when there is a $14 billion surplus in Canada. If last night's throne speech is any indication, we should be concerned. In the throne speech, one sentence referenced employment insurance where it said:

Our Government will also take measures to improve the governance and management of the Employment Insurance Account.

Uh-oh, that is not good news. The knees we see shaking are those of Canadian workers, because most Canadians know that when Conservatives mention that they are looking to “improve” a social program such as EI, it is usually the opposite. In many cases the Conservatives tend to slash the program because of their ideological distaste to help those who need help the most.

What they said in the Speech from the Throne was a vague statement that is worrisome. It is certainly worrisome in my province of Nova Scotia and in New Brunswick, throughout rural Canada and Quebec and large parts of this nation where employment insurance has become a very important part of our social infrastructure. I would not be surprised to see this be the thin edge of the wedge, so to speak: maternity benefits, sick benefits and using EI as a tool to send more Canadians, Atlantic Canadians, out west.

We all know of the significant elements in the Conservative caucus who do not believe that the social programs we have built up are worthwhile. There are a lot of other examples of legislation brought forth by members who want to improve the lives of Canadians but which have been rejected by the government.

The parliamentary secretary who just spoke said that this bill was not based on a foundation, that it was not costed and not well thought out. This bill has a lot of merit, but let me talk about another bill on EI brought forward by the member for Sydney—Victoria.

Bill C-278 was meant to extend sick benefits from 15 weeks to 50 weeks. That bill was fully costed. That bill was brought forward by the member for Sydney—Victoria with the full support of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, the Canadian Cancer Society and other organizations that realize there has been a changed dynamic in health care in this country. No longer are people dying as much from heart attacks and cancer. That is the good news. The bad news is that they have to live with them. They have to recover. Fifteen weeks is not enough.

The member for Sydney—Victoria brought forward a bill, and that bill did not get the support of the government. That bill did not get royal recommendation. Even members on the human resources committee said it was a well thought out bill when the member appeared at committee. It is a thoroughly necessary piece of legislation.

When bills like Bill C-269 are rejected, it demoralizes Canadians. Employment insurance is set up to help people who need help. It is not the fault of people who are out of work. I suspect there may be government members who still believe that people who are not working are not working because they choose not to work. That is clearly not the case.

Those members on the other side of the House do not believe that government should actually help people. We see that all the time.

Why would they not support a bill that would extend sick benefits from 15 weeks to 50 weeks for people who have gone through cancer, who have put in the mental and the human resource effort to recover from cancer, but who cannot go back to work right away? They simply cannot do it. There is a gap in the system that has not been addressed.

We worked cooperatively with other opposition parties to make improvements in Bill C-269 as well. In November, Liberal members of the human resources committee began discussions with the Bloc and NDP members, as we are supposed to do in a minority Parliament to make legislation work, to make it more palatable, and to make it more reasonable so that it can come to this place and be defended.

The discussions were focused on making the proposals of Bill C-269 more reasonable. Significant changes were agreed to by the parties. The Bloc and the NDP adjusted their views. So did the labour unions that were part of those discussions.

The original proposal was to lower the qualifying period to 360 hours of work across the board. It was adjusted to a flat 70 hour reduction. For us, we also made a proposal to eliminate the distinction between new entrants and re-entrants. It was amended. We believe there should be some disincentive for people to enter the employment insurance system the first time. If they need it, they should have it, but if it is made too easy, people become dependent upon that system, so that distinction was eliminated.

Other proposed changes in the bill would eliminate the two week waiting period. People need employment insurance because they need it, not because they want it. Why aggravate the situation? Why insult people by saying they have to wait two weeks to get employment insurance?

The five week black hole at the end was also eliminated as part of the bill. I think that makes sense. I wrote down what the parliamentary secretary just said in referring to how people are tired of money disappearing down black holes. Is employment insurance a black hole? Are people who are out of work through no fault of their own a black hole in Canada? Or are they part of the social infrastructure that we are proud to have built up in this nation? I think it is the latter.

There have been a number of private members' bills on EI. Since the 1990s, EI has been put on a solid footing. There were many years in the 1970s and 1980s when income going to the EI fund was in fact less than was paid out. In other words, there was a deficit.

Now, deficit or surplus, it all goes into the consolidated revenue fund, but for many years we were paying out a lot more than we were paying in because of the economy. The Liberal government of the 1990s fixed the economy so more money was being paid in than paid out.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7:15 p.m.

Conservative

James Bezan Conservative Selkirk—Interlake, MB

We planted the garden. You guys just picked the flowers.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7:15 p.m.

Liberal

Michael Savage Liberal Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

We now have some amount of money every year that is considered surplus. It does not get carried from year to year. It comes out of the consolidated revenue fund. In my view it is time to look at that system and say, “Now that we have made the system sustainable, we should be doing more to help the people who need help”.

In 2004 we started some pilot projects so that we extended benefits to people who actually needed them. Over the 10 years between mid-1990 and mid-2000, we drastically reduced premiums for those who pay premiums. The system is actuarially evaluated every year, but we still have a surplus. I think we should look at that surplus. It is an insurance system. To me, what we put in and what we pay out should balance.

There is an opportunity for us to do something. The bill is part of that. It is not the only thing. Part time workers, low income workers, and persons who are self-employed, including many in our artistic and cultural community, do not and cannot apply for employment insurance. We should look at doing more to increase the productivity of Canada.

We support the bill. It is not the only thing we should do, but in my view it is one of the things we should do to fully recognize that people who are receiving employment insurance are doing so not because they want to but because they have to.

In Canada we have built up a social infrastructure that makes us unique in some ways. I am proud of that social infrastructure. Large parts of Canada need that social infrastructure. In fact, at a time when the economy is doing well, having been turned around in the 1990s, it is now the time to reinvest in a lot of programs. We should be doing more on poverty and we should be doing more to help people get educated, but we should also be doing more to ensure that people who need help because they have been thrown out of work through no fault of their own have access to the money in the EI system.

Liberals supported Bill C-269 along the way. We worked with our colleagues in other parties and with labour unions and organizations throughout Canada to make this bill palatable and to make sure that it meets the needs of Canadians. I think it is an improvement.

We are proud to continue to support Bill C-269. We wish the government would give it a royal recommendation. We wish government members would open their eyes and look at bills like Bill C-278 as well, because it makes Canada stronger, not weaker, when we help those who actually need help the most.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7:20 p.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin NDP Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House to speak to Bill C-269. However, I would first like to welcome our new pages, who are here to assist us, to the Parliament of Canada, their Parliament.

It is fairly difficult to remain seated when listening to all that was said. However, that is part of our responsibilities. I do not wish to waste too much time speaking about the Liberals because I agree with what my colleague from Cape Breton—Canso just said. My only problem is that they were the ones, between 1993 and 2006 and especially in 1996, who made cuts. These draconian cuts to employment insurance led us to where we are today. Yet they had an opportunity to make changes. It was not until they were in opposition that they saw the light at the end of the tunnel. It is unfortunate that they did not see it when they were in power. In view of the $54 billion surplus, it is quite unreasonable.

What can we say about the member for Beauséjour and his support for the bills? Personally, I moved a motion with regard to the 12 best weeks and he voted against this motion, as did the member for Madawaska—Restigouche. The purpose of the motion was to provide citizens of northeast New Brunswick with the opportunity to use the 12 best weeks. They voted against it. I do not wish to waste too much time on this matter as I only have ten minutes. I would like to speak about the current government.

Earlier, I heard the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development say that the government had to be careful with public money. It is as if they had to use taxpayers' money, which they have a responsibility to take care of, to pay the national debt.

I believe they have forgotten the definition of employment insurance. It is not public money, but money that belongs to workers and employers. Unfortunately, employers have had to lay off workers, and people have lost their jobs. Employment insurance is special insurance that helps men and women who have lost their jobs.

When I hear the government say that people are dependent on employment insurance or are abusing the system and I see that the government took $54 billion from the employment insurance fund to pay the debt and wipe out the deficit, I wonder just who is dependent on employment insurance. Who is dependent on it? Who is suffering as a result?

Today, the government has nothing to be proud of. This week, for example, in Acadie—Bathurst, people from Tracadie-Sheila, Shippagan, Caraquet and Lamèque called me to say they had been waiting for 49 days for a decision about their employment insurance. They have been waiting for 49 days to find out whether or not they will get employment insurance.

What does Bill C-269 call for? I would have liked something better. I would have liked people to qualify for employment insurance after 350 or 360 hours. The three opposition parties agreed that each stage could be reduced by 70 hours. People who qualified for employment insurance after 420 hours could qualify after 350 hours, people who qualified after 910 hours could qualify after 840 and people who qualified after 700 could qualify after 630. We agreed to make a proposal to that effect.

The parliamentary secretary says that the bills are ridiculous, that the numbers are all wrong, that Canadians were not given the opportunity to come and express their views before Parliament. She forgot to say that nearly all the bills are similar.

If the government agrees to Bill C-269, there might be no need to introduce Bill C-265 because they are very similar.

When I introduced a bill in the House of Commons with 14 proposed changes to the employment insurance system, the Liberals and the Conservatives voted against it. I tried again with bills that would have cost a mere $350 million. Again they voted against them.

The Speech from the Throne scares me. Canada's Conservative government is telling us that it will take steps to improve the governance and management of the employment insurance fund. I am afraid because I think that the Conservatives will make yet more changes to employment insurance that will take even more away from families in need.

We have seen that the government is perfectly capable of depriving a family of two weeks' salary. The waiting period after losing a job is two weeks. How can they deprive people who work seasonally, who work in fishing, forestry, tourism and other industries, of two weeks' pay? How can they deprive these families of benefits that will help them pay for groceries or things their children need for school? How can the government say that it represents Canadians and workers and that it is acting in workers' best interest?

We have been told that 83% of workers can or do qualify for employment insurance. That is not true. We have checked. Only 38% of men in Canada qualify for employment insurance. Only 32% of women qualify.

Bill C-269 would also increase the benefit period by five weeks. What would the government rather do? It does not want people in Atlantic Canada, in Quebec or in northern Ontario who have seasonal jobs to qualify for employment insurance. It wants them to go work in Alberta where there are jobs for them. It is heartless. It makes families miserable.

Some people have to leave their family. A man who goes to Alberta gets a call from his wife who tells him if he does not come home, they are getting a divorce. He is forced to leave his job and return to his family. Even though the law is clear on the fact that one can leave employment for family reasons, the federal government turns around and cuts employment insurance. Is that the kind of system it wants? This is unacceptable.

Bill C-269 is a reasonable bill. It does not use public funds. These are funds that belong to the workers and not to the general funds the Conservative government uses to pay down the debt. Absolutely not.

The bill would eliminate the presumption that persons related to each other do not deal with each other at arm's length. How many times have we seen the example of a person who works for their brother-in-law, sister-in-law, sister or brother. When people apply for employment insurance, they are asked the following discriminatory question, among others: are you related to your employer? An investigation is automatically launched. People have to wait 40 or 50 days to find out whether they are entitled to employment insurance or not. This is totally discriminatory.

Furthermore, I am sure there is someone listening to me who lost their employment and received severance pay. Even if he gets employment insurance benefits, the government is still there to take away the severance pay. This causes the claimant more problems, instead of helping him find a new job or start a small business. Not once has the federal government, neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals, ever helped workers.

Now the Conservatives do not want to give the royal recommendation because they have dipped into the employment insurance fund and have become dependent on it. If they have not, then they should give it back to the people.

They say we have not studied Bill C-269. We have been studying this situation for 10 years and we know what Canadians want. It is a good bill. That is why the NDP will support it.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7:30 p.m.

Bloc

Yves Lessard Bloc Chambly—Borduas, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am particularly happy to speak to this important bill this evening, especially since this is a crucial bill for workers who have the misfortune of losing their jobs.

Before starting in on my speech, I would like to congratulate my colleague from Laurentides—Labelle, who introduced this bill. In my opinion, she represents all workers in Quebec, but particularly those from her riding, for whom she does an extraordinary job. I think that her speech today was very representative of the work she does in her riding.

I would also like to congratulate and honour all the advocacy groups for the unemployed in Quebec and the other provinces, which are doing incredible work to defend people who are experiencing difficulties and who must deal with this infamous program that has been damaged by two successive governments. They are doing extraordinary work. In Quebec, I am thinking in particular of everyone working for the Sans-Chemise coalition, the labour federations, the groups of unemployed workers, the Conseil national des chômeurs and MASSE. I must say that the reason we have made it to third reading with this bill—and this is the first time this has happened—is because of their efforts and because of our work with the two other opposition parties.

There is nothing honourable about the route the Liberals took with the Employment Insurance Act. However, we must recognize that efforts are now being made. Sometimes, with an election defeat comes wisdom and a greater understanding of the least advantaged in our society. I think that is where the Liberal Party is at right now. This needs to be acknowledged. The NDP has always been consistent and in agreement with us when it comes to defending the unemployed.

As I said, Bill C-269 has never gone so far. At the same time, it is important to remember one thing: as the two main parties in the House acknowledged today, the economy is booming. It has been a long time since the economy was this dynamic, and we have lost sight of the fact that hundreds and thousands of people are losing their jobs. I do not have to go far for examples. In the past four or five years, 125,000 jobs have been lost in the manufacturing sector. In the forestry sector, 25,000 jobs have been lost, and just recently, a large number of manufacturing jobs have been lost.

Every region is affected, including regions represented by members who are currently in power. In Quebec, in the riding of Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, shoe manufacturers have been laying people off for two years. In Saint-Émile, for instance, several hundred workers have lost their jobs.

What has the member done for them? What did he do to make sure the throne speech contained some minimal measures to remedy the situation? The Conservatives are in power. Nothing. Nyet.

The situation is the same in the Mégantic—L'Érable riding. The hon. member for Mégantic—L'Érable is also the Secretary of State (Agriculture). It is an important position. But what has he done for the people who just lost their jobs at the Bell mine in Thetford Mines? He knew about it for a month, but the Speech from the Throne makes no mention of it. Yet, the Conservatives are in power. They say they must be elected, because they will do something for these people. They are in power, yet they do nothing. They say we do nothing here, but we are not the ones in power.

At least we have the ability to indicate to the other parties where the problems lie and how to correct them. They, on the other hand, were elected to properly administer and to ease the suffering of our workers, yet they are not doing so.

I was completely dismayed to see there was nothing for these people in the throne speech. In Jonquière—Alma, the Minister of Labour's riding, hundreds of people have been laid off over the past two years. Nevertheless, there is nothing for the POWA program or to correct employment insurance.

Even worse, they are about to vote against the bill. That goes against the interests of the people they represent. Then they strut about in other ridings, saying that the Bloc and the NDP do nothing, that they are the ones in power and that we should trust them. That is fine. When they have the chance to put their money where their mouth is, as it were, they fail to do so. It is shameful.

And then they ask us to elect them? Something is wrong with this picture. Someone, somewhere, is deceiving someone, and it is not us.

Today is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. I listened to the leaders of the two main parties speak about it. What an opportunity and what a wonderful coincidence. Today we are speaking about a bill to enact measures to alleviate poverty. Poverty is not an act of divine providence, but rather the result of human action, of whether or not we have appropriate measures in place.

Today, we have the opportunity to signal our intention to vote for a tangible measure to alleviate poverty, Bill C-269.

As my NDP colleague just mentioned, less than 45% of all workers who pay into employment insurance can hope to receive benefits should they have the misfortune of losing their jobs. When a person who pays into the employment insurance fund loses their job and is not eligible for benefits because the eligibility requirements have been tightened so much, they are not the only one who is plunged into poverty. Their family is also affected. The region is also prevented from receiving an influx of money that belongs to these workers and that would improve the local economy.

Workers and employers pay into the fund, but the money is kept in Ottawa. In the regions, the cuts to this program represent an annual loss of roughly $30 million per riding. Ultimately, it is the provinces that have to bear the burden of supporting these people financially through welfare or other programs.

There is injustice right down the line. With Bill C-269, we have the opportunity to correct this situation in part. Earlier, the parliamentary secretary talked about costs. I will tone down the rhetoric here; this is demagoguery. When the government adds up the costs of measures in various bills that are actually included in a single bill, Bill C-269, and gets $11 billion, it is deliberately trying to mislead people.

It is said that there has been no meaningful inquiry. I have here a document from Malcolm Brown, Assistant Deputy Minister of Human Resources and Social Development, dated December 7, 2005, that details all the costs. If Bill C-269 is adopted as is, it will cost $1.9 billion. In the past 10 years, the employment insurance fund has always generated an annual surplus of over $3 billion.

Where will the money come from? It will come from the fund that belongs to the workers and employers. That is where it will come from.

The Conservative Party must grant the royal recommendation. Then we will believe it is sincere. In fact, it can do so. There is a precedent concerning an employment insurance bill. If it refuses to do so, it will again be acting against the interests of workers and families.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7:40 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Bill Blaikie

The time provided for the hon. member has expired.

The time provided for the consideration of private members' business has now expired, and the order is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the order paper.

It being 7:41 p.m., this House stands adjourned until tomorrow at 10 a.m., pursuant to Standing Order 24(1).

(The House adjourned at 7:41 p.m.)