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.