Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-357, which is aimed at preventing the government from stealing money from this account that should be reserved for workers. This is a fundamental element of our social safety net that is wearing thin. Yet with important transformations in our economy and with the emergence of new technologies, it is increasingly important to have this safety net, which can help workers move towards better-paying jobs.
It is true that right now, in this country, there seem to be fewer unemployed workers. The figures come from Statistics Canada and other organizations. However, there is much more poverty. It is obviously more difficult to make a decent living in Canada today.
In fact, it does not matter what kind of difficulty people are in, but the government's approach is that people should pull themselves up by the bootstraps. I am thinking of the difficulties in the manufacturing sector and the difficulties in the Maritimes for seasonal workers where hard-working people are having difficulties making the transition to other employment. There need to be other initiatives to help them. Certainly, employment insurance was one of them. It was a fund used by the current and previous governments.
This government, just like its predecessor, has been helping itself to the EI account, and this must stop. According to the new figures from the Department of Finance, there is currently $54 billion in that account, and there is every indication that the Conservative government continues to use the contributions paid by workers to increase its surplus.
Of course we know that it was the Liberals who designed this plan when they were doing their budget cuts in the 1990s. They changed the eligibility criteria in such a way that, currently, only 38% of men and 32% of women qualify for benefits. It is a shame.
First of all, these cuts made to the EI program were not aimed solely at achieving a balanced budget. The government wanted to create a flexible labour market and eliminate uncertainty among workers through a strategy favouring low-cost labour. Many workers were shortchanged by these cuts.
Of course, because of these cuts in the 1990s, several social programs--and this one in particular--became weaker. These programs were of national importance not only for those affected--and that is what concerns me the most--but also because they were an essential part of what binds us together as Canadians.
Perhaps we should take another look at the definition of insurance. When a worker is having major difficulties, when he loses his job, what happens? The government should be there for him, but it is not. There is a group of people in the government right now who do not believe in government. They prefer to go to the private sector for everything. Privatization reigns and according to those people, the market will solve all our problems.
We have to take another look at what insurance is. I just renewed my home insurance and the terms of it are clear. I read that if I pay my premiums and my house burns down, I will be reimbursed. With employment insurance, it is different. Employees contribute for years and when they need it, the funds are not there. They cannot get the help they should in these difficult times. Employment insurance should make it easier to get back to work, to get back to a good job, but that is not so.
In the Speech from the Throne, we see that the government intends to take measures to improve the governance and management of the employment insurance fund. This morning I heard the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development during oral question period say that he did not really intend to meet the needs of the workers. That is worrisome.
The government seems to be in a hurry to devolve responsibilities for workforce training and funding to provinces with no strings attached. In my area we have seen training contracts given to private American companies at the expense of well established effective community agencies that did that work.
I would like to talk for a few minutes about employability, since the Conservative government has launched a study on employability, and my comments are particularly related to the topic of employment insurance. However, I have only a faint hope of seeing the government recognize the Canadian workforce as people rather than as commodities.
The primary objective of all policies surrounding the labour market and employability, indeed the primary objective of our economy, is how the government seems to see the worker. It is time that the labour market worked for the benefit of workers rather than just for profit as it does now.
The key to our success as a democratic society is to treat hardworking people decently and to give them the opportunity to improve their lives. They need a guarantee that employment insurance will be there for them. They need a guarantee that they will be able to access it in times of need as opposed to having doors shut on them.
As we do this study on employability we should look at employment insurance and the role that it could play. We feel strongly that the government should end the clawback of EI for recipients pursuing training and education.
My last words will deal with education and literacy issues. Nine million Canadians do not have functional levels of literacy and yet the government cut literacy programs last year by $18 million. This is an example of where EI could be used for training to improve those skills. I hope that the government will review its position in this important area.