moved that Bill C-357, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (Employment Insurance Account and premium rate setting) and another Act in consequence, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I have to say that I feel as though I am in Back to the Future.
In a way, it is as if I were going back in time. I have already had the opportunity to speak to this bill, but the House was prorogued. We had to wait another month for work to resume in this House. That meant that the Conservative minority government did not have to answer certain questions about certain pressing issues that still urgently require attention. I am thinking in particular about the crisis in the forest industry.
I am also thinking about issues that affect my riding, Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, issues such as transportation. All the members took advantage of the extra month off to stay in their ridings. But in terms of the work of Parliament, we lost a month. It is not exactly clear why. It was not necessary to prorogue the House. There was already a legislative agenda. Parliament was already scheduled to resume, and the government had had the opportunity to give its first throne speech. Why give a second one? The people who are watching can form their own opinions. Personally, I have the feeling that the government wanted to buy time and create a diversion. I would even go so far as to say that the Conservative minority government took pleasure in making use of parliamentary procedure.
Now, it is my turn to take pleasure in procedure. For a number of reasons, it gives me pleasure to again raise the issue of creating an independent employment insurance fund.
There is a history to this issue. I also have a history when it comes to this issue, because in another life I was a reporter for CHNC New Carlisle, a local radio station. I was also involved in organized labour.
Indeed I had the opportunity to work in the labour movement for the Conseil central CSN Gaspésie-Îles-de-la-Madeleine. My radio career lasted about 23 years, and I also worked for a few years in the labour movement.
Socio-economic development was one of the issues that was of particular interest to us. If you look for it, you will find it in certain places. I am thinking, for example, of the recent visit of my colleague from Beauharnois—Salaberry to Murdochville. We saw what is happening with wind energy, but it is not the be all and end all. Wind energy is just one element of what can be developed. And there has to be a maximization of these elements with regard to wind energy.
Members probably know that, over the next few years, that is by 2013 or 2014, several billion dollars will be invested in the Lower St. Lawrence and Gaspé regions.
In fact, there is a question as to the kind of real benefits this will bring in terms of job creation and so on.
There is LM Glassfiber in Gaspé and another company in Matane, but the latter is not located in my riding; it is outside the administrative region of Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine. Apart from that, what is there? Yes, there are wind farms like the one in Murdochville, where hundreds of millions of dollars have been committed, spent and invested. But how many jobs remain in the region? Not necessarily a whole lot. That is why one must be very careful when quoting numbers that may seem very big, especially if they are spread over several years. We have to look at what the real situation is.
We are talking here about unemployment insurance, and I am still using the term unemployment insurance because I feel that calling it employment insurance is just a diversion, a way to lead us to believe that employment is the ultimate remedy and that as long as there are jobs, unemployment will no longer exist.
The bad news is that full employment, in other words a 0% unemployment rate, does not exist; not even in the flourishing economy of certain cities in Canada or in Quebec. For that reason, we can still talk about unemployment insurance.
This leads us to another reality, that experienced by the people in regions like mine or other regions in Quebec. An unemployed person is not necessarily unemployed by choice. Sometimes it is mandatory. I am sure that many people know what I am talking about. Whether we like it or not, tourism, forestry, fisheries and agriculture all provide seasonal employment. It is not the unemployed person who is seasonal. It is the work that is seasonal. The person would like to work 12 months a year, in certain sectors of the economy in particular. Nonetheless, the fishery being what it is, it is a seasonal activity. The same is true for agriculture.
As far as tourism is concerned, people try to extend the tourism season. Unfortunately, in some situations, there is still a long way to go, a bridge to gap between the end of one job and the beginning of another. In other cases, people wait to get the same seasonal job back again and that is why unemployment insurance is so important.
Over the years we have seen two big waves of cuts that have seriously harmed the unemployed and regions like mine. The Brian Mulroney government triggered the first wave. I do not know if people remember it, but I believe the people in my riding remember it very well. This wave hurt everyone's wallets. It did not stop at this first wave of cuts. The arrival of the subsequent government, that of Jean Chrétien, led to a second wave of cuts that hurt just as bad.
During that time, they realized that there was a lot of money in the so-called employment insurance fund. The latest figures from February 2007, show a $51 billion surplus. This huge sum was misappropriated.
The creation of an independent employment insurance fund would prevent this theft from continuing. Because of the various cuts and measures, this theft has left people in regions like ours in extremely difficult situations.
I simply want to point out this sad reality. An unemployed person does not automatically receive hundreds of dollars in EI benefits a week in order to live a great life. It is not like that at all in most cases.
Take the case of a woman working in the hotel industry in Percé, or in another tourist area, where she works as a housekeeper in a motel. She works split shifts, for a total of 15 hours, 20 hours, 30 hours. Depending on the number of guests, the number of hours she works increases or decreases. This type of schedule means that from week to week, or day to day, she does not know exactly when she will start or finish. Obviously, it depends on the number of tourists.
Then, these workers find themselves in need of the much talked about unemployment benefits, which cover 55% of what they earn—we must not forget that it is minimum wage. It is not $17 or $20 an hour; it is minimum wage. At 55%, they find themselves straddling the poverty line.
In most cases, people must find another job or accumulate work hours in order to receive the so-called generous EI. This covers 55% of a relatively good wage, but leaves them struggling.
I will not go into what happens in the fisheries sector.
When people facing these situations see that more than $50 billion has been diverted, they understand. They see it happening, that the wealth is poorly distributed and their situation is not improving. This is why Bill C-357 is so important.
The employment insurance program must be improved. By the way, one of my Bloc Québécois colleagues already introduced such a bill that made it to third reading.
There is also the matter of the creation of an independent employment insurance fund. Why is it important to have an independent fund? At the very least, it could involve three components.
First, there is the whole history which I just spoke about, all the real life factors. We must ensure that the money is not misappropriated. It is understandable that a bit more money is needed here and there. However, we can find ourselves unemployed for one reason or another. It might be because a business has closed. That has happened often in my region. For example, there was a fire at Anse-aux Gascons and workers were faced with a forced closure. That happened in Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Grande-Entrée and in various other places, I imagine, in Quebec and Canada as well. All their lives, these people paid into the employment insurance fund. I feel it was unfair because they should have been helped and not gouged over the years, supposedly to fight the deficit. At whose expense was this done? You know very well what I mean. It was at the expense of the unemployed and regions such as ours. For this reason these people consider it a scandal just like the sponsorship scandal.
Who is pleased with the realization that the fund is doing all right financially, that the money is being used for other purposes and that the contribution rate is constantly being reduced? If we lower the premium rate for someone who works only 15 to 20 hours per week, a few weeks of the year, in the tourism sector, how much will they save? One, two, three, five or seven dollars? No more than that.
An owner of a large business might find the premium reduction interesting—and the employee as well, depending on his salary. That is why the money from the employment insurance fund should not be used for other purposes. That is why we should have an independent fund with a premium rate that would be established by independent individuals, not on the basis of political considerations but based on reality, with consideration for the situation of employers and employees. Three parties would have a say in the proposed independent fund. In other words, there would be representatives for the employers, the employees and the government.
I have the impression that today I represent the large numbers of unemployed in regions such as ours who believe that the unfairness must come to an end and that an independent employment insurance fund must be created.
Just recently, I heard the Conservative government—and I will get back to this later on—say that it will ask for a royal recommendation regarding this issue. This is a roundabout way to avoid creating the independent fund that we are proposing. It hurts me to hear these comments. Personally, given the situation, I would feel bad if I were in their shoes, because they represent regions, they represent unemployed people.
This is why it is important that, ideally, Bill C-357 should get the unanimous support of the House.