Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise to speak to this bill. Also, let me take this opportunity to congratulate you on your award that you received last night as parliamentarian of the year. It is nice to see award-winning politicians in this House.
There is roughly $54 billion in our employment insurance fund that is surplus. One might ask how we got so much money in there. It is obvious we need to have this money in a separate account. As the previous speaker said, it is not in an account that cannot be withdrawn from by this government. This bill proposes to name a commission in section 71 of the bill. It proposes a separate account and sets out how the fund would be directed, and how the government could borrow from it.
This surplus seems to be growing. I started to think about that aspect of it and why we needed to protect that money. I realized that this EI system that was created over 70 years ago has gone through many changes. This is just one more change to the act and to the fund that would work in the interests of workers.
This program was set up basically to provide financial support for the unemployed. As workers we pay our EI premiums and our employers pay premiums as well into this fund. If we find ourselves unemployed, as did thousands of manufacturing workers this year, the many forestry workers in my riding, fishermen, seasonal workers, that fund is there. That is how it is supposed to work.
Among some of the changes that have taken place over the years, 1971 saw the biggest positive changes when benefits were extended to those whose earnings were interrupted because of sickness or pregnancy. Of course, that benefited many women who were in the workforce. Otherwise, they went off to have their child and basically did not get anything. Even though they had worked, it was not considered a reason for leaving work. It was not insurable.
Unfortunately, since 1971 and those positive additions there have been many cuts to the EI program. In 1990, for instance, around 74% of the people who applied were eligible to receive unemployment insurance. By 2004 that number had dropped to 36% for men, and the number is even lower for women with only 32% of women eligible for EI.
The impact is threefold on women who make lower wages, or who are seasonal or part time workers. The impacts are much greater on them. That, to me, is a real hardship for women.
Qualifications for quitting for just cause was another impact on workers. Originally, if spouses were relocated or had to move for their job, such as military personnel or anyone who may be posted around the country; if they quit for discrimination or sexual harassment and, of course, primarily women were leaving work for those reasons; or if they had obligations to care for a child or a direct family member, they were entitled to unemployment insurance, but no longer. They do not qualify anymore.
People also used to qualify in numbers of weeks. I think it was around 15 weeks, which is approximately 300 hours worked. Now they can only qualify by hours worked and the number is 700, more than double. That needs to also be reduced so people can access employment insurance.
This is one of the biggest barriers to women who work fewer hours, who work seasonal or part time work. It takes a long time to get that many hours. This disqualifies many women from accessing EI. No wonder we see $54 billion in surplus when people cannot access EI. We are down to less than half of the people who think they are eligible, 36% and 32% for men and women respectively. No wonder we have this huge surplus. It is sad.
One the other hand, when people do qualify, they have to wait, in some cases 45 days, to know whether they qualify. This makes it very difficult on families and people who find themselves unemployed through no fault of their own most of the time. This causes real hardship in our communities. That money needs to be protected for those workers.
We would like to see an increase in the amounts that people are paid over time. The cost of living is going up all the time as are housing costs. People need to feed themselves when they find themselves unemployed.
Sadly, the EI system is not working for everyone in the country. Many people have told me their stories and they face hardships when the system does not work for them. They find themselves having to struggle to make ends meet. We should not put people in that position.
The other thing is the government seems to think people are using employment insurance as their sole source of income, working a little here, a little there then getting EI. If people are doing that, they are very few and far between. Most people who find themselves on EI are there because they have lost their jobs through no fault of their own in most cases and are looking for another job. They need EI, which is there to provide financial support for them, as something to fill in the gaps while they look for their next job.
The least we can do, especially when, like any other insurance plan, we pay into it over years and years. Then all of a sudden when we find ourselves out of work, it is not there for us, and that is a shame.
A lot of the money in the fund could also be used for training. There used to be training programs. People need to be retrained if they are in an industry that is no longer viable or that is disappearing. We have seen a lot of places where people need to be retrained and EI could provide some of the funds for those training programs. It would help them get back into the workplace quicker. Those would be things that all members of the House could support.
However, I think the biggest fear of ordinary Canadians is that their EI premiums will be decreased and we will see a big decrease in the fund because of easy access to it. When people pay premiums into it, they know there is a program that is supposed to be there to support them and protect them in times of unemployment. They are happy to pay those premiums if that fund is there.
I encourage hon. members to support this and ensure that the EI fund is there for the future. Even though the economy is good right now, there are changes all the time and people could find themselves in a situation where they will need—