Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to take part in the debate on this important bill. I would remind the House that I am the member for Beauharnois—Salaberry, a riding in which 80% of the land is agricultural and the other 20% is made up of industrial zones where towns such as Huntingdon have been classified as one-industry towns because of the textile factories. I am in a good position to discuss unemployment, because, since 2004, my riding has lost more than 2,500 jobs in the manufacturing sector.
Clearly, as an elected representative, along with my provincial and municipal colleagues, we are working hard to recreate a dynamic economy, seeking employment opportunities and trying to create new jobs. This is not easy, given that our community was built around large factories that employed many people. However, since globalization has changed the rules of the game, factories are closing their doors, like the Goodyear factory in Valleyfield, which closed a few months ago, actually nearly a year ago, resulting in the loss of 1,000 jobs. In addition to that, Quebec's only steer slaughterhouse lost 250 modestly paid jobs —at about $15 an hour. At this time, there are good workers in Saint-Louis-de-Gonzague who are unemployed.
Those in government—the Conservative members—should not think that the Bloc Québécois wants people to be unemployed. Quite the contrary, it is obvious that the Bloc Québécois wants everyone to have a job. Unfortunately, the situation is such at present that some individuals have to avail themselves of the employment insurance program and apply for benefits. They do not always do so lightheartedly. Having assisted a number of people who are having to negotiate with the federal bureaucracy to get their benefits, I can assure the House that these people are not jumping for joy.
I mentioned earlier that my riding is an agricultural one. This means that we have many seasonal employees working in orchards and fields. Unfortunately, by the end of the summer, these employees have not accumulated enough hours of work to qualify for EI benefits which could help support them with an income and eventually find another job during the course of the year.
It is not their fault. Seasonal workers, even those doing a good job, will normally experience a gap, and have trouble finding work until the season begins and then continues from spring or the summer into the fall.
This reminds me that, a few weeks ago, my colleague from Chambly—Borduas visited my riding to discuss with workers and union members all the measures the Bloc Québécois has put forward over the years, including legislation to improve the employment insurance system and all the representations we have made to press the government to deliver on its promise and establish a real program to help older workers.
An old idea which has been in the Bloc Québécois platform for years, namely an independent EI account, is now being put forward. The 20 or so union members and representatives in the group were not overly surprised to hear how much resistance and opposition to such legislation there has been on the part of the Conservative government.
We have to ask ourselves this: why would a country with profits and excess revenue not use some of that money to help those workers who need guidance and support while going through a transition period during their working life?
We are running out of arguments to give when people ask us why the government is reluctant to get behind the bill before us today and give it royal assent, since the money in the EI account does not belong to it.
We know that the fund is made up of worker and employer contributions. What gives the government the right to take workers' and employers' money out of the fund surplus and spend it elsewhere, probably to pay down the debt?
I look good in this political debate, because everyone agrees with me. People do not understand this resistance. If the country was broke, on the brink of bankruptcy, then it might make sense, but the reverse is true. We are headed for quite an unacceptable surplus, and people are astounded.
I cannot wait to cross swords with my adversaries and ask them to explain to the unemployed people in Beauharnois—Salaberry why they voted against the bill designed to improve employment insurance, against an older worker adjustment program and, today, against creating an independent employment insurance fund.
In closing, I want to repeat what we have been saying for the past hour. Since 1994, the unemployment insurance fund surplus has fluctuated constantly, reaching a truly unacceptable high of $51 billion in total in February 2007. This is no small amount. We are talking about $51 billion.
When the Conservatives were in the opposition, they decried this situation and demanded that the Liberals, who were in power at the time, cease pillaging the fund. When the Conservatives came to power—which turned out to be more of the same, really—they kept on using surpluses from the employment insurance fund, a fund that workers and employers contribute to. They are still using these funds for purposes other than those for which workers and employers contribute.
In 2006, 44% of unemployed people collected benefits. Despite surpluses in the fund, despite the country's relatively good economic health thanks to these impressive surpluses, the government is refusing to improve or change the employment insurance program. That is hard to accept. It is infuriating.
When I meet workers who have lost their jobs, they ask me why they are not eligible for employment insurance. They have contributed for much of the year, but they are a few hours short. They wonder why the government refuses to support them through hard times or to help them find another job. It makes me very sad to have to tell them that their government has no interest in supporting or helping workers who have fallen on hard times, even though it could if it wanted to.
If the government members listened to what members of this House had to say, they would be aware of the issue and they would realize that they have to change their minds and agree to this bill so that we can pass it and debate it again. This is a comprehensive bill that will work for workers. Our country and its government are in a position to make this happen.