Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the hon. member for Laurentides—Labelle for bringing forward this very important piece of legislation.
The bill makes a number of important amendments to the Employment Insurance Act. It reduces each qualifying period by 70 hours. It increases the benefit period. It increases the rate of weekly benefits to 60%. It repeals the waiting period. It eliminates the presumption that persons related to each other do not deal with each other at arm's length. It increases the maximum yearly insurable earnings to $41,500. It also introduces an indexing formula.
We in the New Democratic Party certainly support this bill. Our whip, the member for Acadie—Bathurst, has introduced his own private member's bills along the same lines with the hope that we can bring some fairness to employment insurance and reduce the disparity out there.
I want to talk briefly about the national employment insurance program and provide a little bit of history, a thumbnail sketch. Canada has had a national program to provide financial support for the unemployed for about 70 years. It was seen as a very important step in regard to making sure that Canadians who were temporarily out of work or suffering because of plant closures were supported so that they could look after their families, so that communities could remain strong.
The program has gone through many changes over the years, most notably in 1971, when benefits were actually extended to those who were experiencing sickness and to women who wanted to take maternity leave. Maternity leave became part of the EI program and the ability to collect was put in place at that point.
Unfortunately, there followed a whole series of task forces and commissions which produced recommendations that changed EI not for the good, but actually sought to decrease its benefits. In 1994 the government of the day came up with proposals for a radical overhaul which led to the implementation of what is now known as the Employment Insurance Act of December 1995. Unemployment insurance was no more at that point in time.
These program changes were intended to shift the emphasis from providing income support when workers lost their jobs to making sure that they got back to work as quickly as possible. That is fine, if work exists, if the worker in question has the training and the background in order to find employment, but as has been pointed out in this House, that is not always the case. Very often in the case of plant closures the workers involved, some of whom have been at the plant for many years, are not able to secure employment.
That reality hit home in London this past spring when Beta Brands foods closed its doors. That plant, the former McCormicks plant, had been in London for over 100 years and provided good jobs and secure employment to families. Suddenly, in a matter of a few days, the announcement was made and those jobs were gone. A lot of the workers had been with the company for 30, 40, and 45 years. In some cases both a husband and wife were working in the plant. When those jobs went, those workers were left without a livelihood. Sometimes the entire family income was gone. In many cases those workers had been out of school for 30, 40, 45 years and lacked the skills and training opportunities in order to find other work.
This notion about getting people back to work quickly is very good but not always possible and not always the reality.
While 74% of unemployed workers were entitled to receive unemployment benefits in 1990 the new act that I was just speaking about, the 1995 act, reduced that number to 36% of those who found themselves to be unemployed. Of those workers, women had the greatest decrease in terms of support. They dropped from 69% in 1990 to 32% in 2004.
I want to speak a little about the effect that it has on a community. I am going to quote from a document that I received this week from Kairos which is an ecumenical partnership from the faith community. It is very concerned about the issues facing our communities and our society. It works very hard to try to alleviate suffering and to bring to the attention of government the things that need to happen, the realities that are out in our communities. It found, and I would say many of the members of the House are aware, that a significant contributor to poverty is the inability of insured workers to collect employment benefits.
It gives some statistics and these are shocking statistics: 788,000 children in Canada live in poverty. That is a 2005 number. We reckon that it is closer to about one million, the same percentage, about 12% as in 1989 when in this Parliament there was a resolve to end child poverty by the year 2000. We know that we did not do that. In fact, child poverty continues at an unacceptable level. There is the sense that it is in fact increasing.
Canada's homeless population is somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000. We are not exactly sure because it is very difficult sometimes to determine if someone is indeed homeless. Too many people, particularly young people, spend their time couch surfing. They go from home to home, from situation to situation, because there is no permanent place for them.
A lot of these young people are the victims of abuse, sometimes sexual abuse. They cannot go home and they are far too young to be able to secure their own home. They have been forgotten and unfortunately they are homeless.
About 1.7 million residents are struggling with housing affordability. Among those are aboriginal people in urban situations living in poverty, new immigrants, and single family homes headed by women.
About 750,000 Canadians rely on food banks in Canada. There are 650 food banks in this nation at a time when our economy is apparently booming and at a time when apparently there is a great wealth abroad. It is apparently for some and not others.
I want to speak about a question that I asked in the House last week of the minister responsible. When I told him that two-thirds of the women who pay into the employment insurance fund were unable to receive benefits, the minister's response was that I was wrong, that I was incorrect.
I would like to make reference to some information that I had. The minister said that 82% of women working full time were eligible to qualify. That does not mean that they will qualify. He was playing with words.
Since only 73% of women in the paid workforce are employed full time, 80% of this number would actually be 58% of all employed women who are eligible to qualify. In fact, less, since self-employed women are not eligible. So, I make my point once again that far too many people, particularly women, are unable to collect.