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 am very proud and honoured to rise today to present my first bill, which deals with a very important issue for my community of the Gaspé and Magdalen Islands.
I suppose that my bill is also important for all the communities that want to be treated with dignity and honour, and for those people who, at some point in their lives, find themselves in a bind, strictly for geographical reasons. For example, people cannot fish all year round, even if they wanted to. In the case of tourism, certain considerations also come into play. And the same goes for natural resources, and particularly the forestry sector.
These people not only need social support, they also need economic support. Now, we are talking about establishing an independent employment insurance fund.
I am in politics primarily because of this issue. I have had the opportunity to work with people to whom I paid tribute on several occasions, but today I want to pay tribute again to Gaétan Cousineau, of the Mouvement action-chômage Pabok, who has, for a number of years already, been leading a great battle for justice, for fairness in the employment insurance system.
At the time, we were experiencing problems in my region. Unfortunately, these problems have not necessarily disappeared over time. Other issues have surfaced because of, among other reasons, what is going on with natural resources and fisheries. Problems and crises have erupted, particularly in the shrimp sector.
So, there are people who want justice, no more and no less, because the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the minister are not meeting their demands. These people are stuck and they have been in the streets for three days already. They are currently occupying offices and marching in the streets. They are expressing their distress, they are sounding the alarm regarding their plight.
We experienced a historic moment this evening when a bill was voted on and concurred in at second reading so that the EI system could be changed and improved.
The bill I have introduced is designed to tighten things up. Unfortunately, governments, past and present, have taken advantage of the fact that those really paying into the EI fund are employees and employers, while the government did not, and that has been going on for years.
As it happens, this fund started to run not a profit, but a surplus that kept growing year after year. In fact, we have even seen record amounts between $7 billion and $8 billion. With all this money available, a rather huge chunk of money, the government of the day decided to deal with another problem, namely the deficit, instead of giving the money to the people in the regions, the unemployed who were having a very hard time qualifying or with issues of fairness and equity.
If I am not mistaken, over the years, from the early or mid 1990s until now, some $50,000 million accumulated in that EI fund has been diverted from its intended purpose. This money was used to combat the deficit.
The hon. member for LaSalle—Émard and former finance minister dared to puff out his chest and boast about helping put Canada's fiscal house in order. He failed, however, to add that this was done at the expense of the unemployed.
The purpose of the bill is to prevent any government from being tempted—and from giving in to the temptation—to take this money and use it for other reasons, as was the case in tackling the deficit at one point. These days we could talk about tackling the debt.
The unemployed, the people in regions like the one I represent and those from other regions are the ones helping to pay down the debt.
That is why it is important to have legislation to stop people with designs on the surplus, which is currently between $1.5 billion and $2 billion a year. Let us not forget to whom we owe this surplus and how it came to be.
Let us not forget that there is a surplus because a certain amount of money is being taken directly out of the pockets of employers and workers.
There is a surplus and there are needs. It is only fair that this money be used to meet these needs. However, that is not what is happening. The needs are far from being met, which is causing a growing gap. Not so long ago, the surplus was $8 billion and the gap was quite large. Now we are talking about a surplus between $1.5 billion and $2 billion.
This evening, members of this House passed a bill at second reading stage. In my opinion, this is a good step in seeking justice, but the battle is far from over.
We have to prevent every government, even a minority government, from dipping into this fund. We are told it is a virtual fund, but that is not so. Workers pay a premium to the employer, which makes this far from being virtual. This money goes directly to the government's coffers. Unfortunately, under the current conditions, we cannot fully trust the government, even though it is a minority, because we see that this money is being used for completely different purposes.
I would like to talk about what is called the summary of the bill, a bill that amends the method for setting the premium rate in the Employment Insurance Act. It also amends a number of provisions in that act with respect to the Employment Insurance Account. The summary is divided into four parts, including one dealing with setting the premium rate.
The bill provides that every year the Canada Employment Insurance Commission will set the premium rate and cause a report to be sent to the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development. The annual report shall contain, among other things, the reasons behind the chosen premium rate.
The report shall also include any recommendations that the commission considers necessary for the improvement of the employment insurance system. The bill provides also that the Employment Insurance Account will no longer form part of the accounts of Canada. This is where we will stop the injustices from occurring. The amounts paid into the Employment Insurance Account will become part of the assets of the Canada Employment Insurance Commission, and the commission will manage them in the best interests of the contributors and beneficiaries under the employment insurance system. In other words, this money will truly serve the interests and needs of the people who pay into the system.
The bill provides that the commissioners who will represent employees and employers shall be appointed from a list of nominees provided by associations representing employees and employers in Canada.
The bill also provides that the government shall pay back, over a period deemed appropriate, the amounts owed to the system, including those used by the government for purposes that did not serve the system.
I would just like to remind this House that the Canada Employment Insurance Commission will be composed of 17 commissioners: a chairperson, two vice-chairpersons, seven employee representatives and seven employer representatives.
The bill provides that the governor in council shall appoint the commissioners who will represent employees and employers from a list of nominees provided by associations representing employees and employers in Canada. The governor in council appoints the vice-chairpersons from among the deputy ministers or the associate deputy ministers of the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development. The chairperson shall be appointed by the House of Commons on the recommendation of the minister following consultation of the commissioners representing employees and employers. The chairperson shall not vote, but shall cast a deciding vote in case of an equal division.
This gives a bit more background on this bill and some context for our debate.
History is such that we may eventually solve the problem. Speaking as a maritimer, I could say that this bill will be a drop of justice in a sea of injustices. That is how I see it.
It is horrible to see how the employment insurance system has been managed in recent years. It is horrible because, in a way, people's needs have been completely ignored. Entire regions, including the region where I live, have been completely forgotten, ignored and abandoned, as have people who, with the sweat of their brow, have helped money build up over the years. This is referred to as a virtual account, but it is anything but virtual. The employment insurance account worked in such a way that it generated a surplus worth billions of dollars, money that was used for other purposes. I am talking about money that belongs to the unemployed, employers' money. Ordinarily, it should have gone to regions like mine to make the social safety net an economic net as well, but it was used for fighting the deficit and other purposes.
To get back to the facts, various inquiries have been conducted in recent years. The Gomery commission revealed the dark, shameful side of government. I would even venture to say that some of this money, which was stolen out of workers' pockets, was used for disgraceful purposes.
Having said that, it is very important to see that what we are ultimately trying to do is to eliminate temptation, this definite temptation that arises to use a pot of money for other purposes and not for what it was intended.
In all of this, we have the unemployed worker who has his back against the wall because he is a seasonal worker. We should not forget, it is not the worker but the employment that is seasonal . All too often we forget this. We have the impression that people are unemployed because they want to be. Let me tell you that it is not pleasant surviving on 55% of one's wages.
You can be unemployed for different reasons. In the region I represent, there are those who work in agriculture, natural resources such as forestry and fisheries, or tourism. These individuals do not apply for unemployment benefits because they want to. There simply are no more jobs. These people are proud. They have dignity and they would like to have a job for 12 months of the year. That is their goal.
The objective behind tabling this bill today is to seek justice for these men and women who work hard and who, unfortunately, at times, have jobs that are not well paid. Therefore, I urge members of all the political parties to support my bill.