Mr. Speaker, it is my turn to speak to Bill C-50, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act and to increase benefits, and I am very pleased to do that today.
The Bloc Québécois has opposed Bill C-50 from the outset, as my colleagues have said several times. As we know, this bill does not in any way propose to open access to the employment insurance scheme, which has been locked up for several years, for a very long time. That is why we are opposed to Bill C-50. When, for example, we propose that the waiting period be eliminated, the reason is to offer people who have lost their jobs, to offer families, mothers with children or fathers who work for low wages, speedy access to income. Eliminating the waiting period provides them with income quickly so they can meet their needs. That is what eliminating the waiting period does. In order to receive the extended five weeks, someone still has to have access to employment insurance, and still has to run out of benefits, because those weeks are added only at the end of the benefit period.
Concerning Bill C-50, I am hearing the Conservatives criticize us for opposing a measure that could have helped some workers. I emphasize “some”.
Today I would like to take my allotted time to explain our position on this not only to the Conservatives, but also to the NDP members. We have examined the bill, we have met several times with officials from the department, and we have asked them questions. The reason we have been unable to come around to voting for the bill is, first and foremost, that we believe it is discriminatory, and thus necessarily unfair. In one way, the first goal of politics is justice, as Plato wrote and taught 2,500 years ago. I do not know whether an ideal city, or a just city as he called it, is possible, or even whether it is desirable, but I do know that to my mind, this is a principle that guides the decisions I have to make in my political career, as recent as it is.
And so I think that the yardstick to which this bill must be held up is justice, and in our view it is precisely that test that Bill C-50 fails. Our rejection of it is not based on some naïve idealism; the opposite is true. In a way, our rejection is pragmatic. If I may explain: in the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills Development, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities and here in the House, the NDP has criticized us, in an analogy with bargaining between a union and employer, for rejecting what was on the table. In their view, we have to accept the improvement we are offered because we can always come back and get more later.
We think this view is very naïve, and I am sure my colleagues in the NDP suspect as much and actually know it. Whether real or phony, a matter of conviction or simply for electoral reasons, it is very naïve because it is obvious that there will not be anything else. We are already quite far into the economic crisis, at least in terms of job losses. Still, the government has not proposed anything to solve the most crucial problem facing employment insurance, that is, access, which remains under 50%. Are we going to pass a bill that will meet the needs of who knows how many employment insurance recipients simply because it is there, on the table? Are we going to pass it simply because it is on the table, telling ourselves that the government might propose something a bit later? I have a problem with that.
What is the logic in agreeing to what is proposed here? If the only argument in favour of its basically discriminatory provisions is to say that something else will come along, that is like saying this bill is unjust, unfair and discriminatory but we are confident another will come along to magically redress the disparity caused by this one. There is no reason, though, to think this will happen, and it is obvious that the bill introduced this morning will do nothing to solve the eligibility issue.
We are left, therefore, with the first half of what I said, “this bill is unjust, unfair and discriminatory”.
We have also been accused of refusing to support the bill because it does not reform employment insurance from top to bottom, as we have been demanding for a number of years. That is equally false, and I could point to several changes to the employment insurance system that we would have supported: eliminate the waiting period, restore the single eligibility requirement and set it at 360 hours, increase the wage-replacement rate to 60%, put an end to the presumption of guilt for people who are related to their employer, and so on. These are steps we would have supported without a second’s hesitation, even if they were not part of a comprehensive reform.
Not that there is no crying need for comprehensive reform. We still think there is. However, we would have voted in favour of the steps I just mentioned because they are basically fair and equitable. This is clearly not the case of Bill C-50, which literally creates two categories of unemployed people: the good and the bad.
Thus, the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development said in committee that the unemployed people targeted by Bill C-50 were those who had lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Does she know that ever since the 1990s people who voluntarily quit their jobs have been unable to collect employment insurance? That is like what my colleague across the aisle said a little while ago. People who have worked hard all their lives, paid their taxes and made their contributions would qualify for the benefits provided under Bill C-50. I just wonder what these Conservatives think about other workers who have had to fall back, unfortunately, on employment insurance. Was she trying to insinuate that these people were doing all they could to defraud the employment insurance system by conniving to hide a voluntary departure? Was she trying to say that the unemployed who collected benefits in the past were guilty of having worked, for example, in plants that had to close in the summer because they did not have enough contracts? The minister’s words clearly betray the contempt this government has for people who have to fall back on employment insurance.
Passing this bill means creating two classes of unemployed workers: the deserving and the undeserving. Few, very few, are deserving. According to the deputy minister of Human Resources himself, the proposed measures would apply to no more than 6% of unemployed workers. In other words, 94% would be excluded. That is unbelievable. As we have been hearing since yesterday, it seems that the vast majority of forestry workers, whose industry has been going through crisis after crisis for years now, crises that affect hours worked and force workers to collect employment insurance benefits, would be excluded. This bill leaves out anyone who has collected more than 35 weeks of benefits over the past five years.
It will also exclude most women. Despite the fact that women now play as great a role in the labour market as men, they will have an even harder time than men qualifying for the very restrictive criteria proposed in this bill. The same goes for young people who cannot qualify because only those who have been in the labour market for at least seven years and have paid at least 30% of the maximum contribution can collect extra benefits—for a minimum of five weeks. Let us not forget that the bill proposes between five and 20 extra weeks. Young people simply will not qualify unless they have been working full time since the age of 16.
Yet young people are among the hardest hit by the economic crisis. As the saying goes, last in, first out. In fact, student employment is in the worst shape ever since 1977, when statistics were first compiled.
Essentially, this is a temporary measure designed to respond to the economic crisis. As the government said earlier, the budget already includes a proposal to extend employment insurance benefits by five weeks. This government chose to add extra weeks of benefits without taking into consideration access to the EI program.
In a difficult economic situation, to help young families, young parents and low-income parents of all ages with school-aged children and mouths to feed, the government should have improved access to the EI program.
It is self-evident that Bill C-50 is discriminatory and as a result, it may divide unemployed people into two factions.
It is hard to be opposed to a change that would make life easier for someone else. But at the same time, when someone is left out in the cold, it is hard not to envy someone else who is getting a break.
Within one company, some workers will be entitled to benefits under Bill C-50, while others will not. Those who are not entitled to benefits may have worked very hard over the past five years. They will have worked hard and paid their premiums and taxes week after week. But they may have received more than 35 weeks of employment insurance and will therefore not be eligible for benefits under Bill C-50.
It is as though all members on both sides of this House were starving and had not eaten for a week and it was decided that all those with red socks would be fed and all those with blue socks would have to wait. We wonder how this criterion for selecting people was set.The ship is sinking, but there are not enough lifeboats to save everyone. Priority will therefore be given to those who paid more for their tickets. They will be saved first, and the others will have to save themselves as best they can. That is more or less what is happening with this bill.
That is why this bill has come under harsh criticism from a number of organizations dedicated to defending the rights of the unemployed. For example, Ian Forand, who is involved in the Comité chômage de Montréal, wrote this in the September 24 issue of Le Devoir:
The Conservative government's Bill C-50, introduced on September 14, 2009, is a bad bill, and the government is merely trying to scam people by extending the number of weeks of benefits. ...it is very sad to see the NDP critics going out to defend them, not only without stepping back to take a critical look, but often on behalf of government ministers, and even taking credit for the initiative. ...Those who are familiar with the Employment Insurance Act and its application, those who have fought with their usual integrity and fervour—and there are many in the NDP—know that this bill is terrible and disgraceful for our citizens.
I would also like to quote the very respected Pierre Céré, spokesperson for the Conseil national des chômeurs et chômeuses:
[In this case], it is not up to us to vote on this bill [C-50] to either reject it or pass it, however, we would like to share our opinion,...
And still quoting Mr. Céré:
This bill, in its current form, is unacceptable. It is discriminatory. It does not represent the kind of constructive, positive solutions that are needed to fix the employment insurance system. We believe, perhaps somewhat naively, that policy should provide solutions to problems and that our highest legislative officials should be able to work together.
I was saying earlier that practising politics is a quest for justice, the desire to give everyone his or her fair share. However, those shares are limited by the scarcity of resources. So we have no choice but to distribute them in a certain way.
Two things are certain. First of all, we believe that not enough resources are being allocated to employment insurance to meet current needs, considering all of the government's resources.
Second, supposing that it were impossible to increase the resources allocated to the employment insurance system, which is obviously not true, we still believe it would be fundamentally unfair to target one category of workers to the detriment of others, more specifically to 94% of the workers. That is not all. Apparently this bill is an emergency measure to respond, very timidly I must say, to the current economic crisis.
How do we explain to a person who lost his job in October 2008, when economic troubles consequently led to colossal job losses, that he is not entitled to the extension of benefits the government is proposing here? How can the government justify a crisis measure that does not apply to all those who were affected by the same economic crisis?
Here is another anomaly. Despite the fact that workers who receive severance pay have to exhaust that money before they can receive employment insurance benefits, a worker who lost his job in October 2008, but did not start receiving benefits until February 2009, would also be excluded since, contrary to all things logical, the date of the application and not the beginning of the benefits period is considered in determining the worker's eligibility. Even in the rare cases of those who could have been eligible under the restrictive criteria, there are other discriminatory and totally arbitrary factors in place.
These are very serious reasons why we cannot bring ourselves to vote in favour of this bill. It would certainly help some unemployed people, but the adverse affects it would have and the utterly unfair principle it is based on make it totally unacceptable in our view. Supporting this principle would mean accepting that there are two classes of citizens: the deserving and the undeserving. That is something we will never accept, in the name of justice that demands equality among citizens.