Mr. Speaker, I listened carefully to my colleague's speech and the very good answers she gave to all the questions she was asked.
I am pleased to speak in this House to condemn this bill and show that employment insurance has become a cash cow and a discriminatory system that creates two types of workers: those who are entitled to benefits and those who are excluded.
This supposed improvement in employment insurance will do nothing for workers who are already excluded from the program. We need a comprehensive reform that will correct the injustices committed by the Liberals, who in 1997 turned employment insurance into a tax on workers and employers. EI became PI, pathetic insurance, shafting vulnerable workers, seasonal workers and students. Everyone pays into the plan, but not everyone is eligible for benefits. The unemployed were the real victims of the war on the deficit waged by the Liberal government, which reduced its deficit by excluding workers from employment insurance.
Today, the $54 billion that was stolen from workers must be used for the purpose for which it was intended, which is to provide the unemployed with financial support. The government must restore legislation to protect all workers who pay into the plan. To use this money for any other purpose is embezzlement. The changes in EI eligibility, which the Bloc Québécois condemned at the time, have had the expected effect. The percentage of benefit recipients dropped from 83% in 1989 to 42% in 1997. Whether the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development likes it or not, that numbers are still the same today. If the Conservatives and Liberals set out to dismantle the system, they can say “mission accomplished”.
With Bill C-50, the government wants to accentuate the discrimination against workers by allowing only a portion of them—the ones known as long-tenured workers—to receive between 5 and 20 additional weeks of benefits. Oddly enough, when we look closely at the eligibility criteria, we see that this measure will benefit workers in the automotive sector in Ontario.
Furthermore, this same government would have us believe that 190,000 unemployed workers will be eligible for benefits. Once again, the Prime Minister and his Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development are trying to pull a fast one on us. That is nothing new. We are rather used to it. The Prime Minister told this house that if the EI qualifying period were set at 360 hours, claimants would receive 52 weeks of benefits. Nothing could be further from the truth. That same Prime Minister estimated that such a change would cost $4 billion, while the Parliamentary Budget Officer put the cost at $1,148,000,000. Obviously, the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development will repeat the same old nonsense we hear from her Prime Minister to anyone who will listen .
I wonder if the minister truly understands the act she is supposed to administer. On May 5 of this year, I sent her a letter regarding the intolerable situation facing workers of Beaulieu Canada, in my riding. In my letter I said, “If you refuse to acknowledge the figure of 40% eligibility, why are you preventing your officials from disclosing the number of people who apply for employment insurance benefits compared to the number who qualify to receive them?”
I will read the response I received from the minister on September 21, 2009. By the way, you better not hold your breath when waiting to hear back from this minister.
You claim that only 40% of people who apply for benefits are entitled to them. It is important to note that this number includes people who are outside the parameters of the employment insurance program, such as people who have never worked, and therefore have never paid employment insurance premiums; people who have not worked in the past year; people who left their employment without just cause; and self-employed workers, because they do not pay premiums.
Why not add members of Parliament, senators, and even the Governor General to the list of groups that are not entitled to employment insurance?
Does the minister know many people who have never worked or many self-employed workers who try to file an EI claim? In my riding, and in any other Bloc Québécois riding, I do not know a single one. People who have never worked know they are not entitled.
Because the Minister does not know the categories of workers who pay into employment insurance, I am going to educate her by describing those who make up the 60% who are not eligible. They are workers in unstable employment, a majority of whom are women; seasonal workers in the tourism industry or the fishery; agri-food workers; and students. These are the workers who are not eligible, the same ones the Liberals excluded with the pathetic insurance their reform produced. These are the same workers that the minister has excluded, not to mention the workers in the forestry industry, who have endured repeated layoffs in the last several years because of the inaction and incompetence of her government, a government that creates unemployment and poverty.
This government has deliberately chosen to exclude the victims of the economic crisis. The Bloc Québécois advocates a realistic recovery plan. Our party is proposing several changes to employment insurance: a new approach that assumes claimants are acting in good faith and speeds up delivery of the first cheque; eliminating the waiting period, which is immediate help for workers who have lost their jobs; a 360-hour eligibility threshold that allows access to employment insurance for part-time workers; increasing weekly benefits to 60% from 55%; increasing insurable earnings to $42,500; calculating benefits on the basis of the 12 best weeks, which would benefit seasonal workers; establishing an income support program for older workers that would bridge the gap between a layoff and payment of their pension; expanding a claimant’s right to receive benefits while taking training courses; and expanding and adjusting the job-sharing program.
The measures the Bloc Québécois has proposed would allow workers who have lost their jobs to deal with the crisis and receive the support they need while they wait for the economic recovery.
Older workers are at risk of ending their lives in poverty with the measures the Conservative government is proposing. When they were in opposition, the Conservatives talked about bringing back the program for older worker adjustment or POWA. A program like that would enable people over 55 to receive income until they retire. Instead of that, the government is pushing people who lose their jobs and find themselves with no financial resources into poverty; they will have to liquidate their assets before they retire, and they will receive the guaranteed income supplement, leaving them below the poverty line.
That is not a very nice way for people to live out their later years. This government would also prefer to keep seniors in a state of perpetual poverty rather than act on Motion M-300, which I moved last spring, and which received majority support in the House of Commons. Need I say who opposed the motion? It is not hard to guess.
Since the Conservatives came to power, Quebec's economy has come under attack by a series of regressive measures: cuts to equalization payments, a $2.6 billion shortfall in the GST harmonization file, cuts to culture, the projected relocation of the securities commission to Ontario, which Bill C-50 just happens to support, and the planned parliamentary reform that will reduce the Quebec nation's political weight. The Conservatives' real priority is to strengthen their political base in Ontario and consolidate their votes, just like they did in Alberta.
Once again, Quebec workers, who have already suffered because of the economic crisis and this government's incompetence, are being left out. It sure looks like this government's priority is to impoverish Quebec and its workers.
We will not let this oil-soaked government reduce Quebec to a second-class state in a completely chaotic Canada.
If the Conservatives made this big a mess with a minority government, imagine what they would do if they had a majority.
We are fighting this battle alongside groups working to protect the rights of unemployed workers, such as the Sans-chemise, Mouvement Action Chômage groups and major unions. We want the $54 billion stolen from the employment insurance fund to be given back to the workers who contributed.
When the time comes to vote on this bill, I will stand with the members of the Bloc Québécois and vote against Bill C-50. That is what we will do for any bill that is not in Quebec's best interest until the day we achieve full independence as a country.