Mr. Speaker, it is with great interest that I rise to participate again today in the debate on Bill C-50, which seeks to increase the number of weeks for which benefits may be paid, but only to certain claimants.
I am taking part in the debate because my riding, like many other regions, has been hit hard in recent years with the permanent or recurring closure of manufacturing and forestry industries which, unfortunately, have had a great deal of difficulty, while also suffering from a lack of support on the part of government.
As the member for Berthier—Maskinongé, I really wanted to address Bill C-50 and to say how deeply disappointed and even outraged I am when I look at this bill and at the measures that it includes.
As a responsible party that is always defending Quebec's best interests first and foremost, the Bloc Québécois cannot support this bill, because it does not deal with the employment insurance issues. We have had many debates on the EI program since I first came here, in 2004. Moreover, many studies were done with a view to reform the employment insurance system. But today, we are finding out that what the Conservative Party is proposing does not in any way help the majority of workers who lose their jobs. Bill C-50 does not deal with the real problem, which is of course the accessibility issue.
Did this Conservative government really want to help the thousands of workers who need support during a crisis such as the one that we experienced and that we are still experiencing? According to the OECD, the crisis is far from being over. The unemployment rate could still go up a few points before the end of 2010. The government is not helping these workers, because it is not ensuring greater accessibility to the EI program with Bill C-50. Over 50% of those who lose their jobs do not have access to that program. It is shameful. It is shameful to see all that money being spent on federal programs. Right now, the government is spending billions of dollars. For example, there is a conflict in Afghanistan. These are necessary expenditures, but we are talking about a lot of money. Currently, money is being spent on all sorts of programs, but the government is forgetting a group of people who are facing serious socio-economic needs and who have a hard time feeding their families.
As regards the EI eligibility issue, when these workers apply for benefits, too many of them—even though they paid premiums—are told by Service Canada's employment insurance office that they do not qualify for the program. When Quebeckers are not eligible for that program, what other option do they have?
Seasonal workers have worked a significant number of hours. They have worked for many weeks. However, they are not eligible for employment insurance, even if they have paid premiums. Fifty percent of these workers are not eligible for the employment insurance program. What are they to do? They find themselves without income to provide for themselves and their families. They find it impossible to pay for their homes or to meet their financial obligations and their responsibilities to their children. So, they must turn to welfare. It is a disgrace. It is often painful to see these people who must turn to a last-resort solution, when they have worked for many weeks and, in some cases, for many years.
Many times in our riding offices we have met with people who are in this situation. On those occasions, we have worked with them to try to find ways of overcoming the crisis they are going through because they lost their jobs. It is also a family and social crisis because they have no income to meet their needs. This situation is unacceptable.
Bill C-50 does nothing to solve this fundamental and unfair problem that thousands of working men and women face every day in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada. The employment situation remains very difficult, especially in the regions. For example, in the Mauricie, the unemployment rate has increased by 1.6%. It rose from 9.2% in September 2008 to 10.8% in September 2009. That is an increase of almost 2% in employment insurance benefits. If we believe the figures we have received, and which no one in this House questions, only 50% of these people will have access to employment insurance.
Our regions are withering because of this. People are becoming poorer. The most recent statistics show that Canada and Quebec are losing ground as poverty levels increase here.
I said earlier that very significant activity sectors in my riding and elsewhere in Quebec have been affected. I am talking about the forestry and manufacturing industries that occupy a very large place in the Quebec economy. These sectors have been hard hit by the current crisis but ignored by this Conservative government.
The NDP unfortunately supported Bill C-50, which really surprised me. I have been a member of this House since 2004. I always thought that the NDP was truly a party that defended workers, that it had some serious demands with respect to the employment insurance program and that it wanted to improve that program. We are still talking about abolishing the waiting period, which is something the NDP supports.
With Bill C-50, as proposed by the Conservative Party and supported by the NDP, a new category of unemployed people is created. We are talking here about good unemployed people and not so good unemployed people. Those who were lucky enough to have permanent employment for many years but unfortunately lost their jobs are entitled to employment insurance. And let us generously give them that employment insurance.
However, we must not exclude other types of unemployed people who have lost their jobs a number of times over the past few years. They work in the sectors most harshly affected these past few years by the crisis related to globalization and the crisis in the manufacturing sector. They have lost their jobs or have been going through repeated periods of unemployment for years. Workers in the forestry sector are one example.
In rural areas, a number of workers in the tourism sector, a seasonal sector, have lost their jobs. Why would they not be entitled to a generous employment insurance support program? There is no shortage of money in the employment insurance fund. Nearly $60 billion has been accumulated by the Conservative government, with the help of the Liberals, thanks to the contributions from workers and employers. They have cut off access to employment insurance.
It is not right that, in times of crisis, all this money be taken away from workers, workers among the less well-off in society, workers who have been having trouble finding jobs and whose companies have faced economic difficulties. They have had to rely on employment insurance from time to time. Those who go on EI do not have large incomes. They need support. Bill C-50 ignores these workers who need money to support their families.
In my riding, communities like Saint-Gabriel-de-Brandon, Mandeville, Saint-Alexis-des-Monts or Saint-Mathieu-du-Parc, which are rural municipalities, are experiencing job losses in the forestry sector. The Bloc Québécois has repeatedly called for programs to be put in place to support the forestry sector. Unfortunately, the government, supported by members from Quebec, preferred to invest money to support the auto industry in Ontario, while the people of Quebec were going through a serious crisis in the forestry sector. That is sad to say, but it has to be said.
Many people in my riding have been affected by the crisis in the forestry sector. The measures proposed in Bill C-50 will not help these workers. The president of the Quebec Forest Industry Council, whom we know very well, confirmed it when he said that, in recent years, the majority of forestry workers had been unemployed at least ten weeks per year. These are seasonal workers with below average income.
Did the government think about these workers when it drafted Bill C-50, a bill which, as was pointed out in the House, could have been replaced by a simple pilot project? The Conservative Party preferred to defy this House with a vote of confidence. So, it sought the NDP's support to prevent a so-called election. The bill could simply have been made into a pilot project to help the auto workers. Instead, they wanted to put on a show of support for the unemployed in Ontario. They have major electioneering interests in Ontario right now. That is why they introduced Bill C-50.
Everyone pays taxes and everyone pays into the EI system.
My problem with Bill C-50 stems from the fact that this is an issue of personal interest to me, as a social worker and community organizer who worked for years with disadvantaged groups. This is about fairness and justice for all. This should be a fundamental right for every individual in our society. It should be a duty for all parliamentarians in this House to think about this when they pass legislation, when they implement a measure to support those who have health problems, who lose their jobs, or who live in extreme poverty. We are saying that we must be fair and just to all those in need.
This bill is not fair and just to all. It favours a specific group of unemployed people, because the government thinks they should be entitled to five or twenty additional weeks of benefits, since they meet certain criteria or standards that it defined as being appropriate. As for those other unemployed people who were laid off repeatedly and who had to rely on employment insurance, they do not need additional support, based on this government's values. We cannot propose such things. I hope that those who proposed this bill, and those who supported it, will have a talk with some of their fellow citizens when they go back to their ridings.
There is something in which I have a great interest regarding the EI program. Let us take the example of those who work, but who do not have a health care insurance plan or a wage loss plan, as is the case for many non-unionized workers, such as in the manufacturing sector. If these people have cancer or some serious illness, they are only entitled to sickness benefits for a period of 15 weeks under the EI program. It is shameful. How often do we meet, in our riding offices, workers who just found out that they have cancer, for example? When one has cancer, one must get treated. This means radiotherapy, chemotherapy. It is a long process which cannot be completed in 15 weeks. Yet, these people are only entitled to 15 weeks of EI benefits. What are they going to do after?
Battling an illness involves additional expenses. There are costs related to the cure and the recovery. These people are entitled to 15 weeks for radiotherapy or chemotherapy. If, at the end of that period, they cannot go back to work, what are they going to do if they no longer have any income? They will have to rely on social assistance and they will get poorer. They will have to go into debt. Not only will they have to get treated, but they will end up on welfare and get poorer. Their stress level will increase. It is shameful.
Yet, as I always say in this House, huge surpluses have been accumulated in the employment insurance account. The government has wasted money on all sorts of things and activities which, sometimes, are far removed from the interests of workers. That is deplorable.
Of course, we in the Bloc Québécois refuse to support these mean-spirited, demagogic measures that the Conservatives, with the NDP's support, are trying to impose. The bill proposes discriminatory and partisan measures. A bill was not required. It could simply have been a pilot project. This is petty politics at the expense of the unemployed. This policy is unfair and unjust to those who need help. Therefore, as a member who cares about the needs of the people I represent, I absolutely cannot support a bill that is as incomplete and discriminatory as this one. All Bloc Québécois members will oppose this legislation.