Madam Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to Bill C-56 on behalf of the Bloc Québécois. I am glad to participate in the debate on an issue as important as employment insurance.
Earlier, I listened to the Conservative member list all of the things her government could have done for women. Opinion polls—one came out just today—show that the Conservative Party has far more male supporters than female, and for good reason. The Conservatives simply do not have the will to systematically address women's problems.
On the contrary, the Bloc Québécois does. That is why, day after day in the House, the Bloc Québécois speaks out vigorously on employment insurance issues, particularly since the economic crisis began. The crisis is affecting society's weakest and most vulnerable, those in unstable employment situations. Employees themselves are not unstable, but the jobs being offered by employers are.
The Conservatives' proposed reforms are nothing more than partisan tactics. Consider the previous bill on employment insurance reform—not Bill C-56, which is before us now, but the previous one introduced by the Conservatives—the one they say will help long-tenured workers. So much can be learned from a closer look at this bill that was passed by the House but opposed by the Bloc Québécois. The help for long-tenured workers bill creates two classes of workers. Their definition of a long-tenured worker is a person who has worked for the same company for at least five years and who has not collected more than 35 weeks of employment insurance in the past five years.
We all know that those employed in the tourism, agriculture, forestry and fisheries sectors, primarily in Quebec, who have worked for a long time—for 15, 20, 25, and 30 years—will not have access to these benefits. They are offered seasonal employment that is often unstable, meaning that it is not permanent. It is in some ways permanent because people return to the same job year after year. However, there are always times when people have to be laid off for all kinds of reasons—in tourism because there are no tourists in a given period of the year, in fisheries because of quotas, in agriculture because the weather makes it impossible to work all 12 months of the year, in forestry because of the weather also. This sector has been in crisis for the past five years and it all started with tariffs. The softwood lumber agreement was signed long before this recession began.
The Conservative Party believes that some permanent employees who are long-tenured workers in an industry do not deserve to have their benefits extended by 5 to 20 weeks.
It is difficult to listen to and follow the Conservatives. They are again boasting about helping women and the most disadvantaged with Bill C-56. We see that this is not the case.
The Bloc Québécois will vote for the bill at this stage to send it to committee and to explore these issues. We know how committees work. Witnesses are invited, target groups consisting of those who should benefit and those who believe they could benefit are heard.
Then we amend and improve the legislation. We will see what happens. However, the bill that is now before us, and which will be passed by the House, may be quite different when it comes back from the committee. We have to care about the most vulnerable in our society, but also about self-employed persons. In fact, ensuring that self-employed persons can benefit from the employment insurance program has always been a clearly stated objective of the Bloc Québécois.
As I said, the Conservatives are manipulating public opinion. It is quite something to hear the media convey the messages of Conservative ministers and members. The Conservatives give the impression that they are helping all self-employed persons, as if these people could contribute to the EI fund and be entitled—if they find themselves out of work for a period of time—to EI benefits. That is not the case. This bill is about a voluntary employment insurance program that will cover special benefits. It is important to make this distinction.
When we talk about special benefits, it is important to understand that self-employed persons will receive maternity benefits for 15 weeks, parental or adoption benefits for a maximum of 35 weeks, sickness benefits for a maximum of 15 weeks, and compassionate care benefits for a maximum of six weeks. Since participation will be on a voluntary basis, the program is not the same across Canada. Of course, in Quebec, some of these benefits—in fact the majority of them—are already included in the program administered by the Quebec government. However, this is not an employment insurance program for self-employed persons.
The Conservatives should stop manipulating and brainwashing the public by saying that they will allow self-employed persons to receive EI benefits. A self-employed person who loses a contract will not be entitled to employment insurance. That is not what the bill now before us provides.
I am repeating it again, because this is important. The Conservatives have become experts in manipulating public opinion. They influence public opinion with a statement from the minister or from members, saying that they are implementing an employment insurance program for self-employed persons. That is not the case. This is an employment insurance program that includes special benefits for those self-employed persons who decide to participate in it. Again, the special benefits to which self-employed persons would be entitled are as follows: maternity benefits for a maximum of 15 weeks, parental or adoption benefits for a maximum of 35 weeks, sickness benefits for a maximum of 15 weeks, and compassionate care benefits for a maximum of six weeks.
Again, there is nothing here for a self-employed person who loses a contract and who, after contributing to the plan, wants to collect EI benefits like any other worker who pays premiums. This person would only be entitled to special benefits, under specific circumstances, but definitely not when losing a contract or a portion of his income.
Now that I have cleared that up, it should be evident that this has always been a goal of the Bloc Québécois. What the Bloc would like is to improve this measure in committee, to ensure that we have a real employment insurance program to help self-employed workers who have been hit by the economic crisis like all other entrepreneurs, businesses and employees.
Contract work has become quite popular. To avoid paying different types of benefits or packages, business people are deciding to hire contract workers to cover a portion of their operations. A good number of self-employed workers are on contract. This is very common in the IT world. My son works in multimedia.
In this field, I would say that nearly 100% of employees are on contract. That does not mean that they are short of work, but during an economic crisis, there is less work. So a number of contract workers are currently out of work, and do not have access to EI because they have not paid premiums.
So we must be cautious about what the Conservatives are proposing, as they often manipulate public opinion for purely partisan reasons—I have no problem saying that—and use the media to serve their party's purposes. Sometimes the media are very sympathetic. They know that the Conservatives are using them and they want to do their work well. I will not say the dirty work that the Conservatives want done, although that could be the case. However it should not be surprising that the objective of the Bloc Québécois, the only party that defends the interests of Quebeckers in this House every single day, is to get the bills improved in committee and to provide a real employment insurance program for self-employed workers.
We also have to put what will be paid in perspective because participation to the program will be voluntary. The bill allows self-employed persons to have access on a voluntary basis to special employment insurance benefits, as I explained earlier. They will pay their premiums to the scheme via their tax returns. They will have to make a voluntary declaration in their tax returns or another return stating their income, and they will have to pay a premium per thousand dollars of income.
Obviously some conditions will apply. They will have to earn a minimum of $6,000 in the calendar year preceding their claim in order to be entitled to 50% of their income, as is the case for special and regular benefits. They will have to enrol in their 2009 tax return. So that will be in their next tax return, that they will have to file in February, March or April 2010 for the 2009 taxation year. They will have to enrol in their 2009 tax return to be able to claim benefits in 2010, a year of paying premiums before being entitled to benefits.
In the present situation, that measure could be in place by 2010, based on tax returns for the preceding year. So we are allowing workers to enrol as of now. They enrol and when they prepare their tax return, they pay their full premium for 2009, and this enables them to claim special employment insurance benefits starting in 2010.
We have to question this procedure because the employment insurance fund has forecast a $7 billion deficit in 2010. Will the purpose of the special premium to be paid by self-employed persons for 2009, which will be payable as soon as January, February, March or April 2010, be to top up the employment insurance fund? Obviously we will have to ask ourselves that question.
Workers who want to claim special benefits will have to pay mandatory, permanent premiums to the plan once they declare themselves as self-employed persons. This will be done on a voluntary basis, but those who begin paying premiums can decide to opt out as long as they have never claimed benefits. That is a choice they could make. However, once someone has claimed benefits under the program, they will have to continue to contribute to the scheme forever, or as long as they are self-employed.
The Conservatives tell us that self-employed persons will pay only the employee premium since they do not have access to regular benefits. That will mean that the premium required will be lower than what is required of regular employees who work for companies.
On the question of special benefits, there is the bill that self-employed persons are to have to pay and what is paid out of the employment insurance scheme in special benefits at present. There is already a plan in effect in Quebec, in fact. Special benefits represent about a quarter of total benefits paid by the plan, while the Conservative Party is seeking $1.73 per $100 from self-employed persons. In Quebec, those workers will pay $1.36 per $100 to be entitled to the two least costly components of the bill. They are already entitled to the other measures through the premiums they pay in Quebec.
Obviously there will be a whole debate in committee about the portion paid by self-employed persons in Quebec. According to the documents provided to the press by the government, self-employed persons who live in Quebec will continue to receive maternity and parental benefits under the government of Quebec’s parental insurance plan.
In addition, these workers will now be eligible for sickness and compassionate care benefits through the federal government's employment insurance scheme. If they decide to take part in the scheme, they will have to pay the same employment insurance premiums as other workers in Quebec, where the rates have already been adjusted to take into account the provincial maternity and parental benefits program.
Bill C-56 will only partially apply to self-employed workers in Quebec, since they are already covered by the Quebec parental insurance plan when it comes to maternity, parental and adoption benefits. Therefore, only the sickness and compassionate care benefits would apply to workers in Quebec.
The EI premium rate for workers in Quebec is $1.36. In Canada, it will be $1.73. The difference between the two rates can be explained by the fact that Quebeckers pay premiums for provincial parental insurance. However, Quebeckers already pay more than the difference between $1.73 and $1.36, which is 37¢, although at this time, they pay just over 80¢ to the Quebec system.
There will be a great deal of discussion and debate over whether this scheme will see Quebeckers paying more than the rest of Canada. People will soon realize that that is the case. The Bloc Québécois' goal will be to ensure that Quebeckers never pay more, that the premiums they currently pay to the Government of Quebec are taken into account, and that the amount of those premiums is in fact deducted from whatever premiums they pay as part of the scheme for the rest of Canada.
In all of the Americas, Quebec is where wealth is the most evenly distributed, and this is what we want as a society. Quebec has created programs that we often pay for ourselves. It serves as an example for the rest of Canada, but we are never compensated as much as the others are compensated. That is one reason why Quebec hopes to one day become sovereign. It is not because we do not like our neighbours; it is simply because we have a different perspective of society. This is confirmed every day.
When it comes to the environment, it is now clear that Canada is an embarrassment to the rest of the world. If Quebec were a country, it would have one of the best track records in terms of fighting climate change. Society makes these choices. Quebec developed hydroelectricity and I am proud to say that our hydro network was developed with no federal contributions whatsoever. Quebeckers chose to develop their hydro network without any help from the federal government. If Quebec were a country, it could take part in the carbon exchange, and Quebec companies that have made an effort to reduce their emissions beyond the Kyoto targets would now be entitled to huge sums of money.
Rivière-du-Loup closed a landfill and built a methane capture system, so it would collect $1 million. However, because Canada decided to go it alone, it has deprived Rivière-du-Loup of that $1 million.