Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for Welland.
I want to begin by indicating that New Democrats will be supporting this bill in principle. We have been advocating the need for changes to the Employment Insurance Act, including self-employment, for a very long time, and we look forward to sending this bill to committee in order to consider it fully and recommend some potential changes to the legislation.
For Canadians who may be tuning in, I want to cover some of the key points in this piece of legislation. Many people are self-employed and this will only deal with a very small group of them.
Specifically, this legislation would allow self-employed Canadians to opt into employment insurance programs dealing specifically with maternity benefits, up to a maximum of 15 weeks; parental and adoptive benefits, up to a maximum of 35 weeks; sick leave benefits up to a maximum of 15 weeks; and compassionate care benefits up to a maximum of six weeks. We see this as being a positive step.
As other members in the House have pointed out, the member for Hamilton Mountain introduced legislation in the House to deal with some of the issues regarding employment insurance and maternity benefits.
We have heard members in the House speak about the fact that it is about time this bill was introduced. I want to bring to the attention of the House a report from 1999 called “The human face: unemployment insurance”. In those days it was called unemployment insurance. This was a report put together by the member for Acadie—Bathurst. It is probably no surprise to members of the House that the member for Acadie—Bathurst has done very good work for a number of years with respect to employment insurance.
People say it is about time, but in 1999, as a result of a cross-country tour that the member undertook, one of the recommendations was that insurance must be made available to more self-employed workers. In the report he outlined a much broader perspective than just the kinds of special benefits that we are talking about: maternity, paternity, adoptive, compassionate care and sickness benefits. He outlined a proposal that talked about covering self-employed workers in all categories of employment.
When people say it is about time, it is a sad commentary. It has been 10 years since this report was put together that we are finally seeing some movement on employment insurance benefits for self-employed workers.
We have also heard in the House that there are approximately 2.6 million self-employed workers in this country. That is a significant portion of the workforce. We are talking about workers who have no social safety net.
We are talking about workers who, if they fall sick, are “Tough, out of luck”. If they become pregnant or adopt a child, they have to somehow figure out how to make ends meet if they put their business on hold. If they have a child who becomes ill, as the member opposite pointed out, they have to find some other way to cover their expenses when they need that very important family time to look after that sick child.
We are also talking about many self-employed workers who are not self-employed by choice. In an economic downturn, many workers lose their employment. They lose the good paying jobs that they have come to rely on for their families.
In my own riding forestry has taken hit after hit after hit, and many of the workers do not want to collect employment insurance, despite the fact that they have paid into it for many years. They want to work hard, bring home a paycheque, and support their families. What many of these workers do when they lose their employment through no fault of their own is look at how they can make a living in their community through self-employment.
Someone recently came into my constituency office in Nanaimo—Cowichan to talk about that very thing. Sadly, in his case, he was going to be completely out of pocket. He had come up with an idea to put together a company and was doing all of the groundwork around it.
He told the employment insurance office that it was going to take him a little longer to make money and asked if he could apply for one of the programs that helps self-employed workers. There are some programs that help self-employed workers start up businesses. Sadly, in his case, because he had already gotten involved in starting up this company, because he had already done a significant amount of work, he was not eligible.
Here was a worker attempting to support himself, asking for some assistance from the government, so he could get his business off the ground and because of the very rigid rules in place around employment insurance, he simply was not eligible.
That is just one example of what happens to workers who are self-employed when they are looking for some financial assistance through a bit of a cash crunch. But I want to come back for one moment to some of the other workers who are being forced into self-employment.
Women are particularly disadvantaged. We find that women are often in contract, seasonal, part-time, self-employed work. In fact, women are some of the most significant business-starters in this country. There are significant numbers there. Under our current employment insurance system, women are disadvantaged. Only about a third of women who pay into it actually collect. On the other hand, we have women who are in non-standard employment, as it is called. This non-standard employment often leaves them ineligible to even pay into employment insurance.
Although we welcome these changes that are put before the House in terms of special benefits and the ability of workers to opt in, we would really encourage the government to actually expand how it is looking at self-employed workers to ensure that there is that social safety net there for them.
I want to touch briefly on the fact that New Democrats have consistently called for a significant number of changes to the Employment Insurance Act. We have seen the erosion of employment insurance since the mid-1990s. What we have seen is far fewer workers being able to qualify. We have seen the benefit rates reduced. We have seen the number of weeks that people can collect reduced.
We have seen some other anomalies in the system and I have raised this in this House before. There are problems with how the unemployment rate is calculated in regions, which then directly impacts on the number of weeks of benefits that people can claim.
In my own region, our unemployment rate is tied to the city of Vancouver. Of course, anybody who knows this country knows that Vancouver Island has a very different labour market than the city of Vancouver. It means that workers in my area collect far fewer weeks than the unemployment rate in our area actually would warrant if it were a more reasonable determination.
We know that there are some significant problems with the current employment insurance legislation. We also have heard members in this House speak about EI premiums. We know that over the years, workers and their employers have paid into the employment insurance fund, which used to be the unemployment insurance fund.
What we have also known is that this money has been siphoned off to pay down the debt. Some $54 billion to $57 billion of workers' and their employers' money has gone not into providing that social safety net, not into providing training and education for workers, not into providing some other benefits that would help an employer become more productive but into the government coffers. I would argue that in any other place, we would probably call that theft.
When people are talking about problems with the employment insurance fund and arguing that somehow or other a small measure for the self-employed is somehow not good enough, I would argue that we should support this measure and actually encourage the government to go further, to ensure that the funds that workers are paying are actually going toward programs that are going to support them and their companies, to look at how we can increase the self-employed benefits, and also at how we look at the overall fund.
I know that there is a lot of good work that has been done both by members of the New Democratic Party and also by the labour movement. I want to touch upon a couple of things that they have proposed in terms of changes that would be helpful with regard to creating a job strategy that ensures people have well-paying jobs and then looking at the social safety net that supports them when they do not have those jobs. One of the aspects I want to focus on very briefly is the fact that we need to ensure that we have well-paying jobs in manufacturing and forestry in this country. There are a couple of ways we can do that.
First of all, we can ensure that we develop sector strategies that look at investments in forestry and manufacturing. We can ensure that the raw resources are processed here in Canada, that they are value added and ensure that we add as much value in order to keep those jobs in our communities. We can also work to prevent plant closures by investing in those plants, helping those companies upgrade equipment, so that they are productive and efficient.
In closing, I urge all members of this House to support this bill at second reading and get it to committee, so that we can have a further discussion around the kinds of changes that we need to see to the employment insurance legislation.