Mr. Speaker, with regard to Bill C-56, which will for the first time give a certain number of rights to self-employed workers, it is rather appalling that the major national parties are taking the credit for doing nothing to improve the living conditions of those who lose their jobs. It is quite surprising. They stated that they brought forward many proposals but at no time did they get together to finally take the next step of reforming the employment insurance program in order to restore its original purpose—to support and protect workers who have the misfortune of losing their jobs.
I am also surprised that two of my colleagues raised the fact that we could rejoice because of this bill and begin celebrating Christmas. I do not think there is anything to celebrate. There is no cause to celebrate, especially not for the unemployed because they will not be in a festive mood. In fact, I doubt that most of them have anything to be happy about, even at Christmas, because a large number—the majority of those who lost their jobs—will find themselves without income or with the small income provided by their provinces in the form of social assistance, the support of last resort.
Bill C-56 is not what is going to improve the situation. The only merit to be found in that bill is that for the first time it recognizes the rights of self-employed persons. Even though they do not have many rights, it is a first step, I would say, toward improving a social safety net that is perhaps, however, not identical to what other workers have. It needs to be improved, but it is a step in the right direction.
Members have been using the term “travailleurs autonomes” for self-employed persons. The term used in the bill is “travailleurs indépendants”. That is fine with me. We like it a lot, even though it also refers to workers who are federalists. But if we talk about workers who are “indépendants”, that is fine with me. The more there are, the better, not independent workers but people who are going to work for Quebec’s independence.
In recent years, the Bloc has never stopped calling for coverage for self-employed persons. In the last two economic recovery plans we presented, there were very specific measures for self-employed persons, particularly in the last one we presented in this House.
Bill C-56 refers to four kinds of special leave, but two of them will not apply in Quebec. Why? Because since March 1, 2005, there has been an agreement between Quebec and the federal government to transfer responsibility for maternity and parental leave to Quebec, along with part of the deduction for premiums that was to be allocated to support that program. Right now in Quebec, about 500,000 workers are considered to be self-employed.
Bill C-56 also provides for access to the program to be voluntary. We shall see whether making it voluntary, with the criteria being proposed at present, does not create problems in terms of genuine protection for those people.
We support the bill in principle for the reasons I stated at the outset. For the first time, it grants rights under the employment insurance scheme for self-employed persons, and in that respect we welcome this initiative.
We very much hope that the government, that is, the Conservative Party, will be open and work with us on making amendments to its own bill.
What also causes problems for us, and we will submit this for debate, is that we were hoping that when self-employed persons were given rights it would also mean granting employment insurance benefits from the point when they found themselves jobless.
An individual who owns a small business or is self-employed may sometimes in fact find themselves with no contract or no retainer so they can continue to work. As a result, they are left without an income. II think this is an aspect that should be debated. Certainly we are going to work to have this bill passed on second reading to make sure it can be debated in committee.
There is also another problem, however. In my view, it is a major problem. That is the entire question of how premium rates are set, which seems to us to be somewhat random. As well, the projected premiums for the benefits that will be made available to these people seems to be much too high.
Remember that the bill is intended to provide self-employed persons with benefits during special leave. There are four kinds of special leave. There are maternity benefits for up to 15 weeks and parental or adoption benefits for up to 35 weeks. We agree on that. The maternity and parental leave benefits are the parts that cost the most, 75% of the total estimated cost. This is a responsibility that Quebec already assumes.
That means the bill does not apply to self-employed persons in Quebec. Only some of its provisions apply. The two provisions that apply are sickness benefits, for up to 15 weeks, and compassionate care benefits for up to six weeks. However, these two benefits account for only 25% of the total cost of Bill C-56.
The members can probably see where I am coming from. Self-employed persons in the rest of Canada will pay their full contribution to be entitled to these four benefits, while in Quebec, they will pay their full contribution to be entitled to only two benefits, representing 25% of the total cost.
Self-employed persons in Quebec are going to contribute as if they were receiving all four of the special kinds of leave I listed, in addition to the benefits they get if they lose their job. There is something very questionable about this.
The answer we are given is that as self-employed persons, they are assumed to be employers as well and the employer’s share will offset their contributions.
Even if we follow this reasoning and add the employer’s share, the final amount is still much less. This even implies that the transfers currently provided to Quebec for maternity leave and parental leave are far too low. That is another debate, though, that we will take up in another forum.
For the time being, let us just say that the cost of this for self-employed persons in Quebec is clearly too high. Some very specific work needs to be done to give us the information we requested. I hope we will get it. We had a briefing two evenings ago with some senior officials. We asked for the actual cost of each of the measures in the bill: the actual cost of the maternity leave and parental leave, the actual cost of the compassionate care leave, and the actual cost of the illness leave. They are nowhere to be found here. We have to refer to the amounts that Quebec pays for parental leave and maternity leave. We conclude from this that the cost is clearly too high.
The coverage that is provided applies to self-employed persons earning at least $6,000 a year. I understand this is to facilitate the accounting rules in regard to taxation. The contributions that self-employed persons make will be determined when they fill out their income tax returns, that is to say, at the end of the financial year on the basis of their income during that year.
This brings me to another aspect of the bill that we need to take a closer look at. Self-employed workers who pay their premiums this year and then take six weeks of compassionate care leave, the purpose of which is to provide end-of-life care, would therefore be making a commitment to contribute for the rest of their working lives as self-employed persons. Yet, participation is said to be voluntary. I can understand that they cannot just make an opportunistic contribution and pull out after availing themselves of the plan. I understand that. We should, however, see if something could not be done differently, because this seems to be going too far.
Those who contribute for one year will be able to withdraw from the plan at any time, provided they have not availed themselves of it. If self-employed individuals join—and let us not forget that participation is voluntary—they will be able to withdraw, as long as they have not availed themselves of the plan. Otherwise, they will have to participate for the rest of their working lives. We should look for a way to come up with a more realistic measure with respect to the type of commitment self-employed workers have to make.
Before yielding the floor to a member from a different party, let me remind the House that, in Quebec, the self-employed will continue to benefit from maternity and parental leave administered by Quebec. Therefore, they will not benefit from this bill like the rest of Canada.
They will be charged the same amounts, which represent 75% of the costs, while Quebec will be assuming the largest part of the costs, given that maternity leave and parental leave make up 75% of special leave costs. The percentages for the self-employed will be reversed. While the federal government bears 25% of the costs, they will have to pay 100% in terms of premiums. The way the Conservatives look at it, this represents 75% of the total cost, and the federal government will be responsible for 25%. We estimate that the self-employed will be paying 50% too much.
This bill also provides that a person who is absent from work because of a work-related injury will be covered. In Quebec, we have a program supervised by the Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail, the CSST, which covers costs and which pays benefits to a person who is absent from work because of an occupational injury or disease. Federal coverage will now be provided, but this will not benefit Quebec, because it has already provided such services since the late sixties. Quebec workers are paying good money for that protection. In fact, it is primarily employers who contribute to the fund, because of their responsibility as employers. Providing coverage in Quebec will not cost the federal government anything because coverage is already provided, but self-employed persons will have to pay premiums to the federal government. This is another point that we will have to examine very closely during our review in committee.
What we need is a comprehensive overhaul of the employment insurance system. As we mentioned, Bill C-308, which I sponsored for the Bloc Québécois, proposes some measures that should be part of this process, including working 360 hours to qualify for benefits, making the 50-week benefit period—instead of 45 weeks—permanent, and increasing the rate of weekly benefits to 60% of a claimant's earnings. Our bill also provides coverage for self-employed persons.
The government would have achieved two things by supporting Bill C-308, ensuring its passage through all the stages, and not seeking royal assent. This would have allowed us to do a really conscientious job and, more importantly, would have been socially responsible, because we would have taken into consideration a number of factors to avoid the aberrations that we mentioned earlier and that will have to be corrected along the way.
So we are going to support the principle of this legislation, as long as we can make the amendments that I suggested earlier. In the meantime, I urge the government and all parliamentarians to also support my Bill C-308, at third reading, in the near future.