Mr. Speaker, before question period and before the great tributes to our veterans by all parties, I talked about a promise our Conservative government made to self-employed Canadians to set up a system to allow self-employed Canadians to collect EI special benefits for the very first time.
It is not surprising that many self-employed Canadians have been calling on the federal government to open up EI special benefits to them. They want fair treatment from their government, and we agree. We do not want them to have to scale back or stop work when faced with a joyous event, like the birth or adoption of a child, or difficult personal or family challenge, like a serious illness or family crisis.
This was underlined by recent public opinion research which found that 86% of self-employed persons polled supported access to sickness benefits, 84% to compassionate care benefits and 64% to maternity and parental benefits. Those are overwhelming numbers. While I realize it can be easy to get overwhelming numbers of people who say yes to money, and let us be clear, these numbers are yes to money numbers, the overwhelming number of people responding to these questions are self-employed.
They are entrepreneurs, they are business owners, they are service providers who only get paid when they work, when they show up or when their shop is open. This is a demanding life. They know the value of a dollar and they also know the value of each dollar they earn. They know the value of work because they do not get paid unless they work.
They also sometimes just think that life could be made just a little easier. They do not want a handout. They are not looking for free money or special treatment. They want to be treated fairly just like other Canadians, and we can do that.
They know that this opening of access to those benefits is not free. It is not without cost. This system will be largely, if not entirely self-financing. This means that the money for these benefits will come from the self-employed. They will pay in and it will pay out to them.
An overwhelming number of these self-employed Canadians want access to a structure that facilitates the provisions of these benefits to them and they know perfectly well where the money will come from. It will come from them. These numbers tell us that they are willing to pay out that money. The opt-in rates for this system, once it is set up and running, will tell us how much they are willing to pay.
The choice is up to them. The opportunity is theirs. We as a government simply know that it is fair and right to give them that opportunity.
Self-employed Canadians want access to these special benefits so they do not have to make a difficult choice between work and family or their own health and so years of work spent building up a business or professional practice are not lost by life events that, in many cases, are foreseeable, if not close to certain.
As I said, we can make things just a little easier without giving anyone special treatment.
Our Conservative government has listened and is prepared to act by recognizing that such a move is not only the compassionate thing to do, but also the smart thing to do since it will strengthen and support families, which are, after all, the foundation of our society, and allow the self-employed who might otherwise have to leave the workforce to stay fully engaged, keep their skills up-to-date and continue making their own special contribution to the prosperity and competitiveness of our nation and its economy.
Now that we have introduced this bill, here is what Canadians are saying about it. On Tuesday, Richard Phillips, the executive director of the Grain Growers of Canada said that this legislation was very welcomed. He said, “This has huge potential for quality of life in rural Canada”.
He also said this:
—could be the difference as whether one member of the family has to seek off farm employment because now families will have a choice. With over 200,000 farms in Canada, if even 10 per cent of them choose to take advantage of these programs, this could help ensure another 20,000 more young families staying on the land.
Therefore, it is good for farmers. We know our farmers feed our cities. In fact, they feed the entire world. This is something we can do to help them even just a little more.
It is good for small businesses. Do not take it from me, take it from the president of the CFIB, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. It is one of the main voices for the self-employed and small business owners.
On Wednesday, Catherine Swift said:
—the initiative fills a “glaring gap” for people running their own business, especially women. We have a lot of women members. They'd like to have a child and yet abandoning your business is not (an option)
That point is very important. More than full one-third of self-employed Canadians are women. Many self-employed women want to have families, and that number is growing. Women are starting more businesses, owning more businesses and continually increasing their strength of their numbers within the self-employed. The bill would help them.
On Tuesday, Philip Hochstein, the president of the Independent Contractors and Business Association, said:
Many independent contractors work as owner operators, from truckers to drywallers to painters, and with these challenging economic times, the extra security offered with extending EI special benefits is welcome.
On Tuesday, Dale Ripplinger, the president of the Canadian Real Estate Association, applauded the government for taking action to address many of the inequities in the Employment Insurance program faced by self-employed Realtors. He said:
This is an important step to level the benefits playing field for self-employed Canadians....We look forward to working with the government to ensure access to EI benefits for REALTORS(R), which can help balance career and family life.
In a welcome call, Stephen Waddell, the national director of ACTRA, the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists, called on the opposition to support our government's efforts to pass the bill. He said:
This legislation is a question of basic fairness and equal treatment for Canadian workers. We're calling on the, Liberals, NDP and the Bloc to avoid an election and get this initiative passed into law.
David Quist, the executive director of the Institute of Marriage and Family, welcomed the plan, saying that it would allow more parents to be involved in their children's lives.
This is a big part of why we are doing this. Self-employed Canadians want this bill. They want fairness and we are going to deliver it for them.
What are the proposals contained in the bill and why are they so important to entrepreneurs who find themselves in this situation? Basically, it comes down to this.
Under this bill, our government is proposing to do the right thing by giving the self-employed the ability to voluntarily opt into the EI program to be able to receive EI special benefits, which include maternity, parental, sickness and compassionate care benefits.
Self-employed residents in Quebec are already covered by the Quebec parental insurance plan for maternity and parental benefits provided by the government of Quebec and they would continue to be. They could opt in to take advantage of the sickness and compassionate care benefits to be offered by the Government of Canada through the EI program.
Under the legislation, special benefits for self-employed individuals would mirror the current EI program with similar benefit duration periods, income replacement rates, maximum insurable earnings, treatment of earnings and waiting periods.
It is clear that some aspects of the program will have to be adjusted, given the unique circumstances of the self-employed. A good example is eligibility will be determined by a minimum income threshold of $6,000 per year rather than the current 600-hour requirement for those working for an employer.
Should they opt into the program, their EI premiums would be collected by the Canada Revenue Agency, along with their income tax. They would have to pay EI premiums on an ongoing basis for at least one year prior to receiving EI special benefits and these would mirror the relatively low rate currently paid by salaried employees across the country.
Equally important is the fact that, unlike the current practice with the Canada pension plan, self-employed contributors would not be required to pay the employer's portion of the premium, 1.4 times the employee rate, in part to reflect the fact that they would not have access to EI regular benefits.
Self-employed Canadians who begin paying premiums may choose to opt out of the program at the end of any tax year as long as they have never claimed benefits. Once they have made a claim, they must continue to make contributions on their self-employed income.
The changes contained in the bill represent just one element in a much larger, overall effort by our government to ensure the EI program continues to serve Canadians in an effective manner.
A number of EI measures have been implemented through Canada's economic action plan, which seeks to help Canadian workers and their families cope with the impact of the current world economic downturn. This has resulted in a number of improvements to EI involving longer benefits, more efficient service and more support for training.
These measures include providing five extra weeks of EI regular benefits, increasing the maximum duration of benefits as well as protecting jobs through extended and more flexible work-sharing agreements. In addition, the career transition assistance initiative is providing assistance for long-tenured workers who need training to transition to a new industry.
We introduced Bill C-50, extended weeks of benefits for those long-tenured workers, which passed through the House earlier this week.
This is proof positive of the government's commitment to ensure that EI programs will continue to provide Canadians with the temporary income support needed to make ends meet, while they look for another job, and help workers adjust to labour market changes and balance work and family responsibility.
These are some of the measures being taken up by this government to help Canadians cope with the unprecedented world economic downturn.
Recognizing the importance of this issue, fairness for the self-employed, I will vote for the bill so self-employed Canadians can get the assistance and support they need. I urge other members of the House to do likewise.