Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my colleague from Nanaimo—Cowichan for splitting her time, and thank all of my colleagues in the New Democratic Party for the work they have done over a great many years on this file regarding unemployment insurance.
I prefer to call it unemployment insurance rather than using the term for the premium collections of the employment insurance system, which finds itself in a dark hole under the current government as it was under the previous one which let $57 billion slip through its fingers. If a business lost $57 billion, it would be bankrupt, but it seems that we can spend it in other places and forget about it.
I would also like to be on the record as congratulating my good friend and colleague from Acadie—Bathurst. As my colleague from Nanaimo—Cowichan said, he has really led the charge in the House to try to make sure that we look at this whole system in its totality. Over the last number of sessions, we have been nibbling away at the edges of the unemployment system.
Basically, we are making this little change and that little change, not that this is a small change for those self-employed workers out there who are looking for compassionate care and maternity, parental and sick benefits. These are important things for those workers out there now, who at one time more than likely had that protection.
As my colleague said, all too many of them, in my riding as well, who once had well-paid manufacturing jobs are now forced into being entrepreneurs. I know that the pulp and paper makers in Newfoundland are faced with the same thing today. It is not because they necessarily want to be entrepreneurs. Eventually, what they have found is that there are no longer employers there to actually employ them, so they find themselves having to go out there.
What happens to them? The government's own document says that over 75% of the self-employed earned less than the maximum insurable earnings. Yet, if we were to look at those honourable workers in the pulp and paper industry up in the north of Newfoundland, the auto workers in southern Ontario and workers across this country, we would find that the bulk of those workers in the manufacturing sector made more than the maximum insurable earnings. They have now been forced into this so-called self-employment scheme. It seems to me it was driven at them when they least expected it and did not want it.
Here we have workers who indeed would have paid into the system for a long period of time, perhaps 20 or 25 years in some cases. We are seeing that type of worker who has worked that length of time forced out of work and forced into self-employment. One of the major training programs through the EI fund used to get a person to open up their own business. One of the major pushes seen inside of it is to go and do that.
For those who truly want to do that, it is a good thing. However, for those who feel forced and compelled to do it because they have no other options, that is a sad thing. It is a sad day in the sense that the government did not bring forward regular benefits for the self-employed, period, including all of these special benefits, as the EI system calls them, and put them together as a whole and made those workers whole like any other workers.
At the end of the day, they are workers. They work at home for the most part, but they are workers. People say that they own their own businesses, set their own standards and set their own times. Perhaps they do, but nonetheless, they work for a living. That is exactly what they do. Ultimately, we should have looked at that in its totality and protected it.
If we are going to review the system, let us review it in its totality and let us make it work as it once did. We have seen that it has been eroded. Unfortunately, it was beginning to be eroded under the Liberal government. I know that my colleagues down there will say, “Not I, not I. I was not here at the time”, but certainly, the Liberal Party eroded the system when it was in government. There was a $57 billion surplus. They could have covered every self-employed worker in this country for regular benefits and special benefits and it would not have made a dent in the $57 billion surplus. They chose not to.
Now, here we are at a moment in our history where the economy is in desperate straits and workers find themselves on the streets. Self-employed workers who thought that they were going to be able to build a business find themselves unemployed because their businesses have basically failed. We are now saying that maybe we need to build the model now.
I suppose some would say better late than never. The unfortunate part is all those souls who were lost between the time when we could have done it and had the money to do it and today when we are now thinking about doing it for special benefits.
How do we look at all those folks and say to them, “Sorry, we did not do it”?
I think that is a question all of us should ask ourselves. Truly we owed that debt to them and we should have paid it.
Now we need to get on with the work of making this happen. Yes, there are some flaws in the system when it comes to special benefits, and it happens in the regular scheme as well for those we call “employed persons” who work for an employer and have their deductions made at the moment. If they happen to be in an adoption situation they do not get the same time a natural birth mother gets. We do not have that at the moment. They get parental benefits but they do not get the additional 15 weeks.
The government should have included that. It could have used it as the springboard to actually give back to the other workers who worked through the regular employment system and paid regular employment insurance, to make sure that adoptive parents got the whole year off and collected unemployment insurance.
The government should have waived the two weeks. If one is sick, the two-week waiting period should be waived. The person is sick, for heaven's sake.
I can just imagine folks who contract H1N1 and have to be off work because the employer tells them to stay away. They will not get paid for two weeks. They are going to have to wait for those two weeks and they will get nothing for those two weeks.
It is all well and good to say one will get 15 weeks' sick time but the reality is they are going to lose the first two. If they are better, they will come back to work. So they are out the two weeks' pay.
I think we should have looked at that as being an opportunity if the government wished to do that. Hopefully we can look at that at committee, because, as some of my colleagues said earlier today, there are some things they would like to see done and some things they would like to see worked on.
When we look at the package, it is incomplete. It is a good first start. As others have said in the House, the government at least brought something forward. The Conservatives said that they promised it in the throne speech and they will take credit for it.
I am glad they heard the member for Acadie—Bathurst and perhaps they read his report before the throne speech and made sure they added it in.
In 1999 when the member did this report we made a pledge to workers to fix the system.
I worked in that system for a long time as an advocate for the unemployed, going back to 1990. I know the type of system that has been developed over the years and the hardships that they face trying to work through the system as it has changed over the years with the amendments to it, through the computerization of it and all of the other intricacies that we have seen over time. It did not work for workers and it should work for workers.
We need to get our heads around the fact that it is the unemployed that we are supposed to be protecting, not the system, not the collection of the money. Those are important to make it self-financing. However, it is about the system of protecting those who work and who, for whatever reasons, find themselves out of work whether because of sickness or because they are at that joyous moment in their life when have decided to have children and indeed they have them, and they want to be with their youngster, as someone said earlier, to hear the first voice, to hear that first word, to see that first step. All of us who have had the great joy of having children know what great occasions those are.
I appreciate the fact that we have changed the system from the days when my wife and I were graced with twins 27 years ago and she got only 15 weeks of maternity benefits. There were no parental benefits in those days. We have moved forward. That is a good thing.
However we have far to go. We could be doing it now. That is the sadness I see here today. Yes, there is a good piece here to work with, but the sadness is how much further we have to go. The fact is the alarm bell was rung 10 years ago by New Democrats when that report was written by the member for Acadie—Bathurst, and we needed to do it then.
Here we are 10 years later and we are still moving along ever so slowly. That is the great sadness I find with the changes in the bill.
I hope my colleagues are absolutely sincere and genuine in what I am hearing them say today, which is that they believe the system needs to be changed in a comprehensive way. I believe that is ultimately what they said.
If they did say that, I hope we will all be working in unison so eventually we will be making a system that truly works for the unemployed, because it is theirs. It belongs to them. They paid for it. It does not belong to the House. It belongs to the workers of this country and they ought to have what they have demanded of us which is a system that works for all of them under which they are all treated equally.