Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise today to debate Bill C-56, especially since we were able to avoid a strike with CN. I am very proud to have played some role in that and I am glad to see that things were dealt with amicably.
At the outset, the Liberal Party supports the bill.
I want to talk about a number of issues in the bill that I think could be improved and need to be identified. However, I want to start off by talking a bit about who we are talking about in terms of the self-employed. It is a bit of a nebulous picture. A lot of people think of people who may be working out of their house, doing part-time or contract work, et cetera.
I asked the department to do a bit of an analysis for the committee on who these people were, especially when looking at it from the perspective of gender-based analysis for women. According to the figures for 2008, the majority of self-employed workers are male, or approximately 65% of them. Males represent approximately half of the salaried workers in that area.
Self-employed workers tend to be older and about one-third of them are women of childbearing age. This is also an interesting difference between males and females in this area. We know in the part-time worker area, the vast majority are women and a smaller number of them are males. In the self-employed area, it is the other way around.
It is also important to note that 64% of self-employed people are married, but few of them have a spouse with non-wage benefits. That is an interesting thing to look at as well. Again, it is interesting to note that, of the self-employed, women tend to earn less than men do. On average, women earn about $38,000 and men earn about $64,000. There is a big disparity in terms of what they do.
When we look at the kind of work they tend to do, it is interesting because women tend to be involved in self-employed work that has more to do with social and community issues, whereas men tend to do things that have more to do with industry, et cetera. That does not mean to say that women do not do that, but this is a bit of a different breakdown and it may account for some of the difference in income.
Also important to note is that more women than men tend to work out of the house. More men tend to work outside of their homes, which means they have offices and possibly staff and are spending a great deal more time running their self-employment like a small company. Women are probably mixing, looking after their children, caregiving for children or family and working out of their home, thereby earning considerably less.
These are interesting differences to note as we look at this legislation and how it will perform in the long run. It is very important to ensure that it benefits all people who need benefits under this program.
For quite some time now, the National Liberal Women's Caucus has advocated for covering the self-employed in the area of parental leave, compassionate leave, sick leave and so on. For the last three pink books, as we call them, or our policy on action plans for economic security for women, this has been recommended consistently.
In addition, the Standing Committee on the Status of Women has done a study on the self-employed. I will come to that in a moment when I talk about the impact on women and this structure versus any other. I will get to that a bit later. At this point, I want to clarify some other things with respect to the differences between self-employed men and self-employed women.
There is quite a difference in the kind of work they do, the number of hours they spend at work outside of the home and their income levels. Women tend to earn a lower income than men do. It is quite a considerable gap. I think that will have a great deal of impact on how this works.
With regard to the actuarial work that was done on this bill, it is my understanding that the chief actuary really did not do direct work on it, at least that is what I understood when I talked to him. This was the information we received.
Under the bill, participation would not be compulsory. It would be self-selecting or, in other words, entirely voluntary. People could actually opt out after one year if they had not collected any money. They could opt in to stay in, but that would not be mandatory.
The Standing Committee on Status of Women did a study. All the experts who presented at standing committee said that if it were not mandatory, it would not work actuarially, that it would not be self-sustaining or self-sufficient.
We posed those questions at committee. Officials told us that this was doable and workable. However, I do not think the chief actuary was quite so unequivocal on his statements when we spoke.
Since it would be totally voluntary, it is more than likely that people who would use it would be women who were expecting children, or where members of a family were not well and caregiving was needed. They may be more likely to opt in but others may not do so. I asked the actuary if this would not be a problem as there may not be enough people and this would result in the fund not being self-sufficient.
We must keep in mind that the premiums paid by those individuals who opt in will cover only their own premiums and not those of the employer, meaning the employer portion would be covered by the EI fund. When I raised this issue, an official admitted there could be a shortfall as a result of this but it would be monitored. My concern with that is a shortfall would obviously be subsidized by the EI premiums, not by the government's central fund. These premiums would be contributed by working people.
This brings me to another aspect and it is the fact that the majority of people who work part-time are women. A lot of these women pay into EI all the time. They cannot access parental leave benefits and so on, but they have children and they have to work to make a living to keep their home stable, et cetera. They in effect would be subsidizing the self-employed without ever being able to benefit from the fund. That is a bit of a concern.
Teachers who do not work during the summer are not able to accumulate the required 600 hours under the plan. I received a letter from a constituent a couple of days ago indicating that she was unable to access the fund. She asked why this was the case.
The bill is necessary and we will support it. I would like the government to take a look at this area. Our party has taken the stand for quite some time that accessibility to EI needs to be 360 hours. That is where it would become really accessible to all those who really need it, especially when we look at the gender issue. The fund would then become accessible to part-time workers, most of whom are women, and also professionals like teachers and others who would have difficulty otherwise.
Under this structure, the minimum requirement would be earnings of $6,000 in a year. I am not quibbling with that, but as I pointed out earlier, men who are self-employed tend to earn a great deal more than women so they would probably reach the $6,000 within a month or two of work in a year. Meanwhile, women would have to work longer, and that is fine, but some women would be left out.
I asked the department to do a gender-based analysis on this particular bill, as I did with regard to the previous EI bill, the extended weeks of pay legislation. If there were a proper, thorough, gender-based analysis done on the EI system to enable us to see what is truly the impact on women in this country of all demographics and using proper desegregated data that is available from Statistics Canada, that would take us a long way to having legislation that truly reflects the needs and does not leave people out. This is a whole area that is extremely important that we discussed at committee. I have raised this many times before, and I raise it again because it is of great importance to women in this country.
With respect to the actuarial cost and the strength of that, it is important that the government have the chief actuary do a proper actuarial analysis of the bill to see what shortcomings and shortfalls they expect to have. Whatever shortfall there is should probably be funded through the central government, as opposed to the EI fund.
The other part that is very important to note is on the premiums that will be paid by self-employed Canadians. I am not suggesting or impugning any negative or wrongdoing. I think probably it was quite inadvertent, but certainly there is a mistake with the legislation with respect to the premiums that would have to be paid by citizens of Quebec in this area. It looks as though they will end up paying a great deal more.
The former chief actuary in fact came to committee to point that out to us. We unfortunately found this out at the end, when we were doing clause-by-clause. So it was not possible to try to amend the bill at committee, but I would encourage the government to amend the bill and fix that problem prior to the bill leaving the House. I would love to see that happen, because I think it is very important that it be done. It would be unfair and it is an error that needs to be fixed, and I would hope that the government would do that.
As I said, I am not suggesting that this was intentional. This was probably an error. It is simply an error that needs to be fixed. I would like to see that happen and I hope the government will do that very quickly.
At this point I just want to go back to the amount of money and the amount of time and the opting in and out. I know that people can opt out of self-employment if they have not used it at the end of the year. I am not sure how much instability this will create and to what extent, and also paperwork. For people who are in or out of the system at different times and then having to wait and maintain all of that, I think that would cause some instability.
I feel that the program would be much more stable and much stronger if it were a mandatory program. We had experts at the Standing Committee on the Status of Women. It was very clear that they felt that the program would not be viable or stable if it were not made a compulsory program, because some people would benefit and others would not.
It is important that the government, once the bill is passed, do a thorough evaluation of the bill, probably within a year or so of the bill being in place, and ensure that the potential weaknesses that it might have are fixed earlier rather than later. I would not want us to find, a year or two or three from now, that we have been carrying a deficit and that it is not a self-sustaining program in terms of finances and in terms of who is benefiting.
As well, it would be interesting to see how it works out with the information that I discussed earlier with respect to self-employed women versus self-employed men, because again, there is a disparity and a difference that needs to be watched very closely to ensure that all self-employed people who obviously need this program benefit. There has been a great deal of interest, a great deal of pressure, and a great deal of debate for some time now.
As I said earlier, the National Liberal Women's Caucus has for some time advocated for this. We are glad to see that in fact it is now before the House.
As I said earlier, we support the bill but there are some areas that I believe need to be looked at and addressed, because without that we do not have a bill that is as good as it can be. I would also like to see the bill be self-financing, self-sustaining, and the only way that can happen is if that kind of analysis is done long before it goes forward.
Just before I finish, I would reiterate that the $6,000 that is the minimum is not an area I am quibbling with; it is not an area that is of concern. That equates to about 600 hours. I am not quite sure how they came to that particular number. At about $10 an hour, 600 hours of work is $6,000. I understand that it would be difficult to be able to monitor hours, to some degree. It would be difficult for someone to be able to ensure that the self-employed are not in any way, shape or form hiding hours or what have you.
The $6,000, in and of itself, is not the only parameter that I would like to see. I would like the government to take a look at the hours of entrance as opposed to just the money, the income. The $6,000 is something that I suppose some self-employed men and women could earn very quickly and the 600 hours could take longer. However, I am focusing on the hours because, for me, it is very important for accessibility. As I said, there are part-time people who are paying EI all the time but cannot access any of the programs that we are now talking about in this House and bringing forth for others.
There are teachers who do not work through the summer but do not build up 600 hours easily and therefore are also not eligible. The case that I received in my office is an adoption case where the parent cannot access benefits for that very reason.
Therefore, I would encourage the government that once this bill is passed, and if they amend it earlier that would be great, to really, truly look at the accessibility of it and look at the 360 hours for accessibility, because that in fact would allow part-time workers, most of whom are women, to access it.
Employment insurance is not a luxury. It is not something that we receive as a top-up on some other income. For most families in this country, it is keeping body and soul together. It is keeping a roof over their heads. It is paying their rent and keeping food on the table for their children. It is very critical that employment insurance not only be a strong system but also that it does not leave people out.
Unfortunately, poverty in our country is still very strong, especially now with the downturn in the economy. While the economy is picking up, the reality is that it is a jobless recovery. Whether we like it or not, no matter which way we look at it, that is the reality. In Toronto, my city, the unemployment rate is the highest I have ever seen. Probably, realistically, it is somewhere around 15%, maybe even a bit more. It is very high.
For people who are struggling to survive, to pay rent and to get their jobs and their training, EI is a huge piece of our safety net. A strong EI gives people a chance to be able to rebuild their lives, which then gives them access to training, and so on.
The other thing, before I finish, that is very important and most people forget is that 80% of caregiving in our country is done by women. This talks about parental leave and compassionate leave, but women do 80% of the compassionate leave and they are subsidizing all the rest of the economy. This is why it is very important to me that the government review that aspect of the bill.
We support this bill, and I would hope that the government, in partnership with us, will actually look at some of those areas that need to be addressed.