Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to speak to Bill C-56, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts, concerning self-employed workers.
I would like to begin by saying, as I have said during other speeches on the subject, that I toured the country to meet with workers across Canada. I went to Gaspé, to Montreal, and to Rivière-aux-Renards. I should mention to the member for Saint-Lambert that her riding is a very beautiful place. I visited all of the provinces—Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and so on—and I went all the way to Vancouver.
That was back in 1999. The Liberals were elected in 1997. I want to emphasize that because earlier, the Liberal member said that the Liberals were the ones who worked on the self-employed workers file. In 1999, I made a proposal to the House of Commons. I would like to read from the record:
The EI program, as it exists, does not take market realities into account. More workers are described as “self-employed”, which is not quite the case. A growing number of businesses are laying off people and then hiring them as self-employed workers in order to avoid having to contribute to EI or to a pension plan. Self-employed workers are not entitled to EI and are practically without social protection. We must take a closer look at what is really happening on the new labour market and explore ways to help so-called self-employed workers contribute to and benefit from the system.
I gave that speech quite a while ago. The NDP will support the bill currently before the House of Commons. In my opinion, it is time to support our self-employed workers, such as artists in Canada and Quebec, hairdressers in Canada and Quebec, and massage therapists, to name but a few. There are countless other categories of self-employed workers who need our help too.
Consider for example parental leave or sick leave. A hairdresser from my riding came to my office and asked how she could take advantage of the employment insurance system. She is a young woman who would like to start a family, but since she is self employed, she will not receive anything. She does not have the financial resources to start a family.
Finally, a bill has been introduced here in the House of Commons today. This bill aims to support people who need maternity leave or parental leave.
I applaud Quebec, which has had a program like this for several years now. It is time for the rest of Canada to have the same thing, through the employment insurance program. This is what people want. Some of the witnesses we heard from in committee even suggested having a separate fund, apart from employment insurance. We heard various proposals in committee.
The unfortunate thing is that the Conservative government introduced a bill for long-tenured workers without allowing us to make any amendments. It is all or nothing, which is unfortunate. Why bother having a Parliament and parliamentary committees and examining bills if the government refuses to be open to amendments and refuses to listen to the people?
This is how Parliament normally works. The government introduces a bill, which is studied in a parliamentary committee. For example, the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities would study the bill. The parliamentary committees' raison d'être is to allow Canadians and Quebeckers the opportunity to testify before the committee and share ideas that could inspire changes in order to create a better bill.
But the Conservative government arrived with an all or nothing proposal. Can we call that democracy? The government will say yes to avoid saying no. If we say no, we are saying no to all those workers who would have had a chance to have a program to help them.
I find that a bit sad. That is their business. The Bloc Québécois wants to vote against this bill. The Bloc members will do what they want, but I am sad for the workers in Quebec, the hairdressers and massage therapists and all those people.
Artists, whom we defended so ardently in the last election, will not be able to decide themselves whether they want to contribute. This is a voluntary program. We have to give other Canadians the opportunity to have it. We can do this together. People should exert pressure. I am sure that the Government of Quebec would know how to tell the Government of Canada that its premiums are too high and should be reduced, as they have been in the case of parental and maternity benefits. It is true that they pay lower premiums than others because part of the program already exists in Quebec.
I sympathize with what members are saying today, but I believe that the bill should be passed.
The government has also truly closed its mind to any change. The reality is that this program is going to cost money. According to the figures we have, there will be a $48 million surplus in 2010. I do not know whether it is million or billion, but it makes no difference, it is still money. We are talking about $57 billion. There will be a $48 million surplus with this program, because in the first year, 2010, people will pay into the system, but will not get any money in return, because they will not be entitled to receive benefits until 2011.
In 2011, a $24 million deficit is anticipated. In 2012, the deficit will be $39 million. In 2013, it will be $56 million, and in 2014, $78 million. These are the figures we have been given.
That is why we proposed that within six months of the coming into force of this part, the minister appoint a group of experts to study the effect and application of this part, or this act. Every year for a period of five years, the group of experts would consult the Canadian public and present to the House of Commons and the Senate a report of its findings and recommendations.
We are not asking for the world. We are just saying there is a new program, we are willing to vote in favour of it, but we just want to be sure there is follow-up to see if we are on the right track. This was supported by the Canadian Labour Congress. It was refused by the government. The Conservatives completely rejected this proposal. They said we needed royal assent. The answer therefore was no.
We asked for something else. I think this should be addressed. They say they want to help self-employed workers. That is what the government was saying earlier. I was listening carefully to the parliamentary secretary, who was saying that her government wanted to help self-employed workers. If that is the case, we had another proposal for being fair to those workers and supporting them.
I was saying earlier that the labour market has changed and that today there are more self-employed workers than ever. There are even more today than there were in 1999.
We made another proposal. Self-employed workers are not entitled to regular benefits. They are not entitled to receive regular employment insurance benefits. That is what it says in the act. Let us say that for more than a year, the worker earned 95% of his income from just one client.
An employee who is fired because his employer wants to avoid paying him benefits, and who is subsequently retained as a self-employed worker, should be recognized as a regular worker for the purposes of employment insurance, and be entitled to benefits, if he has worked 95% of the time for that employer. In this case, the commission would consider it to be equivalent to an employer-employee relationship.
Once again, the Conservatives said no. And yet they claim they want to help the self-employed.
There are two things that would have truly helped the self-employed. The latter are asking that a task force, in the next five years, report to both Houses given that the cost will increase. Even self-employed workers stated that they were not aware it would be so costly. It will cost them $78 million in the next five years. They would like to be given the facts and hear what we have to recommend.
We wanted to amend the bill in order to allow a self-employed worker who worked 95% of the time for a single client to be considered a regular worker. We are not talking about 50% or 25% of the time. If he were to lose his job, he should be entitled to employment insurance benefits.
Once again the Conservatives said no. I find that unfortunate. We have to adapt to the new labour market.
That is clear in the government report. It states that, in 2008, 2.6 million Canadians declared they were self-employed. For a vast majority, it is their sole source of income. That is a large number of people. It means that 2.6 million Canadians and Quebeckers do not have a safety net if they lose their employment, even during an economic crisis such as the current one.
The Conservative government would like Canadians and also Quebeckers to believe that the program they are presenting is the best in the world. It has overlooked a fair number of things. We must do more.
Earlier the Liberals were bragging about the fact that they were trying to help self-employed workers. They were in power for 13 years. From 1999 to 2005, they had enough time to implement a program, but they did not.
When a bill was introduced in the House of Commons to consider the best 12 weeks for workers, the Liberals, while they were in power, voted against that measure. Now that they form the opposition, they are saying that the 80% of women in the workforce benefit the least from employment insurance when they are the ones who need it the most.
Only 32% of women are eligible for employment insurance because the Liberals made major cuts to the program in 1996, when they were in power. That is when they decided that to be eligible for employment insurance, a person needed to have 910 hours of employment. They are the ones who have prevented a great number of women from being eligible for employment insurance.
The Liberal member said that, at the time, the economy was doing well and that only about 6% of the workforce was receiving employment insurance benefits. If the economy was doing well, then why did they make cuts to the employment insurance program?
When they made those cuts, the economy may have been doing well in Toronto, but it was not doing well in Atlantic Canada. Fish plants were closing and there were other closures in the forestry industry. There were closures everywhere. That is when the loggers had to leave the forest.
Back in the days of Liberal spending cuts, the unemployment rate out east was around 20%. They could not have cared less about people in the Atlantic provinces.
Better yet, a former Liberal minister—my predecessor, as it happens—told the Globe and Mail that the government would tame Atlantic Canadians. He called them shiftless and lazy. The Conservative member from Nova Scotia said something similar a few weeks ago—or was it last week—when he said that lazy, no-good bastards in Halifax do not want to work. That was almost the same thing. The Conservatives and the Liberals have the same attitude toward workers.
Today, the government said that it would freeze employment insurance contributions until 2011. But look out, because in 2011, rates will go up. In 2011, there will still be a $57 billion surplus in the employment insurance fund, a surplus that was stolen by the Liberals and the Conservatives. There is money in the employment insurance fund. It is not as though it is empty.
Why will premiums have to go up in 2011 despite the surplus in the employment insurance fund? It is funny to hear them talk. The Liberals dipped into the fund and spent the money over a series of budgets. The government paid off $92 billion of the national debt, but $57 billion of that was taken from workers who lost their jobs.
The Conservatives say that the Liberals were the ones who did it. But they cannot lay all of the blame at the Liberals' feet, because they have been in power since 2006. Who passed the bill in the House of Commons? There is a new commission, but it is only getting $2 billion. The Conservatives passed the bill, but the Liberals were the ones who supported it.
In the end, both parties stole the $57 billion because they legalized the theft. That is what happened. In last year's budget, $2 billion was deposited in the employment insurance fund. Now they say that it will not be enough come 2011. They say that they will have to raise contribution rates and make workers pay yet again for the debt acquired by the two parties that were in power.
They could do something else to help workers in Quebec and Canada. For example, the employment insurance calculation could be changed to be based on the 12 best weeks. Better yet, it should not even have a divisor, because under the EI regulations individuals already receive only 55% of their income in benefits. Even if an individual earned $1,000 a week, the 55% calculation would not be based on the $1,000, but on an amount of approximately $750. So the individual would only receive 55% of that amount.
A motion was moved in the House of Commons regarding the 12 best weeks, but once again, the Liberals and Conservatives voted against this motion, just as they voted against a bill for a 360 hour threshold when it was introduced.
Maybe one day workers—if there are any watching us at home—will realize that the Liberals and Conservatives are not their friends. Maybe one day they will realize. They will say that they are not receiving EI benefits because the Liberals and Conservatives made cuts.
They would have us believe that someone who goes to the employment insurance office to receive EI benefits does not want to work. I think that is shameful and unacceptable in our society.
In France, employment insurance recipients receive 75% of their income. The Government of France says that it pays that percentage because it is the workers' employment insurance program, and it injects money into the economy and the community. It does not label those people as lazy slackers, as the Conservatives and Liberals do. It does not do that.
The NDP will support this bill, but we believe it does not go far enough. Other changes need to be made to EI, and the $57 billion must be handed back over to the workers who have lost their jobs. It should not go to paying down the government's deficit.