Mr. Speaker, it is pleasure to see the bill proceed to this stage.
I am glad to have the opportunity to rise to speak to this important milestone in bringing special benefits under employment insurance to self-employed Canadians. This is one of the most significant enhancements to the EI program in the last decade. It has been a long time coming for self-employed Canadians.
This fulfills a pledge by our Conservative government in 2008 to bring forward EI maternity and parental benefits to self-employed Canadians. A year ago, the Prime Minister said that self-employed Canadians and those who one day hoped to be should not have to choose between starting a family and starting a business because of government policy. They should be able to pursue their dreams both as entrepreneurs and as parents.
In fact, we have surpassed this commitment by also including EI sickness and compassionate care benefits. We do this because self-employed workers deserve to have access to these special benefits. We do this because extending access to special benefits is the fair and the right thing to do.
I think every member of the House recognizes the importance of the self-employment sector in the daily functioning of our economy and of our society.
In over 15% of our labour market self-employed entrepreneurs are a growing influence, not only because of their significant numbers but also because of the wealth of their ideas, innovation and jobs that they generate and create from time to time and year by year.
The self-employed form a diverse group, with widely varying situations and incomes. They include people with small businesses, farmers, construction workers, professionals, tradesmen, those in sales and those who own a home business among many others. Despite their importance, these entrepreneurs do not have the support they need when it comes to the important events of life, such as the birth of a child, adoption, illness and care of a gravely ill family members.
These sorts of events can have a significant impact on the self-employed who have little or no income protection. If they do not work, they do not make any money. Right now, they do not have any of the same EI support measures that Canadians employed by others do.
We are going to change that by implementing a voluntary system. We are following through on our commitment to self-employed Canadians.
It should come as no surprise that our self-employed have long asked for this support. In fact, a large majority of the self-employed want access to these benefits. Recent public opinion research shows that a majority of self-employed Canadians would like to gain access to EI maternity, parental, sickness and compassionate care benefits.
Eighty-six per cent of self-employed Canadians support access to sickness benefits, 84% support access to compassionate care benefits and 64% support access to maternity and parental benefits. The message from self-employed Canadians is clear.
Our Conservative government has listened and we are taking action. We recognize the challenges facing working Canadians as they deal with the dual pressure of holding down jobs and caring for their families. We recognize that nearly a third of all self-employed are women of child bearing age.
Our government knows that families are the foundation of our society. The bill is yet another example of how our government is providing support and choice to Canadian families and people recognize that.
Catherine Swift, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, understands the benefits of this bill. On November 4, she said in the Montreal Gazette:
—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).
We do not want the self-employed to become discouraged about starting families by ever present financial risks associated with running their own business. We certainly do not want their families to suffer because of unequal access to supports that are widely available to most other Canadians.
Given the strength of our country's economy, especially the strength it gets from our self-employed and their businesses as a country, we cannot afford to leave these people out in the cold. Stronger entrepreneurship means a stronger Canada. We need their skills, their experience and their energy and creativity to meet the challenges to come. This is why our government believes these entrepreneurs deserve to have access to EI special benefits.
We also recognize that there is an increasing number of self-employed Canadians who are taking care of elderly parents while also raising young children. The government believes that these entrepreneurs should not have to choose between their business and family responsibilities, whether those responsibilities are for newborns or parents, the young or the elderly.
By giving our self-employed the option for increased income protection, we are allowing individuals who might otherwise have to leave the workforce to stay fully engaged, to stay productive and to keep contributing to this great country of Canada. Not only does this benefit them but it also means that they can continue to make valuable contributions to their communities and the economy.
We are stimulating entrepreneurship and making self-employment more appealing to all Canadians. That is why we are extending access to EI special benefits for the self-employed and why we firmly believe that it is the fair, responsible and right thing to do.
These benefits are significant. They are as follows: 15 weeks of maternity benefits for a birth mother; 35 weeks of parental benefits for parents to care for their newborn or newly adopted child; up to 15 weeks of benefits for individuals who are unable to work because of sickness, injury or quarantine; and a maximum of six weeks to provide care or support to a terminally ill relative.
Under the proposed legislation, self-employed Canadians would voluntarily opt into the program and pay EI premiums on an ongoing basis for at least one year before receiving benefits. To access EI special benefits, they would need to have earned a minimum of $6,000 in self-employed earnings over the preceding calendar year.
The self-employed could opt out of the program at the end of any taxation year, as long as they have never claimed benefits. If they have claimed benefits, they would have to contribute from their self-employed earnings for as long as they are self-employed.
Self-employed Canadians who opt into the EI program would pay the same premium rate as salaried employees. They would not be required to pay the employer portion of premiums, in recognition of the fact that they would not have access to EI regular benefits.
In Quebec, self-employed residents already have access to maternity and parental benefits through the Quebec parental insurance plan. Now the federal government would provide the self-employed in Quebec with the opportunity to gain access to the sickness and compassionate care benefit under the EI program.
Should they choose to take advantage of the program, they would pay the same EI premium rates as employers in Quebec. Rates there have already been adjusted downward to take into account the existence of a provincial maternity and parental benefit plan.
I would like to bring to light an endorsement from an organization representing an important group of self-employed people, the realtors. Dale Ripplinger is the president of the Canadian Real Estate Association. On November 4 his organization issued a press release that it “applauds the government for taking action to address many of the inequities in the Employment Insurance program faced by self-employed REALTORS”.
The organization went on to say, “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, which can help balance career and family life”.
I also have a quote from the executive director of the Grain Growers of Canada, Richard Phillips. In a news release on November 3, 2009, he said that the legislation is “very welcome. This has huge potential for quality of life in rural Canada”. He continued, “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% of them choose to take advantage of these programs, this could help ensure another 20,000 more young families staying on the land”.
It is this kind of thing that allows those who are self-employed and who contribute to our economy to get some benefits that are important to them and their families and ensure that they can continue to pursue their careers and jobs.
This legislation is the most significant enhancement to the EI program in the last decade. It is in keeping with our Conservative government's commitment to make the EI program responsive to the needs of Canadian workers. It is just one of the many enhancements that we have already made to the EI program.
We added five extra weeks of EI regular benefits, helping over 365,000 Canadians while they search for new employment.
We enhanced the work sharing program, protecting the jobs of about 165,000 or more Canadians.
We made unprecedented investments in training to help Canadians receive the skills training they need to enter a new career.
Our government froze EI premiums for two years, which helped employers create more jobs and also kept more money in the pockets of employees.
We added a $60 million investment in the targeted initiative for older workers to help older workers, who obviously have invaluable knowledge and mentoring potential, to transition into a new job.
We also passed legislation recently to provide five to twenty weeks of additional EI support benefits for long-tenured workers, who have worked hard, have paid premiums and are looking to transition into a new job.
Most recently, of course, we have introduced this program, which has been very well received by many.
Our government is protecting jobs. We are helping people get trained and upgraded for jobs. Now we have made changes that allow more flexibility for employers' recovery plans.
We have had the career transition assistance initiative, which has been providing assistance to long-tenured workers who need training to transition to a new industry or occupation. The support under Bill C-50 for long-tenured workers was certainly something that was well received.
All of these ventures demonstrate that our Conservative government continues to make responsible choices to support Canadians now, to support Canadians when they need it, to support Canadians when they find themselves in a difficult time.
With Bill C-56, we are taking steps to respond quickly to the needs of self-employed workers, so that they will also be protected in times of need.
Our Conservative government knows that families are the foundation of our great country. We believe that self-employed Canadians should not have to choose between their family and business responsibilities. They should not be forced to choose between one or the other.
Let us all support self-employed workers for their dynamism and their contribution to our economy. Let us create a stronger, more entrepreneur friendly and productive country in the process. Let us get behind our self-employed and do what is right. Let us do what they have been asking for for a long time.
I would urge all members in all parties to support this bill and to get it through the House at the earliest opportunity.