That, in the opinion of this House, the government must address the alarming growth in the number of unemployed Canadians and the increasing number of Employment Insurance claimants; confirm its commitment to a social safety net to help regular Canadians through tough times and bring forward reforms to Employment Insurance rules to expand eligibility and improve benefits, including:
(a) eliminate the two-week waiting period;
(b) reduce the qualifying period to a minimum of 360 hours of work, regardless of the regional rate of unemployment;
(c) allow self-employed workers to participate in the plan;
(d) raise the rate of benefits to 60% and base benefits on the best 12 weeks in the qualifying period; and
(e) encourage training and re-training.
Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time this morning with the member for Acadie—Bathurst.
Let me at the outset thank the Canadian Labour Congress and its affiliated unions for being tireless champions of working people in this country and for making EI reform a cornerstone of its campaign to ensure that the involuntarily unemployed will not be forgotten in the new investments that are to drive our economic recovery.
The motion that is before us today is a testament to its dedication and determination. I am proud to table it in this House on behalf of all of the hard-working Canadians who now, more than ever, need the government's support.
I do not think there is anyone in this House anymore who would not acknowledge that our economy is in one of the worst recessions since the 1930s, but since we are also not yet prepared to use the D word, depression, to describe the current state of the Canadian economy, perhaps we could all just agree that we are in the great recession.
As leaders throughout the G20 have acknowledged, at times like these, history teaches us that governments have a critical role to play in protecting the jobs of today, creating the jobs of tomorrow, and helping the innocent victims of this economic crisis. Unfortunately, the Conservative government in this country has only turned its mind to part of that challenge.
New Democrats have detailed the shortcomings of its budget in great detail and I do not have the luxury of time to repeat all of those arguments here. Suffice it to say that neither the government nor its Liberal allies, who supported the budget, believe that the economy is designed to create better lives for all. Rather, they believe that the economy is designed to create higher profits for the few.
If that is the premise that underlies their plan to bring Canada back to economic health, then it should come as no surprise that the plan would be all but silent on helping the innocent victims of corporate restructurings, plant closures and layoffs.
It speaks to an ideological predisposition to view it as a moral hazard to provide too much assistance to unemployed workers. That is why the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development is on the record stating, “We do not want to make it lucrative for them to stay home and get paid for it--”. This is from the minister in charge of EI. It is absolutely shameful.
Darcy Rezak, managing director of the Vancouver Board of Trade, expressed the same sentiment about EI's purported erosion of Canadians' work ethic even more bluntly:
Improved insurance always carries with it a moral hazard. We could see more unemployment because the richer benefits would make some people choose to stay on EI instead of moving to where work is available or taking lower paying jobs.
That may be the logic of the right, but it is completely out of touch with reality. I would invite members of the government, and indeed of the Liberal Party, all of whom supported the federal budget, to come to my hometown of Hamilton.
This week, 1,500 additional workers lost their jobs at U.S. Steel. It made the national news, but sadly, that is just the tip of the iceberg. There were earlier layoffs at U.S. Steel and there were layoffs at National Steel Car, Tinnerman, Stelwire, MultiServ, Samuel-Kent, Tamarack Lumber, Triple M Metal, Global GIX Canada, Decor, Samuel Plate Sales, North American Tillage Tools, Georgia-Pacific and HD Industries.
These are just the layoffs since April of last year and only in plants organized by the United Steelworkers. They do not include the jobs lost in nursing, the auto sector, small manufacturing, the service industry, health care, construction, or any of the hundreds of non-unionized workplaces that make up our complex local economy.
Across the nation, we lost 129,000 jobs in January of this year alone, but these newly unemployed workers in Hamilton and right across the country are not mere statistics. They are the innocent victims of decisions made elsewhere. They are family members. They are consumers who support our small businesses. They are property taxpayers who support our municipalities and they are income taxpayers who support our schools and health care system. They deserve the attention and support of the government.
It is not just New Democrats who are saying that. Economists of all stripes agree that we must pay attention to the victims of this recession. They all agree that a crucial component of charting the road to economic recovery is to provide support to those who have lost jobs through no fault of their own.
In fact, they eloquently make the case that employment insurance is a key macroeconomy automatic stabilizer. EI benefits are spent in local communities and provide the economic stimulus that stabilizes hard-hit communities. EI benefits stabilize individual and family incomes, something which of course is also critically important for women's equality, and EI benefits provide the much needed temporary income support for active job searching or training.
It is for all of these reasons that the motion before us today is so critically important. While we criticize the government for not having included meaningful employment insurance reform in its budget, we in the NDP firmly believe that in order to be an effective force in this House we cannot just oppose, but we must propose as well.
The proposition before the House today invites all members of Parliament to recognize that the budget further victimized the already innocent victims of this recession by ignoring their need for support and invites us to correct that wrong now by adopting comprehensive EI reform.
The motion itself is very straightforward. It simply seeks to take some concrete steps in expanding EI eligibility and improving benefits so that we can stop the fraying of Canada's social safety net.
First, the motion calls for the elimination of the two week waiting period. The Prime Minister disgraced himself by suggesting that workers should consider this the deductible on their insurance. The Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development then added insult to injury by suggesting that the government needed those two weeks to ensure that laid-off workers were not trying to cheat the system.
We are talking about a benefit that is paid to the involuntarily unemployed. Their rent and mortgage payments cannot wait two weeks. The empty stomachs of their children cannot wait two weeks and their benefits should not have to wait either.
The second thing the motion calls for is a reduction and standardization of the hours of qualification to 360 hours of work. Compared to previous recessions, EI today will leave many in the cold. As of October last year, less than half of the unemployed, 43% to be exact, qualified for EI benefits. Only 32% in Ontario and 35% in B.C. Only 40% of men collect and an even lower 32% of women get any support from EI.
While it is true that some unemployed will always be ineligible for EI, perhaps because they are new entrants to the workforce, the main reason for these numbers is the grid. EI operates under an inordinately complex system of rules that bases eligibility and the duration of benefits on the local unemployment rate. Currently, the range is anywhere from 420 to 910 hours. That system is neither equitable nor accessible and it is high time that Canadians from coast to coast to coast were treated equally.
Third, the motion calls for self-employed workers to be allowed to participate in the plan. That part of the motion is plainly self-explanatory so I will not spend a lot of time on it here. Suffice it to say that it would make a profoundly positive difference for thousands of Canadians and especially women who operate the small businesses that we count on to drive our economy in good times, but they are now being caught up in a tsunami of job losses that is cascading across our country.
The fourth part of the motion calls for an increase in the weekly benefits that unemployed workers would receive. Specifically, it calls for the benefits to be based on the best 12 weeks of earnings before a layoff with the replacement rate of 60% of insured earnings. By adopting the 12 week criteria, we can eliminate the benefit reductions that often result from shorter hours before layoffs. By raising the benefit levels to 60%, we may begin to catch up in real dollars to the benefit levels that were being paid before the then Liberal government tinkered with EI in the 1990s. The current maximum rate of $447 per week has been heavily eroded by inflation. The equivalent in 1996 would have been $604. If we want EI to be a stabilizer in this recession, it is time to adjust the rates.
Finally, our motion speaks to the need for training and retraining. Contrary to the minister's assertion, EI is not so lucrative as to make workers want to stay at home. Quite the opposite, they do not want to stay at home, they want to work so they can save their home. But our economy is in transition and we must provide and support the training opportunities that will allow workers to participate fully in the jobs of the new economy when this recession is over.
I know that the set of proposals is not free of costs, but it is an effective form of economic stimulus and it is the most effective way to help the victims of this economic crisis. Failure to act now will simply download the costs to municipalities and ultimately to property taxpayers, a trend we are already seeing in Hamilton as workers ineligible for EI turn to social assistance to support their families.
For years, both Liberals and Conservatives have misused the then surpluses of the EI fund dedicating them to debt and deficit reduction. Last year's budget legalized that theft, but that does not make it moral.
The money was contributed by workers and employers to provide support during economic rainy days. Well, it is raining. In fact, the monsoon season has arrived. We have a moral obligation to restore the integrity of the Employment Insurance Act. I am counting on all members to join with us in the NDP today and support this motion on behalf of Canadian workers.