Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin by thanking and congratulating my colleague, the member for Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, for the work that she has done to bring forward this bill. It is something that we in the NDP are so proud to bring forward and to show leadership on behalf of so many Canadians who are living in such a difficult situation during these times.
This bill, that has been brought forward in this House, comes down to a fundamental question of justice. It is about ensuring that there is justice for people who have lost their jobs, not only as a result of this economic downturn but who lose their jobs even at the best of times, people who day in and day out work hard, pay into an employment insurance fund that they expect to be there when they fall on hard times.
The sad story here is that many Canadians are never able to access this fund. In fact, more than 50% of Canadians are unable to access a fund that they invested in time and time again. That is why we are proposing to deal with some of the major pieces attached to the employment insurance fund that would help and support more Canadians when they do fall on hard times and lose their jobs.
We are asking the government to implement a lowering of the threshold for claimants to 360 hours in order for them to be able to access EI. This is not only the right thing to do at this time of an economic downturn but this is the right thing to do at all times. This in fact reflects the challenges and the situation in which so many Canadians live.
I would like to talk a bit about some of the groups that stand to benefit particularly from changing the regulations of EI so that it is more accessible to them. For example, women are less able to access EI from coast to coast to coast, in part because they often find themselves in jobs where they are not able to accumulate that many hours, whether it is in service industries or part-time work.
It is what is referred to as the pink ghetto, the fact that many women end up working in jobs that, whether it is for lower pay or lower benefits, at the end of the day they are unable to accumulate the number of hours that would allow them to access a fund into which they have also paid.
The second point is seasonal workers. I am sure many of us in the House represent ridings in which much of the economic benefit comes from the hard work of seasonal workers. As the member of Parliament for Churchill, I represent many fishers who live across northern Manitoba, fishers who spend months out on Lake Winnipeg or on lakes all across northern Manitoba, bringing in economic stimulus to their first nations and northern communities.
In fact, I would like to recognize the hard work of elder Harold Disbrowe, who unfortunately passed away this week. He was a leader for the fishers in Berens River, who fought to have the recognition that seasonal workers who pay into the EI fund ought to be able to access it, despite the fewer hours that they often accumulate.
I would also like to juxtapose that to the fact that many of these people work in communities that do not have the employment that so many of us Canadians enjoy in our urban centres. In first nations and rural communities, the economic opportunities often are not there, so people and their families depend upon seasonal work such as the fishing industry.
That is why we need to ensure that when they fall on hard times, whether it is as a result of the drop in exports or whether it is the overall economic climate, they are also able to access the employment insurance fund.
I would also like to highlight the particular situation that young people face. In fact today, we heard that young people are facing some of the highest unemployment rates in 11 years. Young people find themselves working in industries and jobs where they are unable to accumulate the number of hours that, as it stands right now, would allow them to access employment insurance, something that they also pay into.
Is that the way we should be treating our future generations? Is that the way we should be treating seasonal workers who bring so much wealth and benefit to our communities? Is that the way we should be treating 51% of the population, women, who oftentimes are unable to accumulate the number of hours that would allow them to access employment insurance?
My colleague raised the issue of costing. I find it quite rich that the Conservatives, along with the Liberals in the nineties and ever since, have had no problem accessing money from the EI fund to pay off all sorts of things, including giving corporate tax cuts at the expense of workers when they are laid off. What happened to that $56 billion surplus in the EI fund, which was put there through the hard work of Canadians? Where did that money go?
When we talk about the costing of this particular measure, we need to recognize that this would be part of the EI fund. It would not come from general government coffers. It would come from the fund that accumulates based on the money that working Canadians contribute. The EI fund, after all, is meant to be there for workers when they lose their jobs, not for priorities based on whatever the government of the day sees them to be. It is something that ought to be there for workers to depend on and is guaranteed to be there for them to depend on in many ways. We need to ensure the money is there.
It has been referenced by my colleague from Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing that there is a diversity of people, different stakeholders, different people across Canadian society who have expressed serious concern about the commitments that have been made by the government with respect to employment insurance, whether it is people from the labour community, our brothers and sisters in the Canadian Labour Congress, or people in the business and banking community.
A TD Bank economist pointed out that Canadian governments have a poor track record, allowing short term measures to lapse, recognizing that we need to be looking at long term changes to a fund as fundamental as the employment insurance fund to ensure the well-being of workers when they fall upon hard times.
Fundamentally, we need to be looking at restructuring a fund that is so important, not just for the survival of people who have lost their jobs and the survival of their families, but also recognizing that it brings an economic stimulus of, I believe, a 1.6% return on every $1 of EI that is given out. It also prevents people from entering into the welfare system, which, for many people, is hard to come out of.
We need to ensure we are standing up for the well-being of Canadians who have been unfortunate enough to lose their jobs. We need to be looking at measures that are not just short term but are looking at the well-being of Canadians in the long term sense.
I am encouraged to note that our seatmates on the Liberal side of the House are looking positively at these measures. However, my concern is their past track record in terms of dipping their hands into the EI surplus fund.
I stand here to call upon the Government of Canada to recognize that this bill is fundamentally about the justice that Canadians deserve as they work hard, day in and day out, to ensure there is something for the well-being of all of us.