Mr. Speaker, I am particularly pleased to be able to have an opportunity to speak today on C-280, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act.
As you know, the Bloc Québécois defends the rights of workers who have lost their jobs with unequalled determination here in this House. Our desire to see a thorough reform of the employment insurance system is not, therefore, dictated by circumstances, such as a looming election, but is instead a constant. Since the founding of our party it has been our concern 365 days a year.
The employment insurance program is inadequate. We are not the only ones to say so. The OECD, the C.D. Howe Institute, the TD Bank, all of the labour congresses and workers' coalitions, and many others, are unanimous on the need to reform this program of worker protection, particularly in a period of economic crisis.
By beefing up this anemic program, the government would be killing two birds with one stone. First, it would be helping the hundreds of thousands of men and women who lose their jobs and find themselves ineligible for benefits and are therefore forced into the untenable position of having to find a new job in tough economic times. Second, as if the first point were not sufficient, we need to realize that EI benefits constitute one of the best ways to stimulate the economy, twice as much as any tax reductions, of course. Yet all that would be needed to significantly improve the employment insurance program is a mere fraction of the amount the government has distributed as income tax reductions.
I should make it clear from the start that I am absolutely in favour of the principle of this bill, as my opening remarks ought to have made clear. It contains a number of measures that we in the Bloc Québécois have been proposing for some time. I would, however, like to express at least some of the reservations I have about the bill.
Unlike the motion introduced in this House by the NDP on one of their opposition days, this bill does not include any measures to increase the rate of benefits to 60%, but rather maintains it at 55%. For the Bloc Québécois, such an increase is absolutely crucial and that is why we are suggesting that the committee take a closer look specifically at this matter and that the rate be adjusted to 60%.
In addition, concerning subclause 7.1, the bill refers to a relaxing of the eligibility criteria for people who have violated the rules of the EI system. We are in favour of such a measure, but the new criteria appear rather arbitrary. At the very least, clarifications are needed concerning how thresholds are established in the bill.
Apart from those two reservations, as I was saying, we fully support the principle of this bill. I would like to discuss the measures it proposes one by one.
First, setting the minimum eligibility threshold of 360 hours to qualify for regular or special benefits will be particularly beneficial to the workers who are currently unable to exercise their rights, even though they have paid into the system, day after day and week after week. At this time, that threshold varies between 420 and 910 hours. That is much too high, and that is the main reason why so many unemployed workers are excluded from the coverage offered by the system.
These rules penalize seasonal workers in particular, who experience the spring gap that some call a “black hole”, that is, that time of the year when they find themselves with no income, while they wait for their work season to return. The rules also penalize those who hold unstable jobs or work in non-standard employment. Many such workers are women, including single mothers who already have difficulty making ends meet, and who increasingly bear the brunt of these misguided policies.
With the number of hours set at 360, which the Bloc has long called for, an estimated 70% to 80% of unemployed workers could collect benefits, and the level of coverage would be returned to what it was 20 years ago. It has to be said, the most urgent difficulty with the employment insurance system is the coverage it provides to workers. In fact, in 1989, or 20 years ago, the claimant/unemployed ratio, used by everyone except perhaps the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, was 84%. Today, according to the most recent estimates from the chief actuary of the Employment Insurance Commission, it is 46%. What is the reason for such a dramatic drop?
We have no choice but to lay the blame at the feet of the Liberals who, in the 1990s, literally cut off access to the system by making the eligibility criteria so stringent that almost 40% of workers were excluded. In many cases, it was the same Liberals who today denounce the unfairness and express outrage after finally opening their eyes to the reality that they created. But as the saying goes, only a fool does not change his mind. Popular wisdom will now suggest that the fools have been joined by the Conservatives who, on the surface, despite the combined efforts of the opposition parties, do not seem to see the obvious: the employment insurance system is inadequate.
There are so many problems with the system, and that is why the member for Chambly—Borduas introduced Bill C-308, which would make major changes to the system to turn it back into what it is meant to be: a real insurance plan rather than a tax by some other name, as it was under the Liberals, or a way to punish the unemployed, as it is under the Conservative government.
One of the punitive elements in the system is the waiting period, which is absolutely unjustifiable because it is based on the idea that claimants are all potential fraudsters.
I want to make it clear that eliminating the waiting period would not mean paying out two extra weeks. It absolutely does not conflict with adding five weeks to the maximum benefit period. It would just eliminate the very long and very unnecessary two-week delay before people receive their benefits.
Imagine a worker who suddenly loses his or her job—that is not hard to do—and who has to wait 60 days for the claim to be processed—which happens all too often—and who then has to wait another two weeks before collecting his or her first employment insurance cheque.
The statements made this afternoon in oral question period by the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development are totally incorrect. It is not true that 82% of contributors to the plan can receive employment insurance. In the latest report on employment insurance coverage, the department's figures were much gloomier. In fact, barely 68% of contributors had access to EI benefits. That is completely unacceptable.
The minister compared the employment insurance system to a private system, which is rather cynical because she reduced the state's role to that of a corporation motivated solely by financial gain.
Following that logic, it would mean that an insurer could decide not to compensate 32% of its clients. Nobody would stand for that kind of attitude. Such a company would be accused of scandal, fraud, theft and mean-spiritedness, and with good reason.
As a member of the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, I can also add that all the witnesses we have heard since I have been sitting on that committee—all of them, without exception—have called for EI reform and a complete overhaul of the system, so that it will actually help them, especially in these tough economic times.
In closing, I would remind the House that the Bloc Québécois has once again proposed an economic recovery plan. Our plan is costed, realistic and pragmatic. It would fix the holes in the social safety net, restore confidence, stimulate employment and investment, support Quebec and the provinces and stimulate strategic spending on things like measures to reduce oil dependency.
I invite all parliamentarians to read it. Unlike others, members of the Bloc Québécois do not hide when it is time to take a stand on ways to get Quebec and Canada through the economic crisis.
Our plan will reassure workers who lose their jobs by providing them with a more accessible and generous employment insurance program, and it will stimulate household spending by enabling workers who have lost their jobs to get the benefits they need to keep the economy going.
I believe that the measures in Bill C-280 will help achieve those same goals, so it is my great pleasure to support this bill.