Madam Speaker, I will be splitting my time with my colleague from Sault Ste. Marie.
It is time for leadership. It is time to help unemployed Canadians before they are literally left out in the cold. Presently, 1.6 million Canadians are unemployed and this winter that number will grow and many will run out of EI and risk ending up on welfare. We have a responsibility to help.
New Democrats have long called for improvements to the EI system, particularly during the time of this economic recession, and we are pleased that the government has finally moved forward. These changes will help workers now and New Democrats are more interested in helping the unemployed than we are in provoking an election. Make no mistake, New Democrats are supporting this EI proposal, not the Conservative government.
The NDP plan for EI of reducing the hours needed to qualify to 360, including the self-employed, eliminating the waiting period and raising benefit rates has been passed by the House, and until now largely ignored by the Conservative government. The changes proposed in this legislation are a step in the right direction, but there is much more to do.
New Democrats believe that the best way to effectively use the balance of power Canadians have given to us is not to force another election but to rather force more changes to EI that would see the government work to enact the New Democratic Party plan. It is the responsible thing to do.
I have heard Liberals and Conservatives talk about their economic management and what they think is good. They toss it back and forth like a tennis ball. One party feels it is a better economic manager than the other.
Canadian workers are good economic managers because they contributed to the EI plan for a rainy day. They learned that from their parents. They learned to save for a rainy day. Their savings plan was the EI account and they contributed willingly and dutifully. They thought it would be there for them when the rain came. The rain has come, not as a sprinkle, not as a downpour, but as a torrent.
Where do we find 40% of those Canadians who contributed to the rainy day fund? They are standing in the rain, shivering, freezing, destitute, and without the rainy day fund that they pledged their money to because it was absconded with. Fifty-seven billion dollars would have looked after this torrent.
Canadian workers are asking where that money went. The unemployed are asking what happened to the money they saved. The response, of course, is that someone spent it and unemployed workers want to know what it was spent on. Was it spent on unemployed workers before them? Of course, the answer is no.
Under the changes of Brian Mulroney in the late eighties, continued on by the Liberals in the nineties, the system was gutted so that most folks did not get employment insurance. They simply had to do without.
As that money simply amassed, someone had the bright idea to spend it, and it was spent. First the Liberals spent the bulk of it and the Conservatives spent the rest. The Conservatives are saying they really cannot afford to look after the unemployed because they are running a deficit.
The last number that the finance minister threw out just last week was $56 billion. If the Conservatives had kept the rainy day fund, they would have a balanced budget and that would be good financial management. Neither one of those parties has been a good financial manager. Workers figured out how to actually be good financial managers because they are the ones who saved.
We owe those workers that money. It was not ours to keep. It was not ours to spend on the things that the Liberal government and the Conservative government thought they could spend it on. The pledge to the workers was to collect it for employment insurance to make sure that when they were unemployed they were protected, that they would receive what was due to them. The pledge was not to have it absconded by someone else who simply spent it on whatever. Unfortunately, that is where we find ourselves.
We should not be debating who is the best financial manager because clearly neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives are good at it. We ought to be debating how we intend to protect those workers who, for no fault of their own, find themselves in this torrent, this huge downpour, standing out there freezing in the rain, looking to us for help. The money might only be needed for a while because workers intend to get back on their feet. These individuals have worked for a long period of time and this money will help some.
However, as my hon. colleague from the Liberals said earlier about the loggers, let me point out what happened to auto workers who got laid off last October for seven weeks and then got laid off again permanently in February. They do not have enough hours between the layoff periods to get a new claim in February. They must go back to October 2008. They have worked for 25 years and have never been laid off before. The government plan does not qualify them.
The government's plan says they had to be laid off and have a claim as of January 2009. Their claim will be October 2008. Yet, they are long-tenured workers. They have worked 25, 30 years at a workplace and never collected a dime from the old UI system, which is what it should still be called, unemployment insurance, because it is about insurance for the unemployed, not insurance for the employed.
What it really should be about is making sure that long-tenured workers are covered. The government is not going to ensure that they are covered. Those people are going to go without simply because a temporary layoff happened in 2008 just prior to a permanent layoff in 2009, for which they will not qualify.
What will it say to long-tenured workers, I ask the government, when it looks them in the eye and says, “We made a program for you. Yes, we know you never collected before. I'm sorry, we put the wrong date. Should we have reconsidered the dates”?
I heard my hon. colleague, the parliamentary secretary, talk about taking the bill to committee to perhaps amend it and look for ways to do some things that can improve it. Indeed, we are going to have to do that because as much as it is well intentioned, it falls short. It falls short for long-tenured workers who indeed fit the scenario I have just laid out. There are other cases, as well, that will fall short of what has been set up.
We need to look at all of those things because clearly workers are looking at us and asking, “Why aren't you helping us? That is your role, is it not, as parliamentarians? Is that not what you told us you would do when you collected our money”? We have an obligation to them. We have a debt to them. We ought to repay that debt. That is the solemn promise we made to them when we collected their money.
I hear the idea that we cannot do 360 hours because they have only paid for a short period of time. I can hear the car insurance companies rubbing their hands with glee saying, “If you buy a new car, you pay your first premium and you crack the car up the following week, sorry, your car insurance does not cover it because you have only paid one premium”.
I wonder how many people have had the great pleasure of having teenage drivers in their households who happened to have a fender-bender and find out, indeed, that their insurance would not cover them because they only paid one premium. Insurance is insurance for a reason. It is there to protect people when they need it. It is not there to deny them because they fell on hard times.
The rules are clear in the EI system. I hear the government incessantly saying, “We are not going to give money to folks who don't want to work. If you quit, you don't get anything”. It is clear. The legislation has been clear for years. If people quit their jobs, they do not collect. If they get laid off, that is not their choice. They do not choose to get laid off because if they did, they would be quitting. When people get laid off, they should collect. That is what insurance protects them against. It protects them from being unemployed.
It is there to bridge the gap and make sure they can get from that period of unemployment to a period of employment because that is what the vast majority of Canadians do. When Canadians are asked if they want employment insurance or to go to work, they say they want to go to work.
Let me explain what the benefit level is. Even if people are making minimum wage in the province of Ontario, let us say $10 an hour at 40 hours a week, that is $400. If they go on employment insurance, they do not get $400. Why would they stay home to get 55%, basically $225 or so a week, rather than $400 if they are working? Clearly, no one goes home for less just because they can collect a cheque. People want to work, they will continue to work, and Canadians are proud to go to work. It is our obligation to make sure we see them through these hard times.
We expect this to pass with some changes and we expect the government to bring forward more EI changes that are going to benefit the laid off workers who are waiting and looking to the government to say when it will bring it forward. They need it, they need it now. Let us get on with the job of doing it.