Madam Speaker, I would like to start by saying that I plan on sharing my time with my colleague, the member for Random—Burin—St. George's.
First, I would like to thank our NDP colleagues and particularly the member for Hamilton Mountain for bringing this discussion before the House. I would also like to say that we plan on enthusiastically supporting the NDP motion because we think that this issue affects a large number of people and has raised a lot of concerns, particularly among people who work in seasonal industries.
My colleague from Cape Breton—Canso, in a question to the minister, said something important. One element of the budget, which we thought was positive, was the idea that the pilot projects that were established in 2005 to calculate weekly earnings based on the best 14 weeks, if that is what the divisor is in the economic region where one resides, was an important improvement. Previously, it had been calculated on the most recent weeks and not best weeks, so there was an unintended consequence of actually discouraging people from taking available work if it were for a day, two days or three days because it had a perverse effect the year after of diminishing the employment insurance benefits people may need at a time of year when they have no work. That was an important step. I am glad that was renewed and that it will be rolled out nationally. That will help Canadians seeking work across the country.
The other important element is the working-while-on-claim provision. It will only be a two year pilot project. I hope that becomes a permanent part of the Employment Insurance Act, especially for people who run a bed and breakfast in rural New Brunswick or an auberge. After the tourist season is over, they often cannot remain open beyond certain months in the fall. They may want to stay open on weekends in November and December, have Christmas parties or host families coming together at that time of year but they cannot find employees. If they do show up for work when work is available, they would be punished at some future time in their employment insurance benefits. I am glad those changes were recognized as having been positive.
A group of workers and employers in my riding, specifically in the Cap-Pelé and Bouctouche areas, worked together to bring these changes before Parliament and before the Liberal government at the time. Rodrigue Landry, co-chair of this committee, and an employee of a fish processing plant in the Cap-Pelé area in my riding, were part of it. There was also an employee from Westmorland Fisheries, who worked with Ronald LeBlanc, and other employers. Aline Landry was also involved. I am pleased to see that this is continuing.
However, I must say that there is an enormous amount of concern across Canada regarding the employment insurance reforms that this government is proposing.
This is a national concern. It is not a concern in rural New Brunswick only. It is not only a concern in eastern Quebec or northern Ontario. These regions will be among the hardest hit by the changes the Conservatives are proposing.
Right here on Parliament Hill there are workers who are in seasonal employment. The people who work in the food service sector, in the cafeterias and the restaurant in this very building, find themselves facing layoffs at times of the year when the food service operation scales down. The government has inadvertently, I hope, ended up punishing people who work very hard on Parliament Hill every day that we are here and have done so, in numerous cases, for many years. These employees will be hurt by these changes.
So, too, will be a lot of very vulnerable persons, often single parents or women, who work in various seasonal sectors of the economy. It is important to remind ourselves that it is not the workers who are seasonal, it is the jobs in sectors of the economy. Up to 25% of Canada's GDP comes from seasonal industries, and it is not only fish processing in my riding, tourism operations or agricultural operations. I am talking about people who work for municipal governments, school boards and sectors of the economy from coast to coast to coast. In every community, there are people who will be hurt by these proposed changes.
There is no doubt: the people who will be hit the hardest by the cuts are the people who work in seasonal industries.
I received an email from a woman named Patricia Fraser who operates a mid-sized landscaping company on the outskirts of Moncton in a community called Indian Mountain. She hires 8 to 12 people every year. The company has been in business for almost 30 years. She does not see, with these proposed changes, how she will be able to keep these very hard-working women and men who year after year do a great job for her company and her clients. She will lose these workers. Her business is threatened. These very changes, Patricia Fraser tells me, will have a direct impact on a very important employer in an area of my riding where there, frankly, are not great employment opportunities.
As I mentioned in a question for the parliamentary secretary, it is a ridiculous idea that people can commute one hour to go to a job and one hour to return home from a place in rural New Brunswick.
Basically, we are going to tell someone living in Richibouctou or in Saint-Louis-de-Kent, an hour from Moncton, that he will have to travel 105 km twice a day, on roads that are exceedingly dangerous in the winter, in order to take a job at a very modest wage, at minimum wage.
Many of the workers in my riding are making $10, $11 or $12 an hour right now. They are not very well paid. If people do not to take a job at 70% of their wages or a job one hour away in Moncton, they will be punished and cut off employment insurance. For them, economically, they would be better off on provincial income assistance programs.
The government is effectively telling people that they will not have access to employment insurance because it will send them an email a couple of times a day about jobs. However, as my colleague from the NDP correctly noted, 20% to 30% of residents in rural Canada do not have access to the Internet or email capacity in their homes. The government is also cutting the community access centres where many people have been able to have access to the Internet. The failure of people to respond to an email about a job in a retail sector an hour away from where they live would lead to their employment insurance benefits being cut off. The consequences of that will be to empty communities in rural Canada.
One of my good friends, Dr. Donald Savoie, an expert in regional development and a professor with a Canada research chair at the Université de Moncton, clearly said that several rural and remote communities will die as a result of these changes.
Maybe the real objective of the government is to make life more difficult and complicated for the people in rural Nova Scotia, or on the outskirts of Newfoundland and Labrador or in rural New Brunswick, in my riding. Maybe it wants to complicate people's lives and the lives of their employers, the people who pay their wages, build businesses and hire people in very tentative and difficult economic circumstances. Maybe the government is telling these people that it is not worth it any more so they should pack up and leave.
The social consequences of those changes will be far-reaching and devastating.
In the small communities that I represent, most of the people who work as volunteer firefighters tend to be younger people, often with families, many of whom work in seasonal industries.These people will be forced to get an apartment in Halifax or move to other parts of the country. The government will say that it is not forcing people to move, but in employment law there is a notion of constructive dismissal. An employer does not actually need to tell an employee that he or she is fired. Rather, the employer can change the person's working circumstances, conditions of work or workplace climate to make it so toxic and so unacceptable that the person must leave his or her job. In law, that is the same as calling the employee in and firing him or her. It is called constructive dismissal.
What the government is doing is constructive relocation. It will say that it is not forcing people to leave, but if people cannot find employment that allows them to pay their bills and look after their family, or if the small business they work for cannot get access to a qualified labour pool and, therefore, shuts down, the economic reality is that constructive relocation will take place and those people will leave those communities. We will not have volunteer firefighters who do fantastic work, not only fighting fires but in performing rescues in these communities.