Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise in the House today to speak in favour of the motion put forward by my colleague from Hamilton Mountain.
There are many grounds for such a motion, but I want to situate the Conservative government's effort to restrict access to EI in a broader and historical context that is as something that is ruinous for our country, that is harmful to so many of our citizens and that has to be abandoned before we lose sight of the kind of country Canadians hope for and deserve.
In doing so, I want to talk about the very real impacts of these proposed changes on the city in which I live. That is Toronto.
Urban communities have a specificity, which warrants special consideration when we talk about employment insurance, and Toronto has a particular place in this story.
I will begin with this proposition, which I hold to be true and the vast majority of Canadians, irrespective of their own economic status, hold to be true.
If there is a symptom of what ails our country, it is the re-emergence of income disparity. I say “re-emergence” because, yes, we have seen these conditions co-exist before, private affluence and largely public squalor, but many decades ago.
Those who previously recognized the injustice of this, and the generation or two that succeeded them, made great efforts to escape such circumstances by erecting barriers against income disparity.
Employment insurance was one of those very important barriers erected for this purpose, but now the Conservative government, freed from the constraints of minority government status, is returning us to that place.
To be fair, we have been trending in this direction for a while now. The current government, in many respects, is following in the footsteps of those that came before it. I have spoken in this House a number of times before about how this trend has reshaped my city socially and economically over the last number of decades.
Periodically, this trend seems to be accelerated. Certainly this was done by the savage budget and EI cuts of the Liberal governments in the 1990s. And, certainly it has been accelerated by the corporate tax cut schedule, initiated by the Liberal government, but gleefully picked up, extended and implemented by successive Conservative governments. Now, with the current government and Bill C-38, the foot is firmly planted on the accelerator, hurtling this country downhill, back to a place we wisely made efforts to escape before.
To be sure, it is not all about what is in Bill C-38. Just two nights ago we were all here in this chamber to witness another assault on free collective bargaining, another effort by the Conservative government to undermine the very deliberate, purposeful role that unions play in ensuring the redistribution of corporate surplus to working people and to the creation of a middle class and the consequent revenue base to sustain the kind of goods and services that are properly delivered to Canadians by government; health care and public pensions being the most obvious of these.
The condition of extreme income disparity is certainly a fully Canadian one these days. Canada has the seventh greatest level of income disparity among the OECD's 29 member states, as we know.
However, it is in urban communities in particular that we see affluence and poverty existing cheek by jowl. The condition that afflicts us is most conspicuous by the near and sometimes total absence of infrastructure across great expanses of urban space. We have come to a point in our collective impoverishment where we talk about the existence of food deserts in the city of Toronto.
This social and economic reshaping of our cities reflects dramatically changing labour markets across the country and particularly in Toronto. In the past 10 years, there has been a 59% increase in the number of temporary and contract jobs across the country. These changes have been particularly acute in Toronto, where there has been a 68% increase.
While Toronto had lost well over 100,000 manufacturing jobs before the recession, it has seen a dramatic increase in the number of jobs paying less than $10 per hour. This has led to the rapid increase of working poor in Toronto.
While the Conservative government has taken the position that there is no such thing as a bad job, let me quote from the Metcalf Foundation's recent report entitled, “The 'Working Poor' in the Toronto Region”.
Although work can provide a ladder out of poverty, this is not always the case. In the Toronto Region, an increasing number of people are both employed and living in poverty. The highest concentration is found in the city of Toronto. We call them the working poor. They live in a region with the highest cost of living in Canada.... They live in a region with the second most expensive housing market in Canada. In this high-cost environment, earnings from a job – even full-time – may not be sufficient to escape poverty.
Indeed, it is not. What we have seen in the Toronto region is an increase in this population of the working poor of 42% between 2000 and 2005, which again is pre-recession.
Employment insurance has failed to stem this tide of income disparity. What has become clear is that employment insurance rules have not kept up with shifting labour market realities. Professor Leah Vosko expressed this succinctly in her report in support of the Mowat Centre's recent study on employment insurance. She said:
A notable overarching finding is that EI’s entry requirements disfavour part-time workers. For instance, in urban areas and metropolises, where entry requirements tend to be highest, more than 50 per cent of workers in this group do not meet the 700 hour threshold.... Insensitivity of regular benefit requirements to the changing nature of employment in this formula contributes to disentitlement of workers falling outside the norm of the full-time permanent job in low-unemployment regions where workers in part-time and temporary forms of employment face high entry requirements.
In Toronto, fewer than 25% of unemployed workers are actually eligible for EI benefits. This is far less than the national average for eligibility, which hovers just above 40%, which is a problem in and of itself. It also compares, woefully, to the pre-Liberal reform levels, when 56% of the unemployed workers in Toronto were eligible for EI benefits and nationally were somewhere in the range of 80%.
It is into this context of these social and economic conditions, of people trying to find work, of people working but still in poverty, of people having nothing to catch them when they fall out of work, that the current government sees fit to tighten eligibility for employment insurance to force people into jobs that would not allow them to keep themselves or their families out of poverty.
How does this make any sense? How in the world can this be considered to be wise policy? In whose perverse economics text can one find such prescriptions for building a prosperous society? In whose strange imagination is this reflective of the kind of society we should be building here in Canada?
The fair and just thing for us to do in our role here is to amend EI, but in a manner that would provide meaningful income security to Canadians in all parts of this country in all labour markets when they lose their jobs, in a manner that would allow Canadians to maintain their dignity in the face of misfortune, in a manner that would facilitate and expedite re-entry into meaningful, productive and, yes, good jobs, and in a manner that would build a barrier against that which ails us most in this country these days: income disparity.
These are the kinds of policy criteria that reflect the generous, compassionate and prosperous Canada that Canadians really want us in this place to build.