That this House call on the Conservative government to abandon plans to further restrict access to Employment Insurance for Canadian workers who have followed the rules and who will now be forced to choose between taking a pay cut of up to 30% or losing their Employment Insurance benefits.
Madam Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles.
I am pleased to move, on behalf of the entire NDP caucus, a motion calling on the Conservative government to abandon its reckless changes to Canada's employment insurance system.
First and foremost, employment insurance must be about providing a safety net for workers. Government ministers and Conservative MPs keep saying that jobs are not being filled because the unemployed do not want to work, but Statistics Canada pointed out just last week that there were almost six unemployed workers for every reported job vacancy in Canada. In other words, despite its rhetoric, the Conservative government's record on job creation has been an abject failure.
Therefore, yes, this is the time that workers need to draw on the employment insurance that they paid into all of their working lives. However, instead of helping workers to access what is rightfully theirs, the minister responsible for the program hurls insults by saying, “We do not want to make it lucrative for them to stay home and get paid for it”. It is outrageous. Workers need EI, not so they can stay at home but so they can keep their homes.
Even before these ill-advised changes, only 40% of unemployed Canadians were able to access EI benefits, and those who do bring home a maximum of 55% of their former wages. Unemployed workers can assure the minister that EI is not lucrative.
What then motivated this last round of EI reforms? Toronto Star columnist, Thomas Walkom, hit the nail squarely on the head when he blamed the changes on “bone-headed ideology and contempt”. The Conservatives have continually demonstrated their hatred of Canada's social safety net, including employment insurance, and the disdain starts right at the top.
This is what the Prime Minister told the American Council for National Policy in 1997. He said:
In terms of the unemployed, of which we have over a million-and-a-half, don't feel particularly bad for many of these people. They don't feel bad about it themselves, as long as they're receiving generous social assistance and unemployment insurance.
He also derided Atlantic Canadians for using social services, saying in 2002:
I think in Atlantic Canada, because of what happened in the decades following Confederation, there is a culture of defeat that we have to overcome.... Atlantic Canada's culture of defeat will be hard to overcome as long as Atlantic Canada is actually physically trailing the rest of the country.
As Walkom rightly points out, “The contempt is that of comfortable, well-heeled politicians who, deep down, assume that those unfortunate enough to have lost their jobs lack moral fibre”. However, the issue is not that Canadians do not want to work. The issue is that there are no jobs available in many parts of our country. Yes, that means that Canadians will try to access employment insurance. It is, after all, a program that was designed to help the jobless get by while they search for work.
As things stand right now, regular EI covers up to 55% of former salary to a maximum of $485 a week for up to 45 weeks. Last year, 850,000 people relied on the program, including thousands in my hometown of Hamilton where the manufacturing sector has been particularly hard hit. If one were to ask people who have tried to access employment insurance, they would be the first to point out that the system does need reform. The reforms just are not in the direction that the government is moving. We need to enhance, not restrict, access to EI for Canadians who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.
As it stands now, less than half of the unemployed qualify for EI benefits. Only 40% of men collect and an even lower 32% of women get any support from EI. The reason is that the rules are biased against part-time, temporary, self-employed and women workers, yet all workers pay into the system.
The conversation we should be having in this chamber is about how we enhance access to the benefits that employees and employers paid for. It is only the workers and the employers who contribute to the EI system. There is not a dime of the government's money in the pot and yet successive Liberal and Conservative governments have raided the surpluses in the EI fund to the tune of $57 billion. They have treated it as their own cash cow to fund everything from debt reduction to new government programs and now it has the audacity to suggest that the program is too lucrative for workers and that things need to change. It is completely outrageous.
If we are going to change the system at all, we should live up to the commitments made by the motion on EI reform that I tabled here in the last Parliament, which, I might add, was passed by the House of Commons. That motion called for the elimination of the two-week waiting period, a lower qualifying period that was consistent across our country, an increase in the replacement wage to 60%, improved funding for training and a mechanism for allowing the self-employed to participate in the program.
Three years later, the government has still only acted on the will of Parliament with respect to one of those proposals, and that is making EI available to the self-employed. All other tinkering the Conservatives have done with respect to the EI system has been counter to the spirit of my motion and has been at the expense rather than to the benefit of hard-working Canadians.
We need to just look at the changes resulting from the most recent Conservative budget. Budget 2012 announced the Conservative government's intention to introduce legislation “to strengthen and clarify what is required of claimants who are receiving regular EI benefits and are looking for work”. Instead, the Trojan Horse bill, Bill C-38, gave the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development the power to create regulations concerning what constitutes suitable employment and reasonable and customary efforts to find employment.
When asked what the regulations would look like, the minister responded, “We haven't announced those details yet. We want to make sure the legislation gets through first”. Really. Do the Conservatives want us to buy a pig in a poke? That will not happen and the more details we learn, the more we know just how misguided the government's approach has become.
Under the new scheme, frequent EI claimants will no longer be able to hold out for something akin to their former jobs at roughly the same wage. Instead, they will need to accept similar work at as little as 80% of their previous wage during the first seven weeks of benefits, yet we do not know what “similar” means. After that, they must take any work they are qualified to perform for as little as 70% of what they used to make. Less frequent users will fare marginally better. They can hold out for jobs within their usual occupation at 90% of their former wage for 18 weeks. After that, they, too, must accept similar jobs at 80% of their previous wage.
Obviously this has nothing to do with connecting workers with suitable jobs. This is all about driving down wages. The Conservatives love free markets unless, of course, it is a labour market. One has to wonder though for whom they are doing this.
Yes, these changes will help their friends in the tar sands hire temporary foreign workers who can now be paid 15% less than the going regional wage. At the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development, where we have been studying the projected shortages of skilled workers in Canada, many employers have actually come forward to tell us that forcing workers in seasonal industries to do other work during the off season will do permanent harm to their businesses and, indeed, to their entire regions. That, of course, is due to out-migration.
If the fisherman's helpers, forestry workers or farmhands are forced during the respective off-season to take on a job they do not like and that pays less, they will be more inclined to head to western Canada. That leaves local businesses high and dry.
When we combine that attack on rural Canada with the fact that stripping Canadians of their employment insurance will lead to an increased reliance on provincial social support systems, it is no wonder that premiers from across the country are crying foul. Despite the fact that it is their provincial budgets and their provincial taxpayers who will pay the price for these ill-conceived changes to Canada's EI system, none of them were consulted before the changes were announced.
As an editorial in the Saskatoon StarPheonix put it:
This is clearly an issue that needs a national debate--one we were robbed of when the government stuffed the changes into its omnibus bill.
That is why the New Democrats have brought this motion to the floor of the House today. We do need a national debate on the changes to Canada's employment insurance system and the people who pay for that system and who use it must have a say in its future. Until then, we must change course and abandon all plans to further restrict access to employment insurance for Canadian workers.