That the House call on the government to reverse devastating changes it has made to Employment Insurance which restrict access and benefits, depress wages, push vulnerable Canadians into poverty and download costs to the provinces; and reinstate the Extra Five Weeks pilot project to avoid the impending “black hole” of financial insecurity facing workers in seasonal industries and the regional economies they support.
Mr. Speaker, to begin, I would like to say that I will be sharing my time with the member for Hamilton Mountain.
I am speaking today to move a motion on behalf of the official opposition concerning the employment insurance reform that was announced in the last Conservative budget.
Before I begin, I would like to emphasize a very important point. The government tried to hide employment insurance changes in its massive budget bill. It hoped that Canadians would not notice and limited debate. We had to wait until May to learn more about the government's intentions. Then, very discreetly, in December, the minister announced that new rules would be imposed on workers looking for a job.
I think this way of doing things is very cavalier and absolutely unacceptable, but unfortunately, it seems to have become the Conservatives' day-to-day modus operandi. How many times do we have to remind them that the employment insurance fund is paid for by employee and employer contributions only? The government has not contributed to this fund for over 20 years. How many times do we have to say it?
Before the government begins its attacks on unemployed workers, it first should have to explain to Canadians what right it has to interfere in the management of a fund that does not even belong to it. The government should then, through an open and clearly defined process, consult and have discussions with the stakeholders involved, namely, employees and employers. This was never done. This undemocratic way of doing things is harmful to employees, employers and economies and undermines parliamentarians' credibility with Canadians.
The employment insurance fund should be available when Canadians need it. They are the ones who contribute to it and so it is only natural that this insurance should be available to them when they fall on hard times. If we examine the figures for last July more closely, we see that 1,377,000 Canadians were unemployed. That same month, only 508,000 Canadians were receiving employment insurance benefits, which means that 869,000 Canadians were not receiving benefits. In other words, less than 40% of unemployed workers are receiving employment insurance benefits. It is shameful.
In the past, the rate of EI coverage was much higher than 40%. Before the Liberal reforms in the 1990s, access rates were between 70% and 90%. As a result of the cuts made in the 1990s, access rates plummeted before stabilizing at about 40%, the rate that we are discussing today. Right now, the most recent figures show that less than 40% of unemployed workers have access to benefits, even though everyone contributes to the fund.
In addition to deliberately reducing access to employment insurance, the Conservatives are now requiring unemployed workers to accept jobs that pay less than their previous employment within a 100 km radius of their home. These new definitions of “suitable employment” and “reasonable job search”, which have been in effect for the past month, will have a negative impact on our economy and on Canadians' living conditions.
We are already hearing horror stories about it. For some, travelling 100 km is not a problem. Big cities usually have extensive public transit systems. What is troubling, is that the same rules are being applied to completely different situations. In the regions, communities are often far apart and jobs are harder to find. The government is not proposing any measures to support regional economic diversification, particularly in areas where the economies have a very high seasonal index.
In addition, the obligation to accept wages as low as 70% of their previous salary will only lead to a downward spiral of ever-lower wages, to the detriment of workers' quality of life.
The Conservatives' way of looking at the economy is rather simplistic, and this only underscores their gross incompetence when it comes to managing public funds. Their approach will weaken our regions, not to mention entire sectors that are vital to our economy.
The Canadian economy cannot be built on just a few key sectors; instead, it will be more prosperous through the diversification of many sectors, including the fishery, tourism, construction, education, retail trade, and so on. All of those economic sectors will be severely affected by this reform. Again yesterday, some staggering figures were published, demonstrating once and for all that Canada's economic performance is not nearly as rosy as the Conservatives would have everyone believe.
A Conference Board of Canada study found that an increase in social and economic inequalities in Canada is tearing the social fabric of our country and that the gap between the rich and the poor is continuing to grow, as is child poverty. Canada is doing a very poor job compared to its OECD counterparts. If Canada's economy is doing so well, as the Conservatives like to shout from the rooftops, should we not be in a better position to offer fair and equitable living conditions and income distribution? Should we not be able to reduce child poverty?
The employment insurance reform will only exacerbate this situation. Contract, part-time and seasonal workers want to be acknowledged and respected for the work they do because they are an integral part of our economy and our prosperity. They are merely a reflection of the seasonal nature of employment in Canada and the economic environment that the government has put in place for them.
Canadians want jobs, growth and prosperity, not a hunt for unemployed workers that will drain the regions and impoverish all workers in unstable jobs, including those in the cities.
It is the provinces that will ultimately absorb the additional costs associated with the lack of access to employment insurance. People with their backs to the wall will opt for the solution of last resort: welfare. Who pays for welfare? Taxpayers, obviously. In short, all taxpayers will once again foot the bill for the Conservatives' mismanagement.
Lastly, we are now well into the month of February. Unemployed seasonal workers are coming to the end of their benefits. This is the black hole of spring. Action must be taken because it is now at our door.
The government need only look at regional unemployment rates to understand that its alleged economic recovery does not warrant putting a stop to the bill extending the benefit period by five weeks. People in the regions with high unemployment rates need it, not so that they can spend frivolously, but rather to put food on the table, heat their homes and put gas in their cars.
Can the Conservative government take quick action and reinstate the pilot project until we have studied the impact of the cancellation of that measure, or is it clearly saying that it is abandoning our regions?
Thousands of people have been protesting for months. Voices have been raised, those of workers, employers, chambers of commerce, elected municipal representatives and the provinces. This government must immediately backpedal on this measure before the problem degenerates into a social crisis and we are faced with serious cases or unfortunate incidents.
I will close by saying that no one denies that the employment insurance system must be reviewed, but the Conservatives' unilateral approach is unfortunately narrow-minded. It avoids all dialogue, even with experts. It is merely an attempt to please an ideological voter base and it quite simply jeopardizes our social safety net.
This approach is not in the interests of all Canadians, who can see through the Conservatives' dangerous game. The government must go back to the drawing board and open a genuine dialogue to determine with Canadians what they want out of their employment insurance programs.
I will be delighted to debate this topic with my colleagues in an effort to advance the dialogue and offer tangible solutions to Canadians in the hope that a genuine consultation can be conducted in this country.