Mr. Speaker, the hon. member has asked the House to agree to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Let me begin by asking this. Is this really the best way to help low-income Canadians?
There are a number of reasons why the government does not support the motion and I welcome the opportunity to set some of them out.
At first glance, the motion may seem like a great idea, but as we look at it very carefully, we see that it actually is not. As I am sure the hon. member knows, the minimum wage applicable to employees who are in the federally regulated industries is the same as the minimum wage in the provinces where the individuals are usually employed. This is because for years now the Canada Labour Code has set minimum wages to replicate those of the provinces, provincial labour markets having an idea of where wages should be focused. This has been the case since 1996.
We know that we need to focus on some important tasks. Those are tasks like creating jobs, balancing our budget, helping seniors and people with disabilities, supporting skills training, and generally establishing the conditions to ensure that Canada's long-term prosperity is reached. However, for some reason we are obliged to debate federal minimum wages today.
Let us look at the actual situation.
First, according to the federal jurisdiction workplace survey, only 416 federally regulated employees were earning just the minimum wage in 2008. Let me put this in perspective. These people represent 0.05% of all the employees in the federal jurisdiction, and that was in 2008. I wonder if this is actually what we should be using our debate time for. After all, the vast majority of federally regulated employees have higher-income jobs. Why are we spending an entire day talking about this wage rate, which the provinces have been focused on in their direct labour markets? There is nothing unusual or unfair about federal minimum wage rates.
For nearly 20 years, the federal minimum wage has varied, in accordance with the provincial minimum wage.
In fact, for nearly the last two decades the federal minimum wage has moved in lockstep with the applicable provincial minimum wages. It is still the best way to set the federal minimum wage. Let us keep in mind that labour markets vary across the country. We have a very large country, and thus we see variability. Our government believes that the provinces and territories are best placed to assess and respond to the needs in their local labour markets.
The provinces and territories are free to establish an appropriate minimum wage that takes their economic situation into account.
Some people have expressed concerns that some provinces are slow to adjust their minimum wage rates to match inflation and increase the average wages, but that is simply not true. Let us look at the facts.
Provincial minimum wage rates have evolved rapidly in recent years to reflect changing labour market conditions. The existing system is fair and well adapted to provincial needs when it comes to labour market assessments. Provincial governments carefully analyze the labour markets and their economic conditions before they make adjustments to their minimum wage rates. Several provinces have legislation stipulating that their minimum wage rates must be reviewed on a yearly or bi-yearly basis. Even those that do not have legislative requirements tend to adjust their minimum wage rates regularly.
Another point is that the motion asks us to make a significant change without appropriate reflection on what the effects might be on the job markets.
For example, it would make sense to look at the effects such a change would have on small businesses.
The current system is fair. It ensures that employees under federal jurisdiction are never paid less than their provincial counterparts. The way that we help low-income Canadians is not by hiking the minimum wage, but by bringing in measures that foster a strong economy and the creation of well-paying jobs. Economic growth and job creation are priorities of this government and we are leading the way in the G7, doing much more and, in that regard, focusing and making sure that we are ahead of our trading partners.
Since the economic downturn we have had a steady increase in employment, low interest rates, and the kind of economic growth that makes us the envy of the world. We believe that getting the economic essentials rights will keep us on the right track for greater levels of prosperity.
For example, the Minister of Finance recently announced the small business job credit that will lower EI premiums for small businesses by 15%. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business estimates that the credit will create 25,000 person-years of employment over the next two to three years. The minister also confirmed that in 2017, EI premiums will be cut from the current $1.88 per $100 of earnings to $1.47. Employers will have more money to invest in training and increased wages, and workers will have more money in their wallets at the end of the day so they can afford things like hockey and other items their families would like them to invest in.
It is clear that we are on the right track.
Evidence alone is that more than 1.1 million jobs have been created since July 2009 and more than 80% of these jobs have been full-time positions. The vast majority of these jobs are in the private sector in high-wage industries and Canada is currently the only country in the world with tariff-free access to the American market. This represents over 300 million individuals.
We have also signed an agreement in principle with the European Union that will give us access to markets of over 500 million people. What about our recent free trade agreement in principle with South Korea, which again opens up additional Asian markets to Canadian products? It is another significant market for Canadian firms.
We have also had a series of major resource projects on our economic agenda that will ensure Canada's prosperity for the next decade. At the same time, the government will continue to take concrete steps to support Canadian workers at all income levels and that means, for example, making sure that workers in the federal jurisdiction have healthy and safe work environments. Since our government was elected we have increased occupational health and safety protections for employees in federally regulated industries.
It means making sure that we have equal opportunities for hiring and for advancement. It means investing in preventive mediation to help workplace parties resolve their differences and create collective agreements that benefit both workers and employers. It also means implementing the wage earner protection program, which protects the wages, vacation pay, severance pay and termination owed to workers who lose their jobs when their employers go bankrupt or into receivership.
We all know that Canadian workers often experience significant challenges when their employers go bankrupt.
It is hard enough to lose a job for reasons beyond our control, but it is quite unfair to be deprived of wages that were worked for and that were counted on. It is especially distressing when we see other creditors being paid off first. That is why, in the interests in fairness, we brought in the wage earner protection program, which makes the payment of wages owed to workers in this situation a superpriority.
What does the program do and how does it work? The trustee or receiver assigned to manage the bankruptcy or receivership is required to provide information to the workers on any amounts that they are owed. Workers can then file a proof of claim with the trustee or receiver, and the next step is to submit the application for payment to Service Canada.
The eligibility period starts six months before restructuring and ends on the day of bankruptcy or receivership. Under the rules of the program, these workers can receive an amount equal to four weeks of maximum insurable earnings as defined by the Employment Insurance Act.
The government has expanded the WEPP twice. It was expanded in 2009 to include unpaid termination and severance pay as eligible wages and in 2011 to improve coverage under the program in cases where the employer undergoes restructuring before going bankrupt or entering receivership. Workers in this situation can apply, as I said before, to Service Canada online. If they have all of the relevant information, they can usually get their payments within a few weeks.
The WEPP was established in July 2008. Between that date and July 31, 2014, more than 74,000 Canadians received payments that total $174.8 million, with an average WEPP payment to a worker for wages owed by employers who are bankrupt or subject to receivership of just over $2,500. This is a very successful and needed program, and for this fiscal year, our government has budgeted just over $49 million for it.
We have also amended the Canada Labour Code to ensure that employees who lose their jobs cannot be deprived of severance just because they happen to be entitled to a pension.
That is not all. We have also adopted the Helping Families in Need Act, which gives federally regulated employees the right to take unpaid leave in special circumstances. It allows for up to 37 weeks of leave for an employee whose child under the age of 18 is critically ill.
I can tell members from personal experience that this is something that families need. Having been a physician, I have witnessed situations in which a parent was unable to be at a child's bedside to make sure that care was managed appropriately. As a physician, I know that having a parent there to help organize care for the child and provide emotional support for the child and the family is essential, and we moved forward with this measure last year.
The act also provides up to 104 weeks of leave for an employee whose child has died because of a probable Criminal Code offence. It also offers up to 52 weeks of leave for an employee whose child is missing as a result of a crime. Canadians who take these leaves can now count on benefits through the federal income support for parents of murdered or missing children grant, as well as the employment insurance program.
We extended the duration of sick leave to 17 weeks. This gives a lot more flexibility to parents who must, for various reasons, put an end to their maternity or paternity leave.
The government is helping Canadian families in many ways.
This government is supporting Canadian families in many ways. Most significantly among them, Canadian families have seen an increase of about 10% of their real after-tax incomes under our administration. For a family of four, on average we are putting over $3,400 back in their pockets so that they can make decisions on where they would like to invest it in the things that matter to them, whether it is a family vacation or making sure that their child can attend hockey or ballet.
These are just some of the host of reasonable and well-thought-out measures that the government is taking every day to support and protect workers in our country. However, if we want to continue improving the standard of living of Canadian families, we need to continue acting responsibly. The motion before us is political grandstanding by the NDP.
Our Conservative government is proud of the initiatives that it has brought forward to lower taxes and put more money in the pockets of hard-working families. With sound fiscal policy, we worked hand in glove with employers, employees, and the provinces. Reckless changes to the Canada Labour Code create disruption, as has been very clearly outlined by many of our stakeholders.
We know that the Canada Labour Code is something that everyone respects. I would encourage the opposition not to focus on making reckless changes to sound fiscal policy but to focus on what matters, which is making sure that Canadians have opportunities for great jobs.
While it is important that workers earn decent wages and while the sponsor of the motion may have good intentions, I hope that my hon. colleague will recognize that the proposal as it reads simply cannot be supported.