Madam Speaker, I am very happy to join the debate on the motion.
I would like to inform the House that I will be sharing my time with the member for Kenora.
I just had a conversation with the member for Kenora, who was in the House quite a few years prior to this, and he said this is probably more about the fact that the NDP want to be seen as pushing the government to make change.
Earlier I shared with the House my great love and appreciation for that famous American philosopher, Willie Nelson, whose definition of a leader is when one sees a whole group of people going in one direction, to grab a baton and jump out in front. I think that is where we are today.
We said in our platform that we would address the changes that had been made to EI by the past government, because we know they have hurt workers. We were very clear in our platform that we would to change that and take some responsibility and show some leadership on this.
In response to the throne speech, and certainly every day in the House, although there have not been any questions from the Conservatives on this, the leader of the NDP asks the Prime Minister about it. The Prime Minister is steadfast that we are serious about this. We made the promises. I know that our minister is seized with this and is very much engaged in it. I am looking forward to when she comes forward with a tranche of changes.
However, I think it would be helpful for the debate to peel back a little to at least 2012 and see the changes that were made at that point, because there were significant changes that hurt many areas and sectors of this country.
In Atlantic Canada, seasonal workers and industries contribute to 53% of the regional GDP. Those industries, whether tourism, forestry, fishery, construction, or whatever it might be, need a skilled labour force. However, what we saw with the changes made by the last government was that they chased people out of rural communities. The Conservatives vilify seasonal workers in particular.
Members might remember the satirical show This Hour Has 22 Minutes when the actors were chasing EI recipients around Prince Edward Island. They came up with a skit called “PEI EI PI” where they were chasing people down and hiding behind bushes to see whether or not they were really out looking for work. That is when people saw the government sort of turning over those rocks.
We absolutely believe that there has to be integrity in the system, and I do not think that the NDP believe anything less. However, the Conservatives' changes went beyond. We heard this from provincial and municipal leaders. We would hear from councillors in rural communities or a county warden who knew that the main job provider in the community was having trouble finding workers, because they were being scared out of seasonal industries. Those industries were hanging on by a shoestring, and these changes did nothing to enhance their opportunities. We see now that a lot of those sectors are up against this problem of trying to find qualified workers. These changes very much had an impact.
The Conservatives also tried to starve the beast. It was almost like they did it on purpose. They cut 600 jobs out of EI processing and call centres. In 2008, Service Canada had a service standard that if one phoned a call centre, 95% of the time the call was answered within three minutes. However, the Conservatives cut the jobs, sent those people home, and closed those call centres and processing centres in everyone's riding except Peter MacKay's and Gerald Keddy's—but I do not want to be cynical about this, and maybe that was just a coincidence. However, when they closed those call centres, they lost those people working the phones.
By the end of that year, the call centres had to downgrade the service standard from 95% of the calls being answered in three minutes to 80% of the calls being answered in three minutes. By 2014, they were not hitting the 80% in three minutes. They had to downgrade it again to 80% of the calls in ten minutes.
We heard testimony at the committee. We spoke with some young apprentices. They said that they had to quit their apprenticeship. When they go back to school, they receive EI benefits. However, they were waiting too long for their benefits. I asked why they did not phone the 1-800 number, knowing very well what the answer would be.
They had three stages of answers they would get. The first stage was they would actually get a warm body to say “Yes, I am here. I am from the government and I am here to help you.” The second was, “Please hold, a representative will with you shortly.” The third level was, “Could you please phone back later”, because of the number of the calls, and it would be a dropped call. Fifty-two percent of the time, people would get that third level. If they got the first level, they should have gone out and bought some quick picks because their planets were aligned.
People who worked at low wage jobs, who had finished their work, paid into the plan, made application, and were deserving of the benefits were frustrated and scared. They had to make a decision between putting fuel in the tank, or food in the fridge, or fill a prescription. That is a tough call at the kitchen table, and that was where a lot of people were.
The anxiety level in those households went through the roof. Whether it was a tactic or whether or it was an outcome that the government had not intended, and I am not sure, that is exactly what happened.
We hope to make those investments. We hope to fix those problems with the slate of changes we will come forward with. We understand and respect the intent of the changes identified in today's motion.
We are committed to making the program more accessible. We believe the 920 hours needed for new entrance or re-entrance into the program is a detriment. It is punitive. If we go back to the different regions of the country that have unemployment rates, if we abide by them and make those the qualifying hours for first-time or re-entrance, that will certainly increase the number of Canadians who have access to the program. That levels the field, in many cases, and will be of great help. This is what we heard during the campaign. People believed this was necessary to fix the program.
When we talk about Canadians who work in low wage jobs or in precarious employment, quite often there are concerns around numeracy and literacy. Certainly the cuts made by the past government to the LMAs to various provinces impacted directly. I know the minister at the time said that we were not running these programs, but provinces relied on those dollars, and they were delivering numeracy and literacy programs. These are our most vulnerable in society.
I see a great deal of merit in today's motion. I probably agree more so with the member for Kenora. I am very pleased with the Prime Minister and the minister coming forward with a solid slate of progressive changes that will help support a modern workforce in this day and age, and that will help Canadian workers.
We look forward to the time when we can present the government's changes to EI.