Mr. Speaker, it is certainly a pleasure to be able to say a few words on the bill, which certainly affects rural areas more than the more lucrative urban areas, and perhaps areas like Atlantic Canada and parts of Quebec more than any other area of the country.
There are a few changes in the bill that are looked upon as being positive, one of them being the throwing out of what we call the intensity rule and reverting to letting people who draw employment insurance draw 55% of their regular wage. That in itself is a bit deceptive and I will comment on that.
The ability for family members to get back into the workplace after staying off because of the birth of children without having to be looked upon as new entrants certainly is positive. The minor changes to the clawback arrangements will also benefit some of those at the higher end.
However, the people who are affected most by employment insurance are the ones who receive no reprieve at all from the new legislation.
There are three issues that should have been addressed in the bill and have not been addressed. The first issue is what we call the divisor rule. It is bad enough to see a person who is generally living and working in an area where unemployment is meagre and quite often where the wage is low having to resort to drawing employment insurance knowing that he or she will start with only 55% of what he or she normally makes.
If the intensity rule had not been changed, people would have drawn less as each year went by. However, besides drawing just 55%, they find their week's work is not what is divided into the total income. The number of weeks is, as we say, exaggerated. The divisor rule means that for somebody who obtains 12 weeks or 420 hours, when the amount of money that person should receive is factored in, the total income is divided by 14. This means the individual is getting much less than the 55%, which appears on the surface. That rule is completely unfair and should have been eliminated.
The second concern is the 420 hour minimum in areas of high unemployment and the 520 hour minimum in areas of low unemployment.
There are pockets in the country that depend entirely on seasonal employment. Occasionally these people do relatively well. There may be an exceptionally good fishery, a good construction season, or a good year in forestry. That is the exception lately rather than the rule, for a number of reasons.
The mismanagement of the fishery, and perhaps we could say the mismanagement of our forestry resources to some extent, has led to very meagre employment. The lack of concern for the processing end of our fishery means that we are seeing a lot of our resource going out of our provinces and out of our country in a non-processed or semi-processed state.
This means there is less work for the people involved. This past year in Newfoundland, for example, the main source of work in the various fish plants was processing crab, which has replaced cod as the most lucrative species now caught and processed in our province. However this past year saw a 15% to 20% cut across the board in relation to quotas, which meant 20% less work for people working in our fish plants.
Along with that the markets this past year, in particular the Japanese market, dictated that the commodity they wanted was crab sections rather than the extruded crab meat, the main product exported over the last x number of years. Sending the crab out in sections meant less work for the people who worked in our plants. Mechanization has also eliminated a number of jobs. Consequently we saw people who worked in our fish plants receive much less work this year than previously, not because of their fault but because of resource, market demands and mechanization, which is attributable to the employers.
Teachers have also been affected. Because of what is happening in our education system with consolidation and tightening up of belts economically, we see a lot of substitute teachers who no longer even get work enough to qualify for employment insurance.
There are times in certain parts of the country where conditions are completely outside the control of the individuals involved. It is practically impossible for the average seasonal worker to obtain enough employment to qualify for employment insurance.
I am certainly not advocating that we return to the old 10-52 method: if they obtained 10 weeks of work and a few hours each week they could qualify to draw employment insurance for the rest of the year. I do not think anyone is advocating that, but the pendulum has swung too far.
During the election campaign the Prime Minister apologized to working people in New Brunswick, especially seasonal workers, for a mistake that was made some years ago when new employment insurance regulations were brought in. Instead of changing them last fall before the election, he ran the election promising to make the changes. Now we have the bill before the House. The changes that were brought in last fall are still the same ones.
Despite the fact that many people expressed concern during the election, there have been a few minor amendments, but the real changes that would affect people in the areas where they are hurting most have not been made.
The hours required are too stringent in certain parts of the country during periods when there are downturns. In the construction industry, for example, because of lack of input from federal and provincial governments into the great infrastructure agreements we hear about, the hours fail to materialize or the money is spread so thinly that many smaller regions cannot avail themselves of it.
In terms of federal-provincial-municipal cost sharing, most small municipalities, because of the financial situations they face, cannot avail themselves of the infrastructure agreements. They cannot come up with their share of the total input.
These areas are hit extremely hard. There should be provision in the new legislation to modify the regulations during times when working conditions, lack of resources or whatever make it impossible for seasonal workers in those areas to obtain enough employment to qualify for employment insurance.
Another concern is the length of time. We are not advocating the 10-52, but we are finding that as people continue to draw employment insurance, as they always will in the areas with seasonal employment, it is getting to the point where they find themselves with absolutely no income during the periods of the year when it is needed most. Quite often the employment insurance benefits end in March or April during times when heating costs are extremely high and when the cost of living in rural areas is extremely high.
These issues should be addressed in the new legislation. I certainly hope that the minister takes them into account as she reviews and hopefully provides us with amendments that we can all pass.