Mr. Speaker, to start with, I wish to announce that I will be sharing my time with my distinguished colleague, the member for Joliette, with whom I have had the pleasure of sitting for many years.
I did not think that today, October 5, already many months after the first Conservative budget, we would still be discussing the merits—and the possibility—of introducing an assistance program for workers aged 55 or over.
Before the budget was drafted, I took part in various discussions with the Minister of Finance, with the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities and with other representatives of government. These discussions left me with the hope that an assistance program for older workers would be put in place in the weeks following the budget. We are in a national emergency situation in this regard. The factories are closing, there is no longer a soft sector, there are only sectors hit by foreign competition, hit by unfair competition and acts, as we have seen at the hands of the Americans in the softwood lumber sector.
Now, various industries are under attack: furniture, textiles, clothing, agri-food and soon the high-technology sectors will also be the victims of often unfair competition. I will come back a little later to unfair competition by the so-called emerging countries.
When one is a victim of this competition a few times—and the number of times has been increasing in the past three years—factories begin to shut down, early retirements take place or quite simply there are mass lay-offs of workers who have held their jobs for 30 to 35 years at the same place, in the same region and in the same sector.
Today is October 5, and I remember what we read in the budget, that is, that the government undertook to conduct a feasibility study with a view to setting up an assistance program for older workers. This program would be similar to the one that existed until 1997, before the Liberal Party—and the member for LaSalle—Émard, who was finance minister at the time—cut this program.
We are right back where we started, and there is talk of a possible one-year pilot project. But that is not what we asked for. We did not ask the government for statistics and assumptions. The introduction of this income support program for older workers was a condition of our support for the budget, as much as the issue of fiscal imbalance. We did not want a pilot project or a one-year program. What we wanted was a program similar to the one that was cancelled in 1997.
What did that program do? It enabled workers age 55 and older, victims of mass layoffs, to benefit from financial support, not generous but appropriate, from the time of that layoff to the time of their retirement.
The program enabled those workers—often couples working in single-industry areas—to maintain a decent lifestyle until their retirement, without being forced to apply for social assistance benefits, without having to abandon their dreams of a lifetime by selling off their home, car or cottage.
Since this program was abolished by the Liberals in 1997, every member of the Bloc Québécois has met working couples in his or her region where both spouses were laid off at the same time. These couples were forced to sell their homes and all the assets they had accumulated over many years of work, including registered retirement plans, etc. They had to give up their dream of a decent retirement, in dignity, because the federal government decided in 1997 to put an end to a program that cost nothing to keep dreams alive. At that time, it amounted to $60 million per year for these older workers. These were workers who often could not find new jobs because they had little education or because they lived in single-industry areas where the entire industry was hit at the same time.
These people were often left in great distress. I myself have known workers who killed themselves because the government had let them down by robbing them of their dignity. The government decided it was worth shattering the dreams of thousands of residents and older workers to save $60 million a year.
We did an evaluation. The government talks about a feasibility study, but all that is needed is a simple rule of three, it is not very complicated. It cost $60 million a year in 1997, given the layoffs at the time. After adjusting for these layoffs and taking a certain indexing into account until today, we arrive at a maximum of $100 million a year for a program like this to prevent broken dreams and loss of all dignity among working people 55 years of age or more. But this government is still dragging its feet. It wants a feasibility study and a pilot project.
The last fiscal year ended with a $13 billion surplus. The Minister of Finance and the President of Treasury Board appeared, as pedantic as can be, in front of a beautiful big fat cheque saying that more than $13 billion were being invested in paying down the debt.
Could not $100 million of these $13 billion have been used to help older workers?
They are turning their backs on workers, as we saw in the softwood lumber issue. How many times have we in the Bloc Québécois asked for loan guarantees to save jobs and plants all over the regions, in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada? But the current government would not listen, just like the previous government.
How many times have we asked the government to investigate dumping, countervailing duties and unfair competition, which has been proven? In Europe, they are looking at unfair competition and just proved in a recent report that there was unfair competition and predatory practices on the part of countries like China, India and Brazil.
What are predatory practices? Countries like China or Vietnam have planned economies. They are not free markets. Real production costs and competition are the least of their concerns.
These countries engage in predatory practices, that is to say, they sell their products for less than the regular cost of production. They kill our industries, throw thousands of our citizens out of work, and when the industry is completely shattered, knocked flat, they seize the market and move in. These are predatory practices.
The Canadian government—be it Liberal or Conservative—is probably one of the governments in the world that conducts the fewest investigations into the unfair competition practised by its trading partners. There have been no investigations undertaken by the federal government into the unfair competition engaged by China or Brazil in the agri-food sector, for example. One might say that Canada is afraid to conduct such investigations. It was very proud to welcome China into the World Trade Organization. That is all very well, but China, like the other members of the WTO, is going to have to abide by the fair competition rules and abide by the most favoured nations rules. That is not the case at present.
The federal government sits idly by and calls this normal competition. It is not normal competition! When it is cheaper to bring bentwood in from China and make plywood out of it here, than using lumber from our forests in Quebec or Ontario or British Columbia, the situation has reached the disaster point.
I would like me to send the federal government this message: in my region in particular, working men and women have been laid off from Kimberly-Clark, for example, and from Olymel as well, because of competition in the pork industry, and from AirBoss in the textile and shoe manufacturing industry. Those companies, and the men and women who work there, are affected by competition and they need us. They need us to make things easier for them. Entrepreneurs need our help too, because often, when massive layoffs like this happen, younger workers are the first to go because they have no seniority. And then the older workers follow them.
If we brought back a program like POWA, which existed until 1997, entrepreneurs could keep their younger workers; as for older workers, it would up to them to decide to leave and make room for them, and companies could invest for the future in a qualified, younger workforce, for a number of years.
We talk about the workforce shortage we have today, but it will be even worse in the years to come.
This would be one way of encouraging training for younger people and allowing older workers to preserve their dignity until they retire.