Mr. Speaker, before I begin I would like to indicate that I will be dividing my time.
Bill C-44, commonly known as the Liberal vote enhancement bill, has been touted as an initiative to make life easier for low income workers or needy EI recipients. However its promise, like most Liberal promises, is fraudulent. On the eve of an election, the government, with a lot of huffing and puffing, proposes to tinker with a system which desperately needs a complete overhaul.
A few decades ago we had a UI system that worked. It was based on true insurance principles. Over the years its original function as an employer-employee funded program to provide temporary income in the event of unexpected job loss has been perverted, complicated and made grossly unfair by mostly Liberal governments. The result is a mishmash of ill-conceived social programs, excessively high premiums and a massive surplus which is largely inaccessible to those most in need of benefits.
It long ago ceased to be an insurance program by any definition. Instead, it has become a political cash cow for the government. The government is now collecting about $10 billion per year more in premiums than it pays out in benefits. The piddling changes proposed in the bill will decrease that overcharge by about 12% but most of the rip-off will continue. I would dare say that if a legitimate insurance company tried to operate in that fashion charges would be laid.
The surplus is not even protected in a separate fund for high unemployment emergencies. Excess collections are bled into general revenue and may be used to pay for any goofy scheme that the government comes up with.
To refer to the money collected as insurance premiums is, as I said, fraudulent. It is a payroll tax, nothing more, nothing less. Think how much more economically beneficial it would be if the government desisted from ripping off workers and employers and left that $10 billion a year in their pockets. Employers would be able to have money to hire more people on their actual payroll—job creation—and workers would have more money to spend on goods and services, thus creating even more jobs. It would be a win-win situation even for the government.
There is no consistency in the system, nor will there be with the proposed changes. On one hand, even well paid seasonal workers, fallers, heavy equipment operators and people like that will be able to draw EI benefits with the clawback threshold now raised to $48,750.
A few yappers on both sides of the House have attacked the member for Calgary—Nose Hill for describing some part time workers as earning a comfortable living. I would say that anybody earning $48,000 a year is earning a comfortable living, and there are millions of Canadian workers, most of them employed full time, who would dearly love to have incomes of more than $48,750.
On the other hand, we MPs regularly receive complaints from low income people who have been denied benefits, in spite of having contributed to the system for many years but who are unable to surmount the obstacles placed in front of them by an inflexible and obdurate bureaucracy. To qualify for EI people need more hours of work if they have never made a claim than if they have been in and out of the workforce like a fiddler's elbow.
I have documented cases of workers who worked 500 to 600 hours in the previous year, who had premiums extorted from them under false pretences for many, many years and who found themselves ineligible for benefits or training because they had never previously touched the system. They needed a minimum of 910 hours before they could take their first bite of pogey. They are penalized for their own self-sufficiency. That is perverse and it is cruel.
In a sane system operating under the same principles as other types of insurance, individuals with clean claims records would be given favourable treatment, but under Liberal EI they are penalized.
Letters which I received from successive HRD ministers regarding this anomaly have been mostly regurgitations of EI regulations which I and my staff are quite capable of extracting from departmental bumph. We get the stock bureaucratic slop such as, “please be assured that I will continue to closely monitor the situation” or “multiple job holders and part time workers have all of their hours of work insured”. Like hell they do.
When I informed the previous minister of a worker who after 20 years in the labour force was unable to access an upgrading program, his reply said in part:
The rationale behind this entry requirement for new entrants and re-entrants was to discourage a cycle of reliance on Employment Insurance by ensuring that workers, especially young people, establish a significant attachment to the labour force before collecting Employment Insurance benefits. The intent was also to strengthen the relationship between work effort and entitlement to benefits by requesting claimants to have a reasonable labour force attachment before collecting benefits.
That was his rationale for denying benefits to a middle-aged man who had worked and paid his premiums for 20 years. What an insult, not only to my constituent, but to me.
One of the problems is that very few people in the cabinet over there have ever had any real world work experience. They think sweat is something that they get in the racketball court. They have never had to worry about when to make a rental payment. They have certainly never had to worry about accessing UI. It is the elite rule and we are paying a price for that. Canadian workers pay a price for that.
Another constituent was laid off after working full time for 10 years. She innocently accepted part time work for more than a year rather than apply for EI. When she lost the part time job as well, her efforts to remain independent had cost her any chance of benefits because of the 910 hour rule.
This mess that has been created in EI, largely through the efforts of the people sitting on the other side of the aisle, has to be addressed as a whole, not with this little bit of piecemeal “tinker here, fix there and fiddle there”. This will not repair the system.
I hope that people on the other side, maybe from self-interest, would try to fix it because if what is going on now goes to its culmination, and we have an election soon, there may be a lot of folks over there who would like to be able to access the EI system. They would not be able to because of the 910 rule. They are stuck.