Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to take part in the debate on this bill at report stage and also to join forces with the Bloc members who worked so courageously on the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development.
This appears to be "forget about past promises week" for the government. After the GST and after a free vote on such a fundamental piece of legislation as the one adding sexual orientation as a prohibited ground of discrimination, when the government had promised a party vote and instead let its members vote freely on the bill, now we are asked to swallow hard and let this unemployment insurance reform be rammed through the House.
I am pleased to join in the debate because, on April 9, I held a special information day in my riding on UI reform. About fifteen organizations took part in this review of the reform, based on government material. Most groups told us that this reform could in no way be considered a possible basis for changes to the plan.
As usual, the government would have us believe that it is driven by the determination to reform social programs. However, this was not part of its election platform. Sometimes, you have to read between the lines instead of only looking at broken promises such as the scrapping of the GST; the Prime Minister does not seem to know that scrapping does not mean harmonizing, he remains the only one to believe he is right when his own finance minister and deputy prime minister, under public pressure, have made amends.
Besides, a very interesting statement of the Minister of Human Resources Development was quoted in La Presse of March 16, 1996. The article said:
The Minister of Human Resources Development is willing to consider all the women's groups' concerns about the unemployment insurance reform, but he warned everyone that any amendment to the plan would have to be implemented within the existing financial framework''. There you have it: what counts is the financial framework and not the reform. The article went on to say:The government intends to fully respect the financial parameters set for the unemployment insurance reform''.
Before I talk about unemployment insurance as such, I would like to say a few words about the five proposed measures which will replace the 39 back to work programs.
All the organizations I have consulted reminded me that there is a certain amount of cynicism, if not hypocrisy, in this amendment. In the throne speech, it was said that the federal government was committed to transferring the responsibility for vocational training back to the provinces.
We reminded the government about the consensus in Quebec and about the minister who, at the Quebec conference on economic development, tried to call the Quebec organizations to order, even saying that the Conseil du patronat du Québec was not part of the consensus. The consensus is very real and it applies not only to all vocational training measures but also to all active unemployment insurance measures.
Therefore, it must be said again that, first of all, the official opposition and all interested parties in Quebec want Quebec to have exclusive jurisdiction over all vocational training and manpower training policies.
All the organizations consulted said it is clear that the purpose of the reform is to cut a further $2 billion, and that this government is behaving exactly like the previous Tory government: it is cutting social programs in order to reduce the deficit.
When he announced $300 million worth of changes in the amendments, he said that would be offset by stronger re-entry measures. If he had so much confidence in his measures for re-entry into the labour force, why would he cut unemployment insurance? The number of unemployed would go down by itself and so would program costs. But no. He has so little confidence in his measures that he will cut the program anyway, to be sure to
save $2 billion. These measures are not fair and should be condemned.
As to the insurance program, it is clear to us that it is a social program reform done at the expense of the neediest in our society, that is the unemployed, welfare recipients, the young, women and new entrants. On the whole, the unemployment insurance reform, as proposed, is unfair, regressive, job-killing and poverty-inducing. Eligibility requirements have been tightened. In order to be eligible to the program, people now have to work 420 and 700 hours, instead of 180 and 300 hours, more than double what it was.
For their part, new entrants to the labour market will need three times as many hours of work, that is to say 910 hours, to be eligible for the program. There are therefore two categories of unemployed: ordinary unemployed and frequent unemployed. And it no only applies to the regions; it also applies to people in Montreal, to self employed workers and part time workers.
I started in the labour force in a weekend corner store job to pay for my studies, and I feel affected by that. We are not talking only about workers in the regions, Montreal will also be affected by these measures.
Those who received payments in the past will see their benefits reduced from 55 to 50 per cent, in negative increments of 1 per cent for each 20-week period of benefits previously received. On the one hand, we are told that every hour of work will count, even the first 15, to allow these workers to have access to unemployment insurance but, on the other hand, we are making eligibility rules so tough they will not have access to the program.
It says that the first $2,000, those who earn $2,000 and less during the year will be able to receive a tax refund. The weakest, the neediest in our society will have to finance the federal government for one year. How nice. People will have to work longer to receive less benefits and for a shorter period. It is the low income people who will suffer the most from the implementation of these measures.
As for setting maximum insurable earnings at $39,000, that is another nice measure. The workers who earn the most will be given a tax cut because they will no longer have to pay premiums above the $39,000 threshold, but the people who work 15 hours or less will be taxed. Strangely, the premium cut for some people is roughly equivalent to the new premium for others. That is strange. And to top it all off, this measure is being called a job creation measure.
The hon. member for Kamouraska-Rivière-du-Loup has said it well; business people would do well to have employees earning more than $39,000 work overtime, because they will no longer have to pay premiums, rather than hiring a part time worker for whom they would have to pay premiums. That is regressive and anti-employment. The more the worker will earn money, the more his premium rate will decrease, because he will no longer pay any premiums after reaching $39,000. That is a gift from workers who earn more than $2,000, but who are unable to qualify because of the number of hours and of the other measures, to workers who earn more than $39,000. A real nice gift.
The cap of $39,000 on maximum insurable earnings is also a gift to capital intensive businesses, at the expense of labour intensive businesses. It is more interesting to have fewer employees than to have more. Finally, small businesses are being penalized.
The reform encourages people to do overtime. The idea is to reduce the work week to reinforce job creation. This bill goes totally against the current. The unemployment insurance reform will put undue pressure on the reform of employment, which is already precarious. Jobs, jobs, jobs, a lot of jobs will be cut. Nice program.
The new measures, by reducing the benefit rate, by taxing workers starting from the first hour, by establishing more stringent eligibility criteria while making certain people ineligible, are also contributing to an increased transfer of the unemployment insurance clientele toward social welfare. And the government is dumping its responsibility in the provinces' backyard, as it did for transfer programs. The Liberal government is not taking its responsibilities. This is "forget about past promises week", the week of consummate hypocrisy. Good show.