Mr. Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to debate the merits or demerits of Bill C-395 today.
Let me begin by acknowledging that labour disputes do affect Canadians, and sometimes Canadians do find themselves unemployed at the end of such disputes. My colleague from the Bloc obviously cares about these workers, as do all members of the House. I am sure of this, but we must go beyond good intentions. As the old saying goes, good intentions can lead us down a path on which we would be better not to go.
We must probe the potential policy and legal impacts of these proposed amendments on the Employment Insurance Act. We must ensure that any changes to the employment insurance system are based on hard evidence, and we must look at the practical facts on the ground. When we conduct this investigation, the implications of Bill C-395 become troubling on several levels. Let me discuss some of my concerns.
First, let us deal with the practical facts on the ground. In the history of law and legislation, we have seen that another old saying is also true, that often extreme cases make bad law. I recognize that this bill is intended to protect employees who are caught in a lengthy labour dispute that ends in a firm's closure. This result of course is regrettable and often difficult on the workers affected.
We should view this in context, however. Most labour disputes are relatively short and they rarely end in the closure of a firm. Between 2003 and 2009, for example, a little more than one per cent, only one per cent, of the total number of strikes ended in a firm's closure. Moreover, the average length of a strike that ended in a firm's closure was 110 days. For lockouts, the figure was 116 days. As the parliamentary secretary noted, these figures average out to 16 weeks. That leaves plenty of time for employees to qualify for benefits under the current 52-week requirement.
By these comments, I do not want to suggest that I am or our government is unsympathetic to the plight of the unemployed, far from it. Simply, we need to take account of the facts to inform our decision-making. Here are some of the facts.
The Employment Insurance Act does not preclude workers from accepting other employment during a labour dispute. The act allows employees to accumulate the work hours required to establish a claim for benefits. Specifically, through the variable entrance requirement, employees need between 420 and 700 insurable hours to qualify for regular benefits, depending upon the unemployment rate in the applicant's region.
In other words, using existing provisions of the act, employees in a labour dispute could qualify for benefits by building up their hours through work elsewhere. For this reason alone, the provisions in Bill C-395 are inadvisable.
Let us also recall that the employment insurance system is an insurance-based program. It is designed to provide benefits to workers if they are unable to work, whether because they are unemployed, sick, pregnant, caring for a newborn or adopted child, or caring for a gravely ill family member. This regime is supported by the premiums paid by both workers and employers.
When a worker meets the qualifying requirement, benefits kick in. It is that simple. The proposal before the House goes against the guiding principle that the EI program should remain neutral during a labour dispute.
My colleague from Souris—Moose Mountain pointed out correctly that allowing the provision of benefits to workers, paid for in part by employers, during a labour dispute would disrupt the system's balanced treatment, tilting the system in favour of workers in a situation where they are negotiating with management. This bill would make changes such that the negotiating position of unions and workers would be unfairly improved at the cost of employers, who pay 58% of employment insurance premiums. I simply do not think this change is something we should undertake.
There are other related aspects of this bill which I do not think are wise. Specifically, the bill proposes to change how the EI program calculates a qualifying period in the event of a labour dispute that leads to work stoppage. As members know, the qualifying period is the time in which a claimant must accumulate enough hours of insurable employment to establish a claim for benefits.
Currently it is generally the 52 weeks preceding the beginning of a claim. In some cases the period can be shorter when there was a prior claim. The bill would extend the qualifying period to be the same as the period of the labour dispute. This would allow employees to be eligible for employment insurance benefits if they are laid off after a lengthy labour dispute is resolved.
Existing provisions allow for the extension of a qualifying period to up to 104 weeks in certain situations. These exceptions include situations in which individuals are physically unable to work, such as quarantine and sickness. Labour disputes are not considered an exception, because individuals are not physically prevented from working. They could work somewhere else. The proposals in Bill C-395 would therefore deviate from the EI program's basic insurance principle, that there must be a reasonable proximity of timing and correlation of value between premiums paid and benefits disbursed.
These are the reasons I think this bill is not wise. I welcome the chance to speak a little bit about some actions that I do think are wise. Those are the actions of this Conservative government both recently and as part of Canada's economic action plan. Since coming to office and particularly since the beginning of the economic downturn, our government has acted decisively to support unemployed Canadians and help them get back to work, but we have done so based on sound evidence that the changes are in the best interests of all Canadians.
Through Canada's economic action plan, our government has introduced measures that support all unemployed Canadians. Specifically, we have temporarily extended the duration of EI benefits by five weeks. We have made it easier to take part in work-sharing agreements, which are helping to protect the jobs of almost 167,000 Canadians. We are also helping young people get certified in skilled trades, and helping long-tenured workers make the transition into new careers.
We have frozen the employment insurance premium rates for 2010 so they will be at the same rate as this year, which is the lowest level in a quarter of a century, and we are providing an additional $1.5 billion to the provinces and territories to help support skills training. Our government has also recently passed measures in Bill C-50 that will help long-tenured workers who lost their jobs because of the global recession. These measures will now start to help ensure that approximately 190,000 long-tenured workers who have paid into the EI system for years are provided between five and 20 extra weeks of EI while they search for new employment. Surely we can identify with likely one or two businesses in every riding throughout this House. This much-needed support is in addition to the five weeks of EI included in the economic action plan. This is an important step for Canadian workers who have worked hard, have paid taxes their whole lives and who find themselves in economic hardship.
Our government recognizes that the self-employed are an integral part of our economy. We believe that self-employed Canadians should not have to choose between their family and business responsibilities. That is why in 2008 our government committed to extending maternity and paternity benefits to the self-employed. On November 3, 2009 we introduced Bill C-56, the Fairness for the Self-Employed Act, which provides all EI special benefits, including maternity, parental, sickness and compassionate care benefits to self-employed Canadians on a voluntary basis.
We have not just met our commitment to these 2.6 million Canadians, we have exceeded it. Bill C-56 has received a very positive response from a variety of stakeholders: the Grain Growers of Canada, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association, the Canadian Real Estate Association. I could go on and on.
The government has acted responsibly to enhance the employment insurance program, particularly since the global economic slowdown. For all these reasons, I cannot support the proposed amendments, and I urge all members of the House to join me in my opposition to the bill.