That the House (a) acknowledge that mounting job losses combined with a lack of access to Employment Insurance (EI) contribute to growing income inequality and a situation where too many Canadians are struggling to make ends meet; and (b) call on the government to honour its campaign promises and Throne Speech commitment to strengthen the EI system “to make sure that it best serves both the Canadian economy and all Canadians who need it,” by taking immediate action to: (i) create a universal qualifying threshold of 360 hours for EI, regardless of the regional rate of unemployment, (ii) immediately repeal the harmful reforms of the previous government, including those that force unemployed workers to move away from their communities, take lower-paying jobs and those that eliminated the Extended EI Benefits Pilot program to help seasonal workers, (iii) protect the EI account to ensure that funds are only spent on benefits for Canadians, including training, and never again used to boost the government’s bottom line.
Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the hon. member for Churchill—Keewatinook Aski.
I am very proud to table and move in the House our opposition motion on how important it is for Canadians to be able to access employment insurance. In Canada, we are lucky to have social safety nets that help people who are going through difficult times to provide for themselves until they get back on their feet. Unfortunately, those safety nets are unravelling.
A growing number of families are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet in a struggling economy where good jobs are increasingly rare and many jobs are part-time and much more precarious. Entire sectors of our economy are in trouble or disappearing completely. I therefore hope that we will all agree that it is high time we began repairing our social safety nets and helping all Canadians improve their situation and live a better life.
Employment insurance is a very important safety net. It enables people who lose their jobs to pay their bills, put bread on the table, and help their children go to school. It benefits both workers and employers who need qualified seasonal employees to operate their business. It is no secret that many businesses such as golf courses need skilled workers. Because of the EI reform, these are seasonal workers. We can all agree that in northern regions such as Quebec there is no golf in the winter. Those golf courses need seasonal workers and those workers need to receive employment insurance benefits. The workers have the skills and training to cut the grass and maintain the course. That may not seem like a big deal, but that expertise is important to the golf courses. Unfortunately, with the changes that were made to employment insurance, the expertise goes away.
Over the past two decades, it has become harder to access employment insurance. Let us be frank, the previous governments really did a number on employment insurance. The biggest problem is that time and again governments use the employment insurance fund to balance the budget. That should be prohibited. Over the years, we have seen the government dip into the EI fund that belongs to workers. Those are the workers' contributions. The government balances the budget on the backs of the workers. It is unacceptable.
More than $57 billion in EI premiums were taken to pad the government's budget. Had they left the money in the fund, accessibility would not be an issue. Unfortunately, the result is that only 38.9% of unemployed Canadians received benefits last December, the month for which we have data. This does not mean that the remaining unemployed workers found jobs or that the economy was doing well. Often the unemployed feel discouraged. The reforms put in place by the previous government discourage workers.
I will talk about an example in my riding of Jonquière. The Service Canada office in Kénogami was closed. In addition to having a hard time accumulating hours and getting information, these people can no longer go to an office. It is no longer accessible because it was closed. Workers become discouraged, and now we have people living in poverty because they do not receive unemployment insurance.
This is also a vicious circle. In fact, Canadians with no access to employment insurance have more precarious jobs, which make it difficult for them to accumulate enough hours to qualify for benefits. I am not making this up. The parliamentary budget officer himself pointed out this problem.
I can provide you with many examples from my region and my riding of Jonquière. There are many seasonal workers in the area who are skilled and who really like the work they do.
These people have chosen to come to the region not only because we have a very nice quality of life in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, but also because they have a job for which they are qualified and of which they are proud.
Natural resource companies are having to lay off employees because the the cost of raw materials is too low and the business is therefore not profitable. When an employer wants to rehire these workers, they are no longer available. They have had to leave the region because they cannot get EI. In my riding of Jonquière, a number of people have had to leave the region. I have met many of them who are leaving Quebec in search of work. They are leaving their families and selling their homes. We are seeing an exodus from our communities, municipalities, and region. Most importantly, we are losing skilled workers with good experience.
Some car dealership employees have been locked out for three years and have not been able to return to work. These are service jobs and things are slowly turning around, but as a result of the EI reform, the people affected by the conflict are no longer entitled to benefits. They cannot access their benefits under the act. These people are unfortunately waiting to return to the work that they studied for, that they are qualified for, that they believe in, and for which they want to stay in our region. Unfortunately, they will end up with no income, below the poverty line.
We need to protect the employment insurance fund once and for all, to ensure that it serves Canadians. I am not just talking about providing benefits, but also about providing training. When workers lose their jobs, they need money to access training and find new jobs in their communities, in their region.
Of course, we also have to repeal the harmful reforms of the previous government. During the election campaign, I was very happy to hear that we were not the only party wanting to repeal the employment insurance reform. We all know that was a very popular topic during the election campaign. Many people who are now members of the government advocated for abolishing the employment insurance reform and even said that the number of hours should be reduced to improve access.
Forcing workers to accept a job that pays up to 30% less than their previous job or risk losing their benefits is totally demeaning to them. There are a number of factors that affect employment insurance benefits, including hours worked and regional unemployment rates. For example, under the Conservatives' reform, a mom who decides to move to a particular municipality might have a hard time finding work. Yes, people choose to move, but we have to make sure there are places where those people can work. For seasonal workers in particular, it is not the workers' fault, it is the industry's fault they cannot work. For example, the brush cutters who work in our beautiful Canadian forests cannot work there in the winter. They cannot work as brush cutters during that season.
I could talk about this all day, but I will conclude by saying that this is why we think there should be a single 360-hour threshold for everyone, no matter where they live. I hope to get a lot of support from my colleagues in the House to make changes, bring in universal benefits, improve access by reducing the number of hours, and restore services. Most importantly, the government must never again take money from the employment insurance fund.