Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to discuss Bill C-395 yet again. As most of us know, this is not the first time. This is a bill to amend the Employment Insurance Act.
Currently, the EI Act does not specify that the qualifying period should be extended in the event of a work stoppage due to a labour dispute. This is not clear. The qualifying period of the 52-week period immediately before the start date of a claim or the period since the start of a previous EI claim is that a claim has started during the 52-week period.
This private member's bill aims to extend the qualifying period during the length of the labour dispute so that the employee will not be penalized under the EI system. For example, the employee has worked full-time for three years, at which time there is a work stoppage as a result of labour dispute that lasts, for example, 10 weeks. Shortly after returning to work, the employee is laid off. When submitting an EI claim, the qualifying period would be 52 weeks. Under this proposed amendment, the qualifying period would be 62 weeks, thereby ensuring that the period during the labour dispute does not affect one's ability to qualify for EI benefits, which is what we are trying to do.
As this House knows, this bill was reported back from committee on May 6 with amendments. It has gone to committee before. Hopefully we can get it back there again. With regard to clause 1 in Bill C-395, the report back from committee said:
That Bill C-395, in Clause 1, be amended by replacing line 19 on page 1 with the following:
“the person was employed, provided that, for the purposes of determining the weekly rate of benefits, the qualifying period is established retrospectively to the fifty-two weeks preceding the beginning of the dispute.”
This amendment clarifies that the weekly rate will be based on the 52-week period preceding the beginning of the dispute. This is really about clarify the act, which is not very clear, and about not penalizing workers. As we and others have said, the act is not clear on how to treat the qualifying period with respect to a work stoppage. This bill aims to clarify the qualifying period. We have heard many discussing this and I have just mentioned how that works.
The workers should not be penalized. Individuals cannot work during a labour dispute. Whether it is a lockout or a strike, they do not have a job and therefore they are not accumulating hours. If they are laid off through no fault of their own after the dispute ends, we should not penalize them for the weeks that they were on work stoppage. Essentially that is what happens now because the act is not clear.
The bill would extend the qualifying period for the length of the work stoppage, which is what we are discussing and that it does help in that case. This bill could also make the qualifying period longer than 104 weeks should the work stoppage last more than 52 weeks. Again, its aim is to ensure that the workers are not being penalized for that period of work stoppage, whether it is a lockout or a strike, so that they are entitled to their full amount of EI.
A lockout or strike should not impact whether the workers can qualify for EI if they are laid off after the work stoppage. The number of people who are laid off after a work stoppage is not a large number, I am told from all of the discussions that I have had with various people, both at the department and in other places.
The EI Act is already quite convoluted and complex, as most of us know, and it is sometimes difficult to navigate. For instance, if there is a work stoppage involved with the EI claim, it can be contentious if it is not specifically prescribed in the act, which it is not at the moment. This bill would make the process simpler and clearly defines how a claim can proceed if the worker was part of a work stoppage in the 52 weeks before being laid off. It lays that out and makes it much clearer for everybody so that we do not have the situation which we have now, where there can be disputes and claimants end up in arbitration.
When people lose their jobs because of a long labour dispute, it now prevents them from accumulating the required hours in the 52 preceding weeks. This would make people ineligible for EI for a big chunk of their time.
With the bill, the benefits could be calculated based on the weeks worked prior to a labour dispute, despite the length of it, so they have a seamless contribution for all of their work. As I said before, workers do not always choose to stay on strike and, in most cases, they do not work.
There has been some discussion with respect to the cost. I know the Conservatives claim that this would only affect 1% of the firms that close following a dispute. They say that this is a bad thing and that it is not worth it. However, if we are talking about 1%, even for those companies that do not shut down, and in most cases they do not, the number of workers who are fired after that dispute is very small.
With the numbers that were provided by the Conservative government, it seems the liability in this case would not a large one. It is clear that there has to be some regard for the workers, but I do not think there is. We are looking at families in communities that may be losing finances. It is not a very large liability. I think the parliamentary secretary said that it would be only 1% of those that would close after a strike.
The Conservatives always like to blame the workers when they are on strike, but that is not always the case. As we know, employers also have the ability to lock out workers. We cannot assume that the workers are to blame. In this system there should not be blame. It should simply be a situation of what is right in terms of income.
If workers are laid off and cannot qualify for EI because of the length of the dispute, the government penalizes them, yet there is no penalty for the employers. Again, there needs to be an equity situation. Employees need to have some assistance and we need to ensure their rights to EI are not lost.
The Conservative like to claim that the employees can get other jobs during a labour dispute. What they do not understand is it is difficult to get another job when employees hope to go back to their jobs. If they go back to work following a labour dispute and then are laid off, this does not change the fact that they should quality for EI.
Therefore, finding part time work may be possible, but it is not always a reality and not always likely. Employers want to know where workers have come from. They do not necessarily like to hire people who are on strike. This argument makes the assumption that everyone who is on lockout or on strike is making another salary somewhere else and therefore they do not have a need for EI.
If one were to talk to the people who were on strike in the Vale Inco situation in Sudbury, one would see the hardship that the strike created not only for the employees but for the whole of the region, the city of Sudbury and other groups.
Workers pay into these benefits and a labour dispute should not impact their ability to collect benefits when they are laid off through no fault of their own after a lockout or the labour dispute.
Like the Conservatives say, only 1% of companies supposedly close after a strike, which is a small number. However, a majority of the people who would be affected are those where there is no shutdown. There is a gap and it must be fixed. The cost is minimal.
Others today have commented on that and the government representative also said that it was a small number. The government needs to stop penalizing employees and actually help them, their families and their communities.
This only applies if workers are fired after a strike, and the numbers are small. It is only fair that they not lose EI benefits to which they have a right.