Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Compton—Stanstead.
I would like to thank my colleague, the member for Trois-Rivières, for putting this motion together. This is a very important debate that we are having today, although it sounds like we are debating with the folks from never-never land over on the other side. However, I want to try bring this debate about employment insurance back to what it means for people in their everyday lives. I want to talk a bit about my grandparents.
My grandparents lived during the Great Depression in Canada. They went through that horrible period that affected so many Canadians right across this country, when people were ready for work and wanted to work, but they could not find jobs. I remember my mom telling me that even though my mother's family, my mom and her parents and her sisters, lived in Toronto, my grandfather would go out with a slingshot and try to find rabbits in the ravine. He would kill rabbits with his slingshot and bring them home to my grandmother, who would clean them. My mother would go door to door with the rabbits on a little tray and she would try to sell them to the neighbours. They did that so they could get money because they could not find work. Eventually, both my grandmothers worked as cleaning ladies in other people's homes and did whatever bits of work they could possibly get to make ends meet. They were poor. They lived in a time of genuine hardship.
The difference between that time and today for people who do not have jobs to go to is that we have social programs which were brought in by that generation and the subsequent generation in order to protect people from the absolute worst elements of unemployment and poverty. We have New Democrats to thank, for example, for our universal health care system. It was because of the pioneering New Democrat leader Tommy Douglas in the province of Saskatchewan, in spite of stiff opposition from the kinds of folks like my colleagues opposite, that they were able to bring in medicare in the province of Saskatchewan and subsequently across the country.
These social programs matter, because what they do is they buffer inequality in our country. They help remove the most extreme elements of poverty and help people get by in their everyday lives.
However, what we have seen with one of our most important social programs, what former prime minister Brian Mulroney called our best economic adjustment program in the country, which is employment insurance, is a steady erosion of that very important protection for working people. Nothing is more disastrous for a person, whether it is a member of Parliament or someone working in a factory or in a retail store, than losing one's job.
With all due respect, the people in this House have better protection because we have good severance and we make a good salary. However, for the average person, when unemployment strikes, it is a disaster for them. They need employment insurance there to help them when they face the calamity of unemployment.
What we are finding increasingly today is that far too many people cannot get employment insurance benefits. It used to be, back in the time of Brian Mulroney, that about 80% of unemployed Canadians got insurance when they lost their job, but that has been eroded significantly.
I want to quote from an article in today's The Globe and Mail, which quotes two people from Statistics Canada. They said, from their study at Statistics Canada:
It was during the period of 1994 through 2000, when [pre-tax] inequality remained high but total redistribution through taxes and transfers fell, that after-tax inequality rose....
That was during the Chrétien years when we had dramatic cuts to employment insurance. Far too few people were able to get access to it. In fact, the government dove into the EI fund with both hands and used that money, the money paid by workers and employers, to balance the books so that the government would look better in the eyes of Canadians.
The Liberals were not the only ones to do that. Under the Liberals, as I said, it went from 80% coverage of unemployed workers down to less than 50% of the unemployed who got coverage. However, the Conservatives thought this was such a good idea that they continued the trend.
If we combine the EI premiums taken out by the Liberals and Conservatives, they have taken over $57 billion out of the EI fund. Some people have called that theft. Some people have said that is stealing money from working people and employers. We are talking about $57 billion.
In the city of Toronto, I think it is down around 30% of unemployed workers who can actually get access to EI benefits. Why would that be? A Toronto-Dominion Bank study recently reported a dramatic decline in the quality of work in Canada. We have seen in Toronto that barely 50% of the workers have any kind of job security, and precarious labour, these insecure, temporary, often part-time jobs, have increased by 10% under the Conservative government since 2001. Almost one in five workers in the greater Toronto area is in the most insecure employment. TD Bank estimated that for people in one of these insecure jobs, the gap between that kind of a job and permanent employment is as high as $18,000 a year.
We are finding that these people in a precarious situation are the least likely to get access to EI. Imagine if we had access to that $57 billion that was taken from the EI fund. Imagine if we had that money. It would be there to give benefits to working people when they lose their job and need that money. Would that not be a big advantage over what we are facing today with so many workers getting no support? It is taking Canadian workers back to the time of the Great Depression, where if people lost their job, they were on their own and good luck to them.
What have governments been doing with this money?
The Conservatives, of course, have used EI funds to help balance the books federally. Now they have turned around and given a great big tax cut to the wealthiest 15% of Canadians through their income-splitting scheme. Basically, this has been a transfer from the people who can least afford to pay this money. Unemployed workers and their families are having food taken off their tables and given to the wealthiest people in this country. I say that is shocking. It is wrong, and the government needs to be held accountable.
I see my time is almost up, which is unfortunate, because I could go on at length about the importance of employment insurance and the scourge of both the current Conservative and previous Liberal governments in gutting this most important social program. However, I will wrap it up, because I am looking forward to what I am sure will be very cogent and important questions from my colleagues.