That, in the opinion of this House, the government must address the alarming growth in the number of unemployed Canadians and the increasing number of Employment Insurance claimants; confirm its commitment to a social safety net to help regular Canadians through tough times and bring forward reforms to Employment Insurance rules to expand eligibility and improve benefits, including:
(a) eliminate the two-week waiting period;
(b) reduce the qualifying period to a minimum of 360 hours of work, regardless of the regional rate of unemployment;
(c) allow self-employed workers to participate in the plan;
(d) raise the rate of benefits to 60% and base benefits on the best 12 weeks in the qualifying period; and
(e) encourage training and re-training.
She said: Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time this morning with the member for .
Let me at the outset thank the Canadian Labour Congress and its affiliated unions for being tireless champions of working people in this country and for making EI reform a cornerstone of its campaign to ensure that the involuntarily unemployed will not be forgotten in the new investments that are to drive our economic recovery.
The motion that is before us today is a testament to its dedication and determination. I am proud to table it in this House on behalf of all of the hard-working Canadians who now, more than ever, need the government's support.
I do not think there is anyone in this House anymore who would not acknowledge that our economy is in one of the worst recessions since the 1930s, but since we are also not yet prepared to use the D word, depression, to describe the current state of the Canadian economy, perhaps we could all just agree that we are in the great recession.
As leaders throughout the G20 have acknowledged, at times like these, history teaches us that governments have a critical role to play in protecting the jobs of today, creating the jobs of tomorrow, and helping the innocent victims of this economic crisis. Unfortunately, the Conservative government in this country has only turned its mind to part of that challenge.
New Democrats have detailed the shortcomings of its budget in great detail and I do not have the luxury of time to repeat all of those arguments here. Suffice it to say that neither the government nor its Liberal allies, who supported the budget, believe that the economy is designed to create better lives for all. Rather, they believe that the economy is designed to create higher profits for the few.
If that is the premise that underlies their plan to bring Canada back to economic health, then it should come as no surprise that the plan would be all but silent on helping the innocent victims of corporate restructurings, plant closures and layoffs.
It speaks to an ideological predisposition to view it as a moral hazard to provide too much assistance to unemployed workers. That is why the is on the record stating, “We do not want to make it lucrative for them to stay home and get paid for it--”. This is from the minister in charge of EI. It is absolutely shameful.
Darcy Rezak, managing director of the Vancouver Board of Trade, expressed the same sentiment about EI's purported erosion of Canadians' work ethic even more bluntly:
Improved insurance always carries with it a moral hazard. We could see more unemployment because the richer benefits would make some people choose to stay on EI instead of moving to where work is available or taking lower paying jobs.
That may be the logic of the right, but it is completely out of touch with reality. I would invite members of the government, and indeed of the Liberal Party, all of whom supported the federal budget, to come to my hometown of Hamilton.
This week, 1,500 additional workers lost their jobs at U.S. Steel. It made the national news, but sadly, that is just the tip of the iceberg. There were earlier layoffs at U.S. Steel and there were layoffs at National Steel Car, Tinnerman, Stelwire, MultiServ, Samuel-Kent, Tamarack Lumber, Triple M Metal, Global GIX Canada, Decor, Samuel Plate Sales, North American Tillage Tools, Georgia-Pacific and HD Industries.
These are just the layoffs since April of last year and only in plants organized by the United Steelworkers. They do not include the jobs lost in nursing, the auto sector, small manufacturing, the service industry, health care, construction, or any of the hundreds of non-unionized workplaces that make up our complex local economy.
Across the nation, we lost 129,000 jobs in January of this year alone, but these newly unemployed workers in Hamilton and right across the country are not mere statistics. They are the innocent victims of decisions made elsewhere. They are family members. They are consumers who support our small businesses. They are property taxpayers who support our municipalities and they are income taxpayers who support our schools and health care system. They deserve the attention and support of the government.
It is not just New Democrats who are saying that. Economists of all stripes agree that we must pay attention to the victims of this recession. They all agree that a crucial component of charting the road to economic recovery is to provide support to those who have lost jobs through no fault of their own.
In fact, they eloquently make the case that employment insurance is a key macroeconomy automatic stabilizer. EI benefits are spent in local communities and provide the economic stimulus that stabilizes hard-hit communities. EI benefits stabilize individual and family incomes, something which of course is also critically important for women's equality, and EI benefits provide the much needed temporary income support for active job searching or training.
It is for all of these reasons that the motion before us today is so critically important. While we criticize the government for not having included meaningful employment insurance reform in its budget, we in the NDP firmly believe that in order to be an effective force in this House we cannot just oppose, but we must propose as well.
The proposition before the House today invites all members of Parliament to recognize that the budget further victimized the already innocent victims of this recession by ignoring their need for support and invites us to correct that wrong now by adopting comprehensive EI reform.
The motion itself is very straightforward. It simply seeks to take some concrete steps in expanding EI eligibility and improving benefits so that we can stop the fraying of Canada's social safety net.
First, the motion calls for the elimination of the two week waiting period. The disgraced himself by suggesting that workers should consider this the deductible on their insurance. The then added insult to injury by suggesting that the government needed those two weeks to ensure that laid-off workers were not trying to cheat the system.
We are talking about a benefit that is paid to the involuntarily unemployed. Their rent and mortgage payments cannot wait two weeks. The empty stomachs of their children cannot wait two weeks and their benefits should not have to wait either.
The second thing the motion calls for is a reduction and standardization of the hours of qualification to 360 hours of work. Compared to previous recessions, EI today will leave many in the cold. As of October last year, less than half of the unemployed, 43% to be exact, qualified for EI benefits. Only 32% in Ontario and 35% in B.C. Only 40% of men collect and an even lower 32% of women get any support from EI.
While it is true that some unemployed will always be ineligible for EI, perhaps because they are new entrants to the workforce, the main reason for these numbers is the grid. EI operates under an inordinately complex system of rules that bases eligibility and the duration of benefits on the local unemployment rate. Currently, the range is anywhere from 420 to 910 hours. That system is neither equitable nor accessible and it is high time that Canadians from coast to coast to coast were treated equally.
Third, the motion calls for self-employed workers to be allowed to participate in the plan. That part of the motion is plainly self-explanatory so I will not spend a lot of time on it here. Suffice it to say that it would make a profoundly positive difference for thousands of Canadians and especially women who operate the small businesses that we count on to drive our economy in good times, but they are now being caught up in a tsunami of job losses that is cascading across our country.
The fourth part of the motion calls for an increase in the weekly benefits that unemployed workers would receive. Specifically, it calls for the benefits to be based on the best 12 weeks of earnings before a layoff with the replacement rate of 60% of insured earnings. By adopting the 12 week criteria, we can eliminate the benefit reductions that often result from shorter hours before layoffs. By raising the benefit levels to 60%, we may begin to catch up in real dollars to the benefit levels that were being paid before the then Liberal government tinkered with EI in the 1990s. The current maximum rate of $447 per week has been heavily eroded by inflation. The equivalent in 1996 would have been $604. If we want EI to be a stabilizer in this recession, it is time to adjust the rates.
Finally, our motion speaks to the need for training and retraining. Contrary to the minister's assertion, EI is not so lucrative as to make workers want to stay at home. Quite the opposite, they do not want to stay at home, they want to work so they can save their home. But our economy is in transition and we must provide and support the training opportunities that will allow workers to participate fully in the jobs of the new economy when this recession is over.
I know that the set of proposals is not free of costs, but it is an effective form of economic stimulus and it is the most effective way to help the victims of this economic crisis. Failure to act now will simply download the costs to municipalities and ultimately to property taxpayers, a trend we are already seeing in Hamilton as workers ineligible for EI turn to social assistance to support their families.
For years, both Liberals and Conservatives have misused the then surpluses of the EI fund dedicating them to debt and deficit reduction. Last year's budget legalized that theft, but that does not make it moral.
The money was contributed by workers and employers to provide support during economic rainy days. Well, it is raining. In fact, the monsoon season has arrived. We have a moral obligation to restore the integrity of the Employment Insurance Act. I am counting on all members to join with us in the NDP today and support this motion on behalf of Canadian workers.
Mr. Speaker, I would first like to thank the member for for having moved this employment insurance motion. Secondly, I would like to thank my political party, the NDP, and its leader for having made employment insurance today's priority.
Everyone is focused on the economic crisis and how we can give money to employers so that they can maintain jobs. We also want employees to have the opportunity to keep their jobs. At the same time, others do not have that opportunity; they will not be lucky enough to keep their jobs.
I will not repeat everything that my colleague from said in her motion because I agree with all of her statements.
As for eliminating the two week waiting period, my colleague from the Bloc Québécois mentioned that it would simply be enough to move the last two weeks of benefits to the start of the benefit period.
The government is bragging about making big changes to employment insurance in this budget by adding five weeks at the end of the benefit period. The Conservatives are bragging about this and asking us, the NDP members, who we are to lecture them and tell them this was not a good idea, when we voted against their bill and against the budget. Well, we voted against their budget because it was not a good budget. Their budget did not go far enough.
The minister herself has said that the two week waiting period is not two weeks of waiting, but two weeks of punishment, because claimants are not paid during that time. Claimants can wait 28 days, 40 days, 50 days, even 60 days. And the Conservatives have done nothing to help workers in this regard, absolutely nothing. Just the opposite.
For example, there are rumours going around my riding this week that 15 workers are going to be moved from Bathurst to Moncton. These are people who process employment insurance claims and make sure people can receive EI. They are going to be sent away from Bathurst to take up some jobs for which they are unqualified, while in Moncton, new people who know nothing about the process are going to be trained.
This week, the minister boasted and said she wanted to improve the employment insurance system. The idea behind paying people for the two week waiting period is not to allow them to stay home, it is to make sure that once they have lost their jobs and are no longer receiving cheques from their employer, they can feed their families and pay their electricity bills, especially in winter, when it is cold like it is today and electricity bills run $500 a month.
People who have been working and earning $1,500 a week receive EI benefits calculated at the rate of 55%. I do not know whether people are aware of this. I want to tell the people who are lucky enough never to have received employment insurance that it pays only 55% of $750. So people used to earning $1,500 a week end up with $430 or $450 a week.
Yet the minister has the nerve to insult workers by saying that if she paid them for the two week waiting period, they would be tempted to sit at home. And the Conservatives wonder why we voted against their budget. We voted against the budget because it is not good.
As for the additional five weeks of benefits at the end of the benefit period, the government says it wants these people to find a job and go to work. They will not be able to take advantage of those five weeks if they are lucky enough to find work. Why not help them when they are struggling?
Our motion refers to 360 hours. Only 32% of Canadian women qualify for employment insurance, and only 38% of Canadian men qualify. We are in an economic crisis. We are all worried about the people who lose their jobs, because when they become unemployed, they do not even qualify for employment insurance, even though they paid for the system themselves.
The Liberals can laugh at the other end of the House, but they are the ones who voted against this, who made the changes to employment insurance and who allowed $57 billion to be stolen from the employment insurance fund.
The Conservatives can laugh on their side of the House. They are the ones who sanctioned the theft from the EI fund on the backs of unemployed workers, on the backs of families and on the backs of those most vulnerable. They now stand here and brag that they can balance the budget, and eliminate the deficit—on the backs of the poor, the unemployed workers and people who work in factories, in the forestry and manufacturing sectors and the auto industry in Ontario.
The president of the Canadian Labour Congress—and I would just like to congratulate the CLC and thank it for everything it is doing for working men and women—asked for a meeting with the , but so far she has refused. She is refusing to meet with the president—the representative—of Canada's largest union. If the president of General Motors asked for a meeting, would she not take his call? If Alberta oil companies asked for a meeting, would she not take their call? But does she have time to take a call from the man who represents workers? Of course not. Workers are a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings who do not want to work. They should be cut off from employment insurance. They do not deserve to get any money because they are a bunch of slackers. That is shameful, insulting and unacceptable.
On Monday when this comes to a vote in the House of Commons, we will see how many members support the NDP motion, how many people will stand up in this House, how many representatives of the people, of working men and women, of Canadians and Quebeckers, how many of those representatives will agree to use this program, which belongs to the working people, to help those very people.
In June 2005, we raised the 12 best weeks issue. My Liberal colleague stood up earlier to say that we never asked for help for people who wait a long time for their employment insurance benefits. We asked the government to use the 12 best weeks, but the Liberals voted against it. They voted against using workers' 12 best weeks. I remember that; I have a pretty good memory. I remember what they did, and I remember that they did not support workers.
I am thinking of self-employed workers. I am thinking of a woman who is self-employed and who told me that she could never take a sick day or even have a child because if ever she took a day off, she would have to close her company. She would lose her livelihood and there would be nobody to help her. What did the government do for self-employed workers? Nothing at all.
I will tell you about one of my constituents. Gina Miller, a hair stylist, became pregnant and asked for help because when she stops working there will be no one left and she will no longer have a source of income. She asked for assistance. There were no programs to help her. Today, the Conservatives have the gall to ask why we voted against the budget. It is because, in this time of economic crisis, they did not include anything in the budget to help workers. They boast that the five weeks they added at the end of 45 weeks of benefits will help solve these people's financial problems. It is shameful and they should not be boasting about it.
Whenever we introduced bills in this House, we included all the changes that were necessary. They said it would cost too much and that they could not vote for all these changes. The motions and the bills were discussed, one by one, but they voted against them because they do not believe in the workers. It is like a rabbit with a carrot. They seem to be saying that it is unfortunate if they are made to suffer, but the workers will be the employers' slaves. That is what they want: workers who do what they are told. As for the rest, there is nothing. There is absolutely nothing.
After applying for employment insurance, workers wait 40 days before being called by a representative and finding out whether or not they qualify. Forty days. How do these families survive?
Once again, I wish to thank the New Democratic Party, my party, for tabling in the House of Commons this most important motion especially in these times of economic uncertainty.
An hon. member: Time, time.
Mr. Yvon Godin: I hear someone from another party calling out “Time, time”. That is more proof that, like the Conservatives, they are against the workers.
Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for.
Our government recognizes that many Canadians are facing difficult and uncertain times right now. We understand that it affects many of them personally and that they are going through a stressful and difficult time, which is why the government is responding.
Over the last few months, the global economic situation has worsened faster than anyone predicted. While we are in better shape than most countries, Canadian families are feeling the effects of the global recession and they are concerned. They are worried about making ends meet and worried about keeping their jobs. We are listening to them, concerned about them and taking action.
To address the most pressing needs of workers affected by the current economic downturn, our economic action plan is investing $8.3 billion for the Canada skills and transition strategy. That is a lot of money. Part of our plan is to build on the recognition that the EI program is the first line of defence for many who lose their jobs.
That is why, through our economic action plan, for the next two years we will make available, nationally, the five weeks of extended EI benefits that were previously available through a pilot project only in regions with the highest unemployment rate. We are also increasing the maximum duration of benefits to 50 weeks, up from 45 weeks. Some 400,000 Canadians could benefit from these changes. It is against these measures and this measure that the NDP has voted against time and time again.
This measure will provide financial support for a longer period to unemployed Canadians who otherwise would have exhausted their benefits. This means unemployed workers will have more time to seek employment while still receiving EI.
Before going any further, the opposition would like to make an issue of the lack of accessibility of the employment insurance program. I would like to take a moment to address this issue.
The EI program has important features that automatically respond to changing economic conditions. Currently, the EI program divides the country into 58 regions based on their similar labour market conditions. As unemployment rates increase in a given region, the number of insured hours required to access the EI program is automatically reduced and the duration of benefits increases. These requirements are adjusted on a monthly basis to reflect the latest regional unemployment rates. That is what it is meant to do. In fact, since October 2009, 19 regions have seen their entrance requirements decrease and their benefit duration increase.
With respect to access to employment insurance rates, according to Statistics Canada, EI access is high. In 2007, over 82% of the unemployed who had paid into the program and lost their job or quit with just cause were eligible to receive benefits.
The opposition likes to quote a number closer to 40% of Canadians being able to access EI benefits. This figure is known as the beneficiary to unemployment ratio or BU ratio. It is not a good measure of EI access. First, this statistic includes many unemployed who have not paid premiums, such as those who have never worked, have not worked in the past year or have been self-employed.
Second, this statistic includes individuals who paid premiums but are ineligible for EI benefits because they have voluntarily quit their jobs or they returned to school.
I would also like to point out that the current entrance requirements do not appear to impede access to the employment insurance program. Only about 7% of EI regular claims have qualified with less than 700 hours, which represents the highest current requirement.
Our government recognizes the challenges faced by those who do not currently qualify for employment insurance benefits. That is why in our economic action plan we committed to a $500 million strategic training and transition fund over two years to support the particular needs of individuals, including those who do not qualify for EI. This measure could benefit 50,000 people.
Our government also recognizes the need to support longer term training for long-tenured workers, which is why we are extending income support for the duration of the retraining. This will benefit an estimated 40,000 workers. We are also granting earlier access to EI for workers purchasing their own training with their earnings resulting from a layoff, such as severance pay.
We will protect jobs. Just this morning, the minister announced the implementation of a significant expansion to the work sharing program. We are extending the duration of work sharing agreements by 14 weeks to a maximum of 52 weeks. This will enable Canadians to continue working through this slowdown. These changes to the work sharing program are available immediately. It is those measures that the hon. member and others in that party voted against.
To complement this measure, we are substantially increasing access to work sharing agreements through greater flexibility in the qualifying criteria. This will help Canadians continue working. These enhancements are available starting today. These are concrete actions to help Canadians and their families.
Our government also recognizes that EI maternity and parental benefits play a critical role in supporting Canadian families by providing income replacement for working new parents. That is why in our economic action plan we are committed to establishing an expert panel that will consult Canadians on how to best provide the self-employed with access to EI maternity and parental benefits.
In terms of processing EI claims, which was referenced earlier, our priority is to ensure that workers and their families receive EI benefits as quickly as possible. We have already made significant efforts and investments to process the increasing EI claims. We are hiring additional staff, redistributing workloads across the country and recalling recent retirees. We are also increasing overtime and hours, opening EI call centres on Saturdays and increasing automation of claims processing.
I just heard the hon. member say that some of the extra people being hired are not trained. He tries to blow hot and cold. We are doing all of this, adding more people and resources, but he says that he does not like that. What does he like? We will continue to improve and increase our ability to process claims and help Canadians receive their benefits as quickly as possible.
As part of our economic action plan, we are also increasing supports so that more Canadians can have access to the training and skills they need to land a new job. We are working in partnership with the provinces and territories to help Canadians. We know they have the pulse of the local labour markets and we will help them meet the needs of Canadians by investing $1 billion over two years through the employment insurance program under existing agreements. This will enable provinces and territories to train workers in hard hit sectors and regions of our economy, helping an additional 100,000 EI eligible Canadians.
It is through measures like this, which we are helping Canadians, that the opposition and NDP vote against. Funds will flow quickly to provinces and territories through the existing agreements.
We are also improving the targeted initiative for older workers program. This initiative provides employment assistance, skills upgrading and work experience for older workers, helping them find new jobs. We are increasing the program's budget with an additional $60 million over three years and expending its reach to help more Canadians. Over 250 additional communities will be eligible for this program through this expansion.
It is important that today's debate be put in context. The NDP members like to talk about helping the unemployed but let us take a look at their actual record in this regard.
Yesterday, they voted against helping over 400,000 unemployed Canadians benefit from an additional five weeks of EI benefits. They voted against helping 50,000 unemployed Canadians, who normally do not qualify for EI benefits, to get the training and skills they need to find a new job and to provide for their families. They voted against 100,000 people getting additional funding and training to find new jobs and put food on the table for their families.
While the NDP members pretend to care about the most vulnerable, they vote against the very measures that are put in place to help them. I find that regrettable.
While the NDP would like to propose solutions that are not costed and unaffordable in the current economic crisis, our government is actually getting the work done following the most extensive prebudget consultations our country has ever seen. We have heard from Canadians and we are delivering for them through our economic action plan.
Our plan will stimulate the economy and help create and maintain jobs for Canadians and their families. It is unfortunate that the NDP and the Bloc refuse to help their constituents in this regard by supporting those measures and the budget, the kinds of things that are needed at this precise time.
Notwithstanding this, we will continue to stand up for Canadians and those workers who find themselves in a difficult challenging time. Together, we will see it through.
Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the parliamentary secretary for sharing his time with me. It will be a tough act to follow with the knowledge that he has on this topic and the work that he has been doing on behalf of every Canadian in this country.
I welcome this opportunity to take part in this important debate initiated by the member for , a member who I actually know quite well and respect and I appreciate her efforts on behalf of constituents. I just disagree with her politics on this particular item in the face of this global economic crisis.
I had the opportunity last night to visit Tsuneo Nishida, the Japanese Ambassador to Canada, who is an excellent representative of Japan. We had an excellent conversation and discussion about this being worldwide problem. Japan has unemployment issues as we have here. We have to understand that it is a global crisis, and not just Canada, but countries around the world, including our partners in Japan, are having the same difficulties.
Our government is very concerned about the plight of Canadians and those who have lost their jobs. We are determined to help them weather this storm and give them opportunities to acquire skills and to recover and adjust to the ever-changing demands of the global economy.
No Canadian worker is totally immune to the effects of this economic downturn. Yet the structural changes affecting the global economy mean that some communities have been hit worse than others. Indeed, some Canadians who have spent their whole working lives in the same industry now face the prospect of unemployment.
Those workers and their families face uncertainty. They worry about making ends meet and putting food on the table. They want to work and provide for their families. Canadians who have lost their jobs, or are at risk of losing them, have this government behind them and we stand up for them.
Changing industries and markets are inevitable in the global economy. While we cannot single-handedly bring jobs back to industries in decline, we are determined to help hardworking Canadians adjust to these changes in the global economy.
We believe in Canadian workers. We believe that those who have worked in the same industry for many years can learn new skills. We have faith in their ability to do so. These Canadians have decades of experience, and we take offence when members of the opposition say that older workers cannot be retrained and that older workers simply need to be bridged to retirement.
We believe in the potential of older workers across Canada. That is why, as part of Canada's economic action plan, we are investing close to $500 million over the next two years in measures to help these long-tenured workers facing job losses or unemployment during these difficult times.
Before I describe how these measures will work and whom they will benefit, let me provide some context. Research shows that structural changes affecting the Canadian and world economies are increasing the demand for a highly skilled and flexible workforce. This fact is driving the need for new and flexible approaches to how laid-off workers are trained.
Those who have worked a long time in a single industry have many assets and much experience, but they have specific job skills and are less transferrable to a new environment. Of all unemployed, those long-tenured workers are most likely to need skills upgrading. It is likely they need encouragement and incentives to gain those new skills that will help them, their families, and their communities prosper.
To thrive in the 21st century, our country needs workers who are able and willing to take their existing skills and expertise and quickly adapt them to a new context as the situation demands. We need workers who are ready to learn a new skill set altogether.
To that end, in partnership with the provinces and territories, our government is embarking on an initiative called the long-tenured workers pilot project. Through this project, we will extend benefit duration from the employment insurance program to long-tenured workers while they pursue training to embark on a profession in a new occupation or sector. We estimate about 40,000 Canadians will benefit from this pilot project.
Of course, even when they are armed with new skills, new jobs may not simply fall into their laps. That is why, in addition to extending benefits from the EI program during the training itself, this project will provide benefits for up to 12 weeks following the completion of training. This will give these individuals a financial cushion so that they can conduct their job search. All told, the pilot project will extend regular benefits up to 104 weeks.
In a complementary move, the economic action plan will help workers with severance and other separation payments to become eligible for earlier access to EI benefits if they use some or all of this severance to upgrade their skills or invest in training.
Through these measures, long-tenured workers can be eligible for up to two years of benefits under the long-tenured worker pilot project and can start receiving benefits sooner while receiving viable training to build new skills. That is truly a win-win result for Canadian workers and their families.
Many hard-working Canadians have held down good jobs for years and rarely, if ever, drawn on the EI program. Now when times are tough they deserve every opportunity to sharpen their skills without falling further behind. This pilot project will give them that chance.
As we can see, this government is taking action. Just today, as a matter of fact, the announced important enhancements to work-sharing agreements so more Canadians can continue working while their companies weather this temporary slowdown. The minister has extended work-sharing agreements by 14 weeks, to a maximum of 52 weeks, and increased access through greater flexibility and in the qualifying criteria.
Work sharing is designed to avoid layoffs by offering EI income benefits to qualifying workers to work a reduced work week while the employer recovers.
In the face of economic uncertainty, our economic action plan is designed to keep Canadians working and help unemployed Canadians get back to work and put our economy back on track while we do whatever it takes to help Canadians weather this economic storm.
We will pay special attention to those hard-working Canadians who need and want to start new careers so they can prosper in this global economy. We are delivering and helping Canadians in need.
While the NDP members like to propose uncosted, unaffordable solutions to the current economic crisis, our government is actually getting the job done. Yesterday in this place the reality was that the NDP members voted against helping 400,000 unemployed Canadians benefit from an additional five weeks of EI benefits. They voted against helping 50,000 unemployed Canadians who normally do not qualify for EI benefits get the training and skills they need to find a new job and provide for their families.
The NDP members voted against helping 100,000 people get additional funding and training to find new jobs and put food on the table for their families. They voted against helping 10,000 long-tenured auto, forestry and other workers get additional training and financial support they need to get back into the workforce.
That is a lot of voting against: no help for unemployed Canadians. If I were the NDP members I would look in the mirror hard before coming to this place and trying to tell Canadians that it is this government that is not helping Canadians. It is the NDP that is not helping Canadians today.
However, something good did happen yesterday. This government, with the help of other members of the House, voted yes to Canadians and passed the budget implementation bill at third reading. That is good news for Canadians. That means we are going to take a big step closer to implementing our economic action plan and providing support to Canadians who need it right now. The NDP members had nothing whatsoever to contribute to that vote in favour of Canadians.
With that context, I would like to end this debate and I thank the House for this opportunity.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise and lead off the Liberal debate on this issue. I am also pleased to split my time with one of the more distinguished and articulate members of the House, the member for .
This is an important motion. It deals with a critical component of Canada's social infrastructure, employment insurance. EI has been a vital part of our social safety net for generations. We all know it has undergone significant change in the past two decades. The fact is EI as we know it now is untested for the kind of difficult economic times we currently face.
I support the intent and spirit of this motion; that is I agree the government has failed Canadian workers who have lost their jobs and it has failed to make the necessary changes to EI that the times demand.
The events of the past few months are very troubling. This is a government that is adrift. The government has mismanaged this economy throughout the process.
From last summer, when we started to see significant problems, the government put politics before people. Conservatives called an election and they produced an economic update. The only thing that stimulated was political uncertainty. Then they shut down Parliament. We all assumed they had learned from that experience and they did produce a budget that was markedly better than the junk that we saw in November. However, there are huge issues of difference between us and the Conservatives, and they are on a short leash.
One of those areas is EI. As a social investment, it is necessary. As a support for families, it is vital. Even as stimulus, a number of learned economists and academics have indicated that EI may be the best way to stimulate the economy. I refer to a study to which Ian Lee from the Sprott School of Business referred. The study was done for the senate in the United States on ranking different types of stimulus, infrastructure, tax cuts. It found that:
—Unemployment Insurance came out on top at one-point-six-one, which meant for every dollar dispersed to somebody unemployed, it generates a dollar-sixty-one of economic.
That is a pretty good stimulus.
We expected the budget would offer real solutions to help stimulate the economy, particularly as it related to EI. We expected big things for a couple of reasons. For one, the minister was suggesting quite proudly that she was going to do big things with EI as a means to help Canadians and to stimulate this economy.
Chris Hopkins from P.E.I. has been advocating for some time that self-employed persons need to be part of the EI system. However, Canadians were expecting more action.
I would like to quote from the Caledon Institute's report called “The Red Ink Budget”, which came out recently:
Despite a growing clamour from across Canadian society to bolster and expand Employment Insurance, the 2009 Budget chose only to temporarily improve matters for the minority of the unemployed who meet existing work requirements....
This is the major shortcoming of the Budget in respect of offsetting some of the most serious consequences of the recession for ordinary Canadians.... If unemployment levels climb much higher, substantial numbers of the unemployed will have no other option than welfare - a much worse program than Employment Insurance.
The government failed. We expected this. We did not get it. The government could have brought in measures that would have increased access to EI, to people who otherwise did not qualify. It could have eliminated the two week waiting period. It could have extended the length of benefits. It could have based benefits on the best 12 weeks. It could have standardized benefits nationally. It could have eliminated distinctions between new and re-entrants. It could have increased the maximum insurable earnings. It could have boosted allowable earnings.
There are a number of things, but the government failed to use the EI system to really make a difference for Canadians. On top of that, it ignored another very serious issue, which is wait times.
Each day my office hears stories from Canadians across the country, who have to wait to get their EI cheques. On December 19 last year, I wrote the minister about the news we were getting from constituents, not just in my riding, but across the country. They were being told the processing time for claims had gone well beyond the 28 days for 80% of applicants, that it was closer to 40 days. I have yet to hear back from the minister.
Now others are realizing how right we were. I refer to an editorial in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald this week. The headline was “EI backlog needs fast fix”. It states:
In any case, the jobless have bigger problems than getting the government to cushion the first two weeks of their unemployment. They're having trouble receiving timely benefit cheques, period.
Also from the Herald this week was the headline “Late EI payments to Atlantic Canadians unacceptable” said the who was in Nova Scotia for the AGM.
Therefore, somebody is aware of this in the House. Other members in the House have spoken about this as well. The member for , the member for and the member for have stood up. In fact, they are the only champions on that because they are not getting much support from the minister.
Canadian workers have earned these benefits through hard work and they have a right to those benefits when they need them, period. So unconcerned and so out of touch is the minister that she recently suggested she did not want to make EI “too lucrative”. I ask all my colleagues here if that is the type of thinking we expect from the minister responsible for EI.
I can see some of my more hon. colleagues on the other side are shocked by that. They cannot believe what the minister would say about unemployed Canadians.
The leadership for the unemployed workers is coming from the opposition benches. On the waiting times issue, the Liberals have asked that this be fixed.
We can make a difference for Canadians. The motion is not perfect by a long shot, but it sends a message. Let us not allow perfection to be the enemy of better. Let us make it better. Liberals want a stronger EI system, particularly in difficult times. Canadians in the next election will either choose a government that believes in a stronger EI system or they will choose the government they currently have.
Not only are some of the measures in motion worthy of consideration, but others as well. In fact, in the last election, and I will quote from last year's Liberal platform, we addressed the issue of wait times before it became a crisis. The member for may remember this. I think he was involved in the platform. In our platform we said:
A Liberal government will also commit to processing EI claims faster, guaranteeing that EI cheques get delivered no more than three weeks after a completed application is filed.
I also suggest that my colleague from had a wonderful private member's bill in the last Parliament, which would have increased sick benefits from 15 weeks to 50 weeks. We heard from representatives of the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the Canadian Cancer Society, as well as representatives of workers, who said that this was not only a well-intentioned bill, it was sensible, good and timely. One of the positive things about our health care system is that people live longer after a heart attack. They live longer after they have suffered from cancer. However, they cannot get back to work in 15 weeks.
This is a solution through the EI system, and I applaud the member for for the leadership he showed on that issue. Perhaps we should consider that as well. The government would do well to look at it and figure that part out. Every party in the House, with the exception of the Conservatives, supported that bill.
EI is not the only answer for tough times, but it is an essential component in providing support to Canada's workforce. I will vote for the motion and I hope it sends a strong message to the government that Canadians, who are losing their jobs in difficult times, deserve better.
Mr. Speaker, I want to begin by thanking my colleague from for sharing his time with me today in this important debate. He is a tireless advocate for improvements to social policy and has done a terrific job representing the Liberal Party on issues like employment insurance, child care and post-secondary education. I salute the hard work he has done on behalf of so many Canadians to improve these important programs.
I also want to thank my colleague from the NDP, the hon. member for , for moving this very important motion today in the House of Commons. Like the hon. member for , I will support it in the vote next week. Employment insurance remains a key issue, not only for people who lose their jobs but also for people who are trying to find ways to stimulate the Canadian economy in such difficult times.
The wording of the motion is very important because it addresses a number of issues that affect people who really depend on employment insurance to survive difficult economic situations or who are seasonally employed. I want to salute the people in my riding of Beauséjour who have worked so hard for years to improve employment insurance. I am thinking in particular of a committee of employers and employees in some seasonal industries, especially in the Cap-Pelé area but also in other parts of my riding. This committee worked with me and with the previous Liberal government to make improvements to the system. My colleague referred a little while ago to some of these pilot projects, for example basing the system on the 14 best weeks in the previous 52. This was a change for which people like Rodrigue Landry, Ronald LeBlanc, Aline Landry, Aurélia Denelle, and the former mayor of Cap-Pelé, Normand Vautour, worked very hard, trying to make changes that helped seasonal workers and also helped employers have workers. For example, these improvements enabled people to earn 40% of their employment insurance benefits without being penalized. This encouraged them to accept all available work. Five weeks were also added to deal with a difficult situation known as the black hole.
The challenge now is to make these pilot projects a permanent part of the Employment Insurance Act. That is what the Liberal Party promised. There was a formal commitment to make these pilot projects, which we developed several years ago, a permanent part of the act. I thought that was a good start toward improving the system. The government, though, simply tried to extend the pilot projects, which has caused a lot of uncertainty in these industries and among their workers. That is very regrettable.
The current economic situation requires some other improvements to employment insurance as well.
The two week waiting period, as some of my colleagues before have explained, and like the member for who explained it well, is not a two week waiting period. It is known as a waiting period, but in fact it is two weeks where the person who is applying for benefits will have no revenue. The person will have no income support for those two weeks. It is sort of like a deductible in an insurance policy, but they are a very punitive two weeks.
These people are not rich. For them to have no income for two weeks means that when they finally get their benefits, often 8 or 10 weeks later because of the backlog and failure to process the applications in time, they are massively behind in their bills. They are buying groceries on credit and are behind in paying the hydro bill or other bills. The two week waiting period needs to be reduced or eliminated. Workers' compensation regimes have perhaps a three day period. Why should employment insurance have 14 days?
The real issue, on top of that unfairness, is this horrible delay that people encounter now. MPs get calls in their constituency offices and hear of horrible examples where people are kicked out of apartments because they cannot pay rent due to waiting 55 days to receive an employment insurance benefit.
There is an organization in Shediac, in my riding, called Vestiaire Saint-Joseph. It is a food bank that serves hundreds of needy families in my region. The volunteers who work at Vestiaire Saint-Joseph often tell me that, because of the delays in employment insurance, families have to come to the food bank to get something to eat. This is an injustice that must be corrected.
Something should be done as well to deal with the regional rates issue.
There is a variable rate in terms of access. The number of hours that are needed to have access to employment insurance, or the number of weeks of benefits one would have depending on where that one happened to live, or what the unemployment rate might be in that particular census district, leads to great unfairness.
Let me use an example of somebody who lives in a suburb of Moncton called Lakeville. That individual goes to work 20 minutes down the road at a fish plant in Cap-Pelé or Shediac and works side by side with somebody who happens to live in the village where the fish processing plant is located. The person who commutes 20 minutes a day would need two or three times the number of hours to access employment insurance and that individual's benefits would last for a much shorter period of time, yet that individual worked side by side every day for the whole time he or she was qualifying for employment insurance.
The variable rate does not reflect labour force mobility in today's economy. If individuals go from my community to work in Fort McMurray and get laid off, as many people have in that particular area in the last number of months, and they then return to New Brunswick, they could benefit from an employment insurance regime different than that from the people they worked side by side with every day in Fort McMurray. That no longer makes sense in the economy of today.
That is why I think it is a great idea to reduce the number of hours required for EI. The NDP has suggested this. My colleague from and a number of others in our Quebec caucus have worked hard to try to reduce the number of hours required by part-time workers, new Canadians, thousands of workers in Ontario who find themselves losing their jobs because of the difficult economic circumstances and the neglect of the government to act. These individuals are unable to access employment insurance because of a regime which no longer reflects the economy of today. I very much support the effort to reduce the number of hours required for employment insurance.
Self-employed Canadians should be eligible for employment insurance benefits, particularly parental leave benefits, sickness benefits, or compassionate care leave. The previous Liberal government increased the number of weeks one could have with respect to parental leave. We tried to bring in a compassionate care leave provision. These were important improvements that were made in employment insurance. We can go further.
My colleague from , who happens to share this desk in the House of Commons with me, has brought forward an important bill that would extend the number of weeks for people in the case of a serious illness.
My colleague from also introduced bills to reduce the waiting period and to make employment insurance available to parents who have to take a child to the children’s hospital in Halifax because there are no similar facilities in New Brunswick. Parents who accompany their children to Halifax are deprived of employment insurance. I think improvements can be made here.
I will be supporting this motion with considerable enthusiasm because it highlights the government's failure to improve employment insurance. Adding five weeks at the end of a claim would not be as important as removing the two weeks at the beginning where an individual is punished, or dealing with the five, six, seven, sometimes ten weeks of delay in receiving benefits or improving accessibility. We will continue to work on these issues.
Mr. Speaker, I also want to thank my colleague from on proposing this motion this morning.
The debate we are holding today could be called “the dignity or deceit debate”. Allow me to explain. When I refer to dignity, I am talking about the dignity we need to give the unemployed, who did not choose to lose their jobs. When I refer to deceit, I am talking about how, since the early 1990s, the unemployed have been robbed of the tool the government created to support people who lose their jobs: the employment insurance fund.
The employment insurance fund used to be called the unemployment fund. The unemployment insurance program paid benefits to people who lost their jobs. That program was changed and given a new look. We did not want that change. Two successive federal governments changed that concept, in order to use the program in a different way.
As I said, the employment insurance fund is the only tool the unemployed have. Workers and their employers are the only contributors to this fund, which will help workers if they are unfortunate enough to lose their jobs. That is why the EI fund is also known as an insurance policy. I will not go on too long about this. I just wanted to remind this House about the nature of this tool.
This tool is structured to cover unforeseen circumstances. The unemployment rate is sometimes very high. Depending on the region, it has sometimes fluctuated between 8% and 9%, and it has reached 18% in some areas. There are even places where it has climbed to over 20%. Every time, the fund has fulfilled its commitments to the unemployed. Today, contributions are $1.73 per $100, but they have been as high as $3.20 per $100. When unemployment was higher, contributions automatically increased. Sometimes, the government came to the rescue for brief periods when contributions were not enough to cover benefits. But each time, the fund paid the government back.
In the mid 1980s, the Auditor General said that it might be a good idea to move the fund to the national budget, so it could be administered along with it. The accounting of it has, however, always been separate in order to meet obligations. The recommendation was made in 1985-86. In 1988 or 1989, the government accepted the recommendation.
Things became complicated when Canada found itself with an exponentially growing debt. When the Conservatives arrived on the scene, I think the Canadian government debt amounted to $93 billion. While the Conservatives were in office, they drove the debt to a little over $500 billion. Shortly before, Mr. Trudeau and his government had also contributed significantly to increasing the country's debt. This lack of concern over controlling the debt gave rise to public pressure, and the government had to do something.
Instead of looking for new sources of funding, however, the government dipped into a source not intended for the purpose. Beginning in the 1990s, the Conservatives began dipping into the fund. Subsequently, the Liberals made substantial use of it to the point that, by 1997, the fund had generated a surplus of $7 billion. Incredible.
And how did the fund generate a surplus of over $7 billion? The Liberals limited the conditions of eligibility so that accessibility to the plan, which was capable of providing benefits to 88% of people who had lost their job, was limited to 40% of the unemployed. According to the human resources department, the figure now is 46%.
This spells disaster for people who lose their job, their family, the regions and the provinces concerned, such as Quebec. The approach is totally disgraceful. The government paid off the debt little by little by appallingly taxing people who lost their job. They were denied a source of income that would provide a living for them, to the tune, today, of $57 billion. This is money taken from the employment insurance fund.
That is unacceptable. I find it hard to understand how the two major national parties are so comfortable with this situation. Not only are they comfortable with it, but they created it, are perpetuating it and continue to defend it. It is a huge swindle.
In legal terms, the Supreme Court ruled on it and said that, technically, the government was entitled to do what it was doing, because it had the power to collect taxes in different ways. This is one approach. Technically, the Supreme Court said it could. Ethically and in terms of its justice, however, should we tolerate this situation and allow it to continue—justice being our first concern—or should we not change tack today and correct the situation?
The deceit continues. Yesterday's vote on Bill will not correct the situation. With this budget, the two major parties have given the government the green light to keep contributions to employment insurance at their lowest level since 1982. What does that mean. It means that the government is putting a lock on any possibility of improving the employment insurance plan. Things are now twice as difficult.
We listened to our Liberal friends this morning. I am pleased with what they said but I am not pleased about what they did yesterday. It makes us skeptical about their discourse. Are they aware that what they are saying today cannot be taken to its logical conclusion without turning around and authorizing increases in contributions to keep step with needs, especially in an economic downturn such as the one we are experiencing now.
That would be quite in step with the recommendations made by groups concerned. These groups are the employers who also contribute to the fund, and the unemployed or the unions. We have to improve the employment insurance system and improve its accessibility.
The House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills Development, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, in a December 2004 report completed in February 2005, made 28 recommendations, including the measures proposed in this morning's motion. Thus, both governments, the previous Liberal government and then the Conservative government, did not follow through. They found all manner of subterfuges to not follow through. That is also a form of deceit. There is no getting around it. It is a serious economic crime.
Every riding is out an average of $30 million annually. Not only does this impoverish the unemployed, it impoverishes their families, the regions, the provinces and, as I was saying earlier, Quebec. In the end, people contributed to an employment insurance fund in order to have an income if they had the misfortune of losing their job. But they do not get their money because Ottawa is holding it back. Thus, the province has to step in and support these people who do not have an income. At that point, welfare kicks in. The same people pay twice for a service provided by their province even though the latter should not have that responsibility. But it is forced to assume it because the federal government has sloughed it off. And the fiscal imbalance increases even further.
Thus, responsibility rests with the two major parties, as I mentioned earlier.
I will begin the second part of my speech by referring to something which most of our mothers have probably told us. In any case, it is something that my mother often said to me: “My boy, if you are not able to keep your word, if you are not able to honour your signature, if you dishonour your family, then of course you dishonour yourself”. In this Parliament, there are parties that have not honoured their commitments, not kept their word, and not honoured their signature.
I will give two examples. Let us take the Liberal Party. During the election campaign, it made a formal commitment, hand on heart, to help to ensure that this Parliament adopts measures to make employment insurance more accessible and to eliminate the waiting period—a formal commitment. In a joint platform signed by the three opposition parties on December 1, 2008—three months ago—the Liberal Party undertook to ensure that the program for older worker adjustment, POWA, was restored, that the waiting period was eliminated, and that the employment insurance fund would henceforth be used only to assist unemployed persons. This was barely three months ago. The Liberal Party’s vote yesterday on Bill is flatly contrary to that—three months later. Therefore that party has not kept its word, not honoured its signature.
As a result, the other opposition parties are very much afraid that they will be unable to depend on the word and the signature of the Liberal Party. Under the circumstances, given that this motion expresses an opinion to the government, that it is not binding on the government and does not create any constraints, we are very skeptical that the Liberal Party will again honour to the end its signature and its commitment.
It is very important to continue this debate and to continue to focus on the behaviour of the Liberal Party, to make sure that it understands that the three opposition parties form the majority and that they have a mandate from the population to see to it that the Conservatives do not act as if they were the majority and do not continue to implement their ideological decisions and programs. That should be the framework of the Liberals at this time. We have a responsibility. The mandate the people have given the majority opposition is to keep an eye on the government and ensure that the programs proposed are actually carried out. That is why we were elected.
In December, the coalition’s platform was created on the basis of these programs. The opposition parties looked in their programs for points in common, constituting a platform which would gradually take us out of the economic crisis. The objective was to kick-start the economy, so that in four years we might again have a balanced budget with a deficit of $23 to $27 billion during this period, with a very specific program.
There is something here that does not respect electors' wishes. The Liberals’ behaviour denies us the mandate we have been given. This I stress very strongly—more so than the content of the employment insurance program. For it will determine the way things turn out. If the Liberals are not going to honour their commitment to the end, we will never be able to rectify the employment insurance program. This injustice must be corrected.
This injustice can be corrected, formally, by voting for two bills, among others, which the Bloc Québécois has already introduced. That is why we are pleased that the NDP is joining us on this platform. I refer to Bill introduced by my colleague from , which concerns the elimination of the waiting period and which, incidentally, does not create enormous costs since these are only administrative expenses and there is no addition to the number of weeks.
We must therefore carry this through to the end and vote in favour of Bill , which is presently in second reading. We must also vote in favour of Bill which it has been my honour to introduce myself, and which covers all the other elements of today’s motion so as to make the employment insurance system more accessible and improve it in a manner that respects the dignity of unemployed Canadians.
Madam Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for .
We are in the midst of a major economic crisis and the livelihood of millions of Canadians is at risk. Hundreds of thousands of people with jobs in forestry, general and automotive manufacturing, media, information technology and the service industry have felt the pain of being laid off or losing their jobs in the last few months. Sadly, the has said this will continue for quite some time. Yet for the last decade we have seen assistance for these workers become harder to obtain, to the point that only about 30% of the workers who pay into the employment insurance fund can draw from it when they need to. With an EI fund surplus in the tens of billions of dollars, this injustice must stop.
The government, among its many unprincipled and wrong-headed decisions, has chosen to give $60 billion in tax cuts to Canada's most profitable companies instead of giving a few hundred dollars to struggling families. It claims to want to help the economy by putting money into Canadians' pockets, but it does absolutely everything in its power to ensure that it does the opposite for Canadians who need the money the most. The government feels no shame.
All working Canadians and every company that employs them must pay into the EI fund. This money is there for workers. It is insurance in case they lose their employment. It is there to help families keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. However, the money is not being used in this manner. It is sitting there in a fund gathering dust as working families suffer.
The government has a moral obligation to make these funds flow into the pockets of hard-working Canadians who put it there but who now need it in this time of crisis. This money could help forestry workers, the tens of thousands of whom have been laid off from their jobs. More than a million Canadian jobs are linked to the forestry industry. In the last five years the forestry sector has lost 40,000 jobs. More than 4,000 forestry workers were laid off in the last month alone. Today another 500 have been laid off in Nova Scotia, and they have to wait two weeks without income to get employment insurance, if they are among the lucky 30% or so who even qualify. Mills have closed or shut down on a temporary basis right across the country, even in Prince Edward Island.
The forestry crisis is a national crisis and the government has ignored the difficulties for far too long. Now is the time to eliminate the two week waiting period. Now is the time to reduce the qualifying period to a minimum of 360 hours of work regardless of any regional rate of unemployment. Now is the time to allow self-employed workers to participate in this plan. Now is the time to raise the benefits to 60% and base benefit rates on the best 12 weeks in the qualifying period. Now is the time to encourage training and retraining.
There are more ominous signs on the horizon for my riding. The government says it is the champion of small business, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I am going to talk about a couple of examples where the government is hindering employment and employment opportunities and potentially creating unemployment.
Of the two most recent examples in my riding, the first is a manufacturing company that has been in business for 40 years and is ready to expand. Yes, in this time of recession, it is ready to expand. That company could hire 35 more workers, highly skilled workers who live right in my riding and who are unemployed right now. They could be working if credit were freed up.
I received a notice in the mail the other day that the interest rate is going up at my bank, and the Bank of Canada rate is sitting at half of one percentage point. There is a real disconnect there. This is something the government could do something about.
The second is a company that distributes a product right across North America, but the product is not manufactured anywhere in North America. In fact, this company holds the North American patent on this product. Last month the company was told by the government that it now has to pay duties of 170% on this product. This is a product, I will emphasize again, that is made nowhere in North America and this distribution company holds the patent on it. Now the company has to pay 170%.
I talked to the owner of the company. When this business closes or when it moves to Minnesota, 18 people in that company will be looking for work. It is an export company. Most of its exports go to the United States. This is a good solid company in my riding, and now it is in danger of closing or having to move to another country.
Let me go back to forestry for one second to show how dire the circumstances are for the workers in my riding and, I would suggest, right across the entire country.
The word the other day from Northern Hardwoods in Thunder Bay was that it will turn off the heat and lights. There are two stages when a company decides to close its business. The first stage is the company shuts down, either temporarily or for a longer indefinite period of time. The second stage is when the company makes a decision to turn off the heat and electricity. The reason that is such a drastic step is it will cost tens of millions of dollars to get that mill back up and running. Sensitive computer equipment and all sorts of other equipment and the structure itself begin to deteriorate when the heat and the electricity are turned off. That is what the company announced a couple of days ago. There are more and more companies right across Canada and indeed North America that are facing the same situation.
I ask the government to heed the call of this motion very carefully. In my riding, in fact right across northern Ontario, we have been in a recession for three or four years now. This is nothing new to us. We are a strong bunch. We will struggle and we will continue. However, when we have a situation where people who have paid into an insurance fund are unable to access it, or have to wait two weeks, or there is no plan for training or retraining, it is disastrous for the smaller communities in my riding.
Madam Speaker, I want to thank the member for for sharing his time with me. I also want to thank the member for for introducing this very important motion, as well as the member for for the amount of work he has done over a number of years to try to get the Liberal and Conservative governments' attention regarding the importance of looking at some dramatic changes to the employment insurance fund.
Prior to 1995, when it was called unemployment insurance, the fund was much more responsive to workers' needs. What we have found over the last 10 or so years is that the ability for the employment insurance fund to provide a meaningful social safety net for workers has been eroded, and now substantial numbers of workers across this country simply do not qualify.
One of the important reasons for having a viable employment insurance fund is that it protects the most vulnerable workers and families in the country.
In my own riding of , over the last number of years we have seen an erosion of the forestry sector. Of course, the deeply flawed softwood lumber agreement has exacerbated the crisis in the forestry sector. In my own riding and on Vancouver Island, we are also suffering from raw log exports. We are watching the resources from our communities being shipped somewhere else for processing. One after another, our sawmills are closing down, and of course the supporting industries to those sawmills are also closing down. We lost Madill, which provided heavy equipment to the forestry sector. That company had been in business for about 100 years, and it has closed its doors. This kind of carnage in the forestry sector has untold impacts on the rest of our economy. Whether it is restaurants, whether it is other service industries, whether it is clothing stores, they are all being impacted by the fact that these well-paying jobs are no longer in our community.
In the motion we are proposing, we are talking about eliminating the two-week waiting period, reducing the qualifying period to a minimum of 360 hours, allowing self-employed workers to participate, raising the benefit rate to 60%, and so on.
I want to put a bit of a face to this. When we talk about workers, we are talking about people and their families, and I want to quote from a couple of emails I have received.
Kirk Smith wrote, “I was under the false assumption that if I had contributed for 35 years, I would at least be entitled to one year's benefits, but the receipt of benefits is only based on the current year's contributions”.
Then he had some questions: “When the five-week extension of the benefits becomes law, will I be able to collect them after my claim has run out? Can the laws be changed to take into consideration the number of unclaimed years a worker has contributed to the plan? The current system seems grossly unfair, when only the current year of contributions is taken into account”.
He goes on to say, further on in his email, “I am slowly going broke”.
I received another email from Cathy and Wayne Kaye. It says in part, “My husband received word last Tuesday that his mill at Western Forest Products in Nanaimo is being shut down indefinitely due to the global economic crisis. The future of what was once the stronghold of the province's economic structure is dwindling into obscurity”.
I received an email from Shelley Osborne about her husband's situation. She wrote about the fact that he was only allowed 24 weeks of unemployment insurance, that he is 54 years old and has been in the forestry industry for 31 years, and that he was working with Ted LeRoy Trucking, which has now applied for creditor protection.
I have a letter that came out from a number of organizations, including the United Steelworkers, the Coast Forest Products Association, the Interior Forest Labour Relations Association, and so on. They wrote to the and specifically asked the minister to take into account that 28% of the current forest industry unionized employees have worked fewer than 420 hours in the past year and 39.6% have worked fewer than 700 hours.
I know many of us have received email after email talking about what it means to families to lose their jobs and then find out that either they do not qualify for employment insurance because they have not worked enough hours--and the 360 hours would capture a significant number of these workers--or, in my area, that they are affected by this anomaly that ties the unemployment rate to the Vancouver labour market.
The unemployment rate in is significantly higher, but because of the regional anomaly, people are paid for fewer weeks on a claim because the unemployment rate is lower in Vancouver. That makes absolutely no sense.
I have written to ask the minister to consider realigning the region so that the labour market appropriately reflects what is happening in Nanaimo--Cowichan, and the minister has the ability to do this. I have to tell the minister that in British Columbia, Vancouver Island is an entity separate from Vancouver. In fact, a body of water separates them. We need to have the Vancouver Island labour market considered separately from that of Vancouver. This would allow many workers to extend the length of their claims. I would urge the minister to take a look at that so that we do not have workers sliding off employment insurance and onto welfare.
There is a very good reason for us to talk about putting money into the employment insurance fund to allow workers to either qualify for benefits or to have their benefits extended beyond the five weeks that the government has offered.
One of them is called the multiplier effect. The multiplier formula put forward by Ian Lee from Carleton University shows that every dollar spent on employment insurance results in $1.64 being injected into the economy. Mr. Lee says that there is a much quicker response in the economy through providing people with some income because the EI money has little red tape attached to it and can be counted on to flow through the economy in a predictable fashion.
We know that when workers and their families receive employment insurance, they go and spend it locally: they buy groceries, they pay the rent, they pay their mortgage. We have a tangible impact on the local economy. To me it would make sense to make sure workers have an income so that they can survive and buy things in their own local cities and towns and villages. It is that kind of immediate economic stimulus that would have a direct impact on the health and well-being of our communities.
In the context of the discussion today, I want to remind Canadians who are paying attention that the said, “We do not want to make it lucrative for them to stay at home and get paid for it, not when we still have significant skills shortages in many parts of this country”. I would be hard pressed to say that on an average of $447 a week, someone is having a lucrative living. If the minister thinks that is such a great income, I would suggest that she try living on it and try to feed her family, pay her mortgage and maybe make her car payment.
I would urge members of the House to support the NDP motion, which would have our communities remain livable and maintain a quality of life that each and every one of us would wish for our own families.
A member asked if the NDP had costed these proposals. Absolutely. We have estimated that they would cost $3.33 billion. We had $57 billion in the employment insurance fund misappropriated by the current and previous governments. This money was used for deficit reduction. It was used in the consolidated revenue fund. That money should have been put aside so that when there was an economic downturn, as inevitably happens in an economic cycle, there would be money available for workers and their families and money available for significant retraining, because many industries are now having to restructure and are looking at the fact that they are going to retrain even their existing workers. That money was paid by workers and their companies, and that money should remain for the use of workers and their companies.
In closing, I would urge the House to support this very important motion, to support the most vulnerable in our communities and to vote “yes” when this comes up for a vote.
Madam Speaker, I want to say that I will be sharing my time with the hon. member for .
I am pleased to rise today in this debate proposed by the representative for the riding of . Our government is very concerned about the current economic situation. It is concerned about the employment situation in Canada and about the industries that are struggling. It is concerned about the all too many families that are in financial difficulty because of the economic crisis. We are not the only ones who are concerned. A recent Ipsos-Reid poll showed that one Canadian in four is worried about losing his or her job because of the current economic crisis.
I want to tell these people today that our government is unwavering in its desire to help them get through these difficult times. For our government, the status quo and doing nothing are not possible options. A time when our economy is being shaken by worldwide shock waves is no time simply to fold our arms. On the contrary, we have implemented a number of measures over the last months, and more recently, there is our economic action plan, which includes massive, rapid, targeted investments. We are tackling this crisis, taking the bull by the horns so to speak, in order to help out families, working people and seniors.
This action plan will not just help our fellow citizens, businesses and cities in five or ten years but right now. It is helping them immediately, on an emergency basis, when they are most in need. This action plan is directed first at the people who are most affected and our priorities include working people. The economic action plan was passed yesterday in the House. I rose then on the very spot where I am standing now to support this plan for our working people, families and seniors.
There is a program for people who unfortunately lose their jobs. It is employment insurance, which is very helpful in tough economic times. Our government is acting to ensure it provides additional assistance to Canadians who lose their jobs. After carrying out consultations, we extended the pilot project providing five additional weeks of benefits to all of Canada to help people who are unemployed for longer periods.
In addition to these efforts, we announced that the current employment insurance contribution rate, which is at its lowest level since 1982, will remain unchanged in 2010. This alone will put $4.5 billion back into the pockets of our companies and working people. But that is not all.
We are also adopting measures in our economic action plan to assist the regions facing the highest unemployment, as is the case in Bas-Saint-Laurent, Côte-Nord, Centre-du-Québec, Chicoutimi-Jonquière and Trois-Rivières. We will continue the 14 best weeks program until December 2010, as well as the program for labour force re-entrants. So these are concrete, targeted measures for the regions most in need of them. This is in our economic action plan, which was adopted yesterday and which we are implementing as quickly as possible.
These are projects that make a difference in the lives of thousands of Quebec families, that increase workers' benefits by letting them qualify for the system with fewer hours. That is not all we are doing for Canadians. Other measures are being taken. We plan to help more Canadians keep working when the companies that hire them suffer temporary slowdowns. This is an essential element of our budget. We are focusing our efforts on preserving jobs, keeping people employed, and providing training.
In addition, the work-sharing program is an existing element of the program. It allows a company experiencing a slowdown to keep these people on the job with employment insurance benefits until business picks up again.
Conscious of the level of uncertainty that many businesses are facing at this time of instability in global markets, our minister has today announced that, over the next two years, our government will be extending the work-sharing agreements by 14 weeks, to a maximum of 52 weeks.
Furthermore, we will be facilitating access to these agreements by making the qualifying criteria more flexible and by simplifying the process for employers. So we will be cutting the red tape. It is strangling our businesses, and we want to reduce it.
As I have mentioned, action on training is important. Skilled workers are workers who stay employed. In a society in transformation, with a plethora of new technologies, it is important that we help our workforce keep pace.
Over the next two years, we will be investing $500 million so that long-tenured workers who lose their job can receive extended income benefits while they are in longer-term training for new employment opportunities. This investment will allow earlier access to regular EI benefits for workers who use some or all of their severance package to purchase skills upgrading for themselves.
We will increase the funding for training paid to the provinces and territories by $1 billion over two years.
In addition, we will make another investment of $500 million for a strategic training and transition fund to meet the needs of persons who do not qualify for the training offered through employment insurance. I remind you that we have also provided for special measures for the self-employed. We will examine in particular the improvements that can be made to maternity leave.
We shall of course continue to pay particular attention to those older workers who, as they approach a well-earned retirement, see their job disappear and their industry hard hit. Some people are having a hard time. I am thinking among others of the forestry workers in parts of Quebec. We will support them: we will be at their side to help them through. Since 2007, 4,000 Canadians have received assistance through the targeted initiative for older workers, which is an effective federal-provincial partnership. But we are going to do more, because the present situation is very demanding.
We are going to invest an additional $20 million. We will repeat this over the next three years for this initiative, which is working well and yielding good results. We will also broaden the eligibility criteria so that larger communities with populations of up to 250,000 can benefit from it.
Societies seeking a better future must equip the next generation with the means to acquire knowledge and experience. Over the coming summers, we are going to invest an additional $20 million to provide more work experience for students across the country.
We are putting in place nearly $8.3 billion worth of measures. They were passed yesterday. Obviously, I supported them, as did all my colleagues on this side of the House. If we take appropriate measures to keep people employed, the crisis will have less of an effect. Even before the eye of the economic hurricane reaches our borders, we want to act as a catalyst and be ready to meet this crisis head on. Accordingly, in addition to the $8.3 billion, we are setting up a community adjustment fund of $1 billion for the country to help the communities affected most by the economic crisis to restructure, to take control and to move forward in order to adjust and find new opportunities.
I am pleased that the official opposition supported our economic action plan, which breathes life and hope into our communities. Unfortunately, the people moving today's motion did not support our economic action plan. The New Democrats and the Bloc opposed the measures I have just enumerated, measures targeting workers, seniors, our youth and training. We have measures that cover everyone. These are not just fancy words. We also have specific targeted measures and we want to put them in place as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the Bloc and the New Democrats voted against these measures.
We want to help the unemployed and older workers to find new jobs. This is why we support the economic action plan and why we will continue to make real efforts for the workers and the employers of our country.
Madam Speaker, it is an honour to be able to speak in the House today and address a very important topic that concerns huge numbers of Canadians because we are in the workforce, at least most desire to be. We have had relatively low unemployment over the course of a number of years. In anticipation of what lies ahead, I think our government has a very good program and approach at such a time.
The employment insurance program figures very largely in this government's economic action plan that we introduced in budget 2009. I thank the hon. member for raising the subject of the EI program for this House's discussion today.
As we all know, we are in the midst of a worldwide recession. We have said this before and it bears repeating: Canada is better prepared than almost any other country to weather that storm. Nonetheless, we will be sideswiped and we will feel the effects of it. Canadians in my constituency and in the constituencies of most members in the House are concerned about their jobs and their livelihoods.
It is our role as a federal government to help Canadians by creating as many jobs as possible and providing the financial protection to those who are at risk or who will unfortunately lose their jobs.
After an unprecedented cross-country consultation with stakeholders, individual Canadians and provincial and territorial counterparts, our government has developed a very comprehensive economic action plan to stimulate the economy and to support Canadians and their families during this period of global downturn and global economic uncertainty.
The plan was developed for Canadians in consultation with Canadians and it reflects, to remarkable degree, a consensus among those various stakeholders and stakeholder groups across the country. In our economic action plan, we are supporting Canadians by launching the Canada skills and transition strategy, which will help Canadian workers and their families through a three-pronged approach: to strengthen benefits for workers, to enhance the availability of training, and to keep the EI rates low for 2009 and 2010.
We are proposing to temporarily invest an unprecedented $8.3 billion in the Canada skills and transition strategy—and I say that again because that is very huge, very significant, this unprecedented investment of $8.3 billion in the Canada skills and transition strategy.
Central to that strategy is the employment insurance program. Our strategy proposes improvements to the employment insurance program that focus on meeting the greatest need right now, improving the duration of EI benefits to support those facing challenges in looking for work, and ensuring adequate support for retraining. That is the route that Canadians have asked us to take. That is the route they want us to take at this time.
Employment insurance figures largely in those consultations and in the development of our strategy for a way ahead. We looked at a number of ways that the EI program could be improved, and one of the areas was the two-week waiting period that all EI claimants in receipt of regular and special benefits must serve at the beginning of their benefit period. I take it that the members are listening closely at this point, because I know questions have been coming up on this over the course of the morning.
Before contemplating the removal of that two-week waiting period, as has been suggested by the hon. member who proposed this, it is important to examine its purpose. The concept of the waiting period was first introduced in the founding unemployment legislation of 1940, and the two-week waiting period has been a key feature of the EI program ever since 1971. We could well liken it to the deductible portion in private insurance. This is its history.
Now let us look at its relevance for us today, at this period of time. It ensures that EI resources are focused on workers dealing with significant gaps in employment. If we removed this aspect of the EI program, claims would not be processed any more quickly. In fact, it might take longer as there would be an uptake or a significant increase in volumes that would put further pressure on our EI service standards.
Protecting the integrity of the EI program is paramount so that it is there for workers when they need it. The two-week waiting period is necessary for verifying the claims, to ensure that those who are eligible to receive EI get the benefits they deserve as quickly as possible.
We need also to consider that removing the two-week waiting period may not help those most in need of additional benefits. While removing the two-week waiting period would result in an additional payment of two weeks for claimants who do not use their full entitlement, it would not provide assistance to those workers who exhaust their EI benefits. It would simply start and end their benefits two weeks earlier.
Let us now look at the cost for a moment. What would it cost to eliminate the two-week waiting period? It would cost over $1 billion annually, and implementing that costly measure would inevitably result in higher premiums for workers and for employers. At such a time in our economy, increased EI premiums are the last thing that workers and employers need. Therefore, we believe we need to have this approach, which we think much better meets the needs of Canadians.
It is interesting to note that the former Liberal minister of human resources, Jane Stewart, had this to say about the two-week waiting period:
The two week waiting period is like a deductible in an insurance program. It is there for a purpose.
That is in the Hansard record of June 13, 2003, and from a Liberal minister at that. Therefore, our position on the two-week waiting period is no different from the previous Liberal government's position.
As was previously said in the House, we are backed up by Mr. David Dodge, the former Governor of the Bank of Canada. On December 18, Mr. Dodge appeared on the CTV Newsnet program, Mike Duffy Live. Mike is now, of course, a senator in the other place. However, on that occasion, December 18, when asked whether eliminating the two-week waiting period for EI was an expenditure worth making, Mr. Dodge responded forcefully. He said,
The answer is no. [Removing or eliminating that two-week waiting period] would probably be the worst waste of money we could make...because there's a lot of churn in the labour market, just normal churn.
Mr. Dodge said also,
That two weeks is there for a very good reason...The real issue is that some of these people are going to be off work for a rather long period of time
We agree with the comments of the former Governor of the Bank of Canada.
That is why we are proposing to extend nationally the benefits of the current five-week pilot project that until now has only been provided in certain regions with the highest unemployment rates. This extension will provide regular claimants in regions not currently receiving additional EI benefits with five extra weeks of benefits.
In addition, we propose to increase the maximum duration of EI benefits available under the EI program to 50 weeks from the current 45 weeks. That measure would provide financial support for a longer period to unemployed Canadians who would otherwise have exhausted their benefits. That amounts to a whole lot and is a significant thing for the constituents of, whom it is my privilege to represent. This means that with jobs perhaps being scarcer they would have more time to seek employment while still receiving EI.
In comparing the two approaches, removing the two-week waiting period versus providing extended benefits, our consultations clearly indicated that Canadians favour receiving the additional benefits.
Our proposed investments in the EI program cover a broad spectrum on both the benefits and the training side. It is an approach that we think best suits the needs of Canadians at this juncture in our economic situation and it meets the labour and economic needs of tomorrow.
Our government understands that unemployed Canadians are worried about putting food on the table and finding work to keep their homes and provide for their families. That is why, among other things, through our economic action plan we will help over 400,000 people benefit from an additional five weeks of EI benefits.
We will help 160,000 people, including long-tenured and older workers, get retrained to find a new job and put food on the table for their families.
We are making significant enhancements to the work-sharing program. In fact, today the announced important changes to work-sharing agreements under the EI program. We are extending the work-sharing agreements by 14 weeks to a maximum of 52 weeks and providing greater flexibility in the qualifying criteria so more companies and workers can participate.
That is the goal of these work-sharing agreements, to help more Canadians continue working while their company is experiencing a temporary downturn.
Our economic plan was built by consulting with Canadians to help Canadians through these difficult times, and as such, our economic action plan supports Canadians and strengthens benefits for the unemployed.
While the NDP members like to propose uncosted and unaffordable solutions to the current economic crisis, our government is actually getting the job done at this unique time in the country's history.
Madam Speaker, it is with some mixed feelings that I rise today to speak to this issue, simply because while the opportunity is afforded all members of Parliament to address this important issue, what we are talking about is a tragedy in the making. It is a prescription of government policy run out over years, manifesting itself in the devastation that we are seeing in homes and families across this country.
I will be splitting my time with the member for , Madam Speaker.
In some ways, as a representative of northwestern British Columbia in the beautiful , we have been to some extent the canaries in the coal mine. When Canadians hear about the recession, hear about the job losses and downturns, we, unfortunately, in the northwest of British Columbia are ahead of this particular tragedy in that we have seen the loss of thousands upon thousands of jobs across the mining, forestry and fishing sectors. We have seen what the consequences are when we take out the foundations, the very pillars of an economy, and what the ripple effects can be to all sectors.
The ability of local governments to handle the infrastructure requirements, the ability of schools to stay open, the ability of churches to gather their congregations together, the very fabric of communities can be torn apart when such economic devastation is visited upon them.
I have watched the government time and again, and I heard my colleague from the government side say that Canada is well prepared, that somehow the tens of thousands of job losses, 68,000 full time job loss in January in British Columbia alone, is somehow a government claiming that everything is fine and rosy.
I understand the government's need or desire to paint a positive and perfect picture of how it has handled things, but to any economist who studies issues such as this, and national economies, knows that Canada does not tend to lead in downturns nor lead in recoveries, that the global downturn that has been happening is now fully affecting itself upon the Canadian economy. The government is pretending that the corporate tax cuts that happened were somehow buffering the Canadian economy against this.
Thankfully, we have this strong and supportive banking sector, one that the Conservatives argued for years needed to be more deregulated. They argued for years that we should allow the bank mergers and cited examples like Citibank as something that we should allow here in Canada. Allow our banks to get together to be more competitive internationally was the call, hue and cry.
In 2003, 2004 and 2005 the New Democrats stood virtually alone in this place saying this was not a good idea. This was not supportive of a sound and safe banking sector to allow the mergers to go on. We were called anti-competitive. We were called too far left on the issue and that we should allow the banks in Canada that were pleading and crying with the government and previous governments to allow them to get together and merge. Thank goodness we did not. Thank goodness the government now feels that it is worthy to take credit for allowing a more regulated banking sector, a safer banking sector that has allowed Canada to not feel the full effects by showing no interest in the government policy at all. They were interested in the opposite.
In Skeena, in the northwest, we see time and again government skewing the numbers to fit their own purposes when it comes to employment and the unemployed. We know, time and again, when people who have paid in to an employment insurance program believing that the form they filled out every week or two weeks on their paycheque meant that they had employment insurance. When they go to the teller to find out what support they will get when they have lost their jobs, they find out that 60% of the workers in my region simply do not qualify. I am not talking 60% across the board. I am talking 60% who actually paid in to this insurance scheme who suddenly find themselves not eligible for the program.
Why is it? Does the government have a cold heart? Is the government uncaring about these things? One might suspect that. It helps the government establish numbers that it knows patently to not be true. It helps the government over-collect on employment insurance year after year and establish a slush fund that is now available to the government to spend in any way it sees fit.
It does not reduce the actual contributions from employers. We heard some strange, convoluted message from the parliamentary secretary earlier about freezing rates to employers and employees, where they are actually obligated to reduce rates at this point, and somehow then equating that to being economic stimulus, that they did not increase the penalty upon employers and employees and that will somehow derive itself to be now part of its stimulus package. What mad accounting is going on with the so-called conservative government?
In the northwest, they talk about the public forums and consultations. I know I might be agitating some of my Conservative colleagues who feel that this is not an important issue. At public consultations, we saw a bit of the Conservative travelling road show that went through the northwest.
I am not kidding. By some strange coincidence in the universe, some of these consultations would happen on the very night that I would be conducting community-wide consultations. We would have 80 to 120 people show up from the business community, the faith community, social justice and environment groups and general citizens. On the same day, the Conservatives would have their road show in town.
On two separate occasions, by some strange stroke of luck and coincidence, it happened on the same day or the day before. We found that two or three people had shown up. Two councillors had been phoned the day before from the local municipal council and were told that their government wanted to hear from them. They were asked if they would mind showing up for a cup of coffee. In some bewilderment, the councillors would show up and talk to the Conservative representative. That was a tick box of consultation. That was somehow seen as getting the pulse of the communities in my region.
Do not even try to pretend this is a consultation exercise where there is no public notice or actual requirement or desire on the government's part to hear from ordinary working Canadians. It is some sort of selective wandering process to say that they met with so many communities. It is false, cynical and simply not true. It goes to the very ideology of the government. Unprepared for the economic firestorm now upon our country, the government has stepped its way into a place of denial. It has put itself into a place where everything is fine, that the people who are losing their jobs are in some other land, not Canada. The people in the northwest of British Columbia and Skeena who have been losing their jobs by the thousands are not in line with the government's message that everything is okay.
Second, they moved to anger. Just last week, we saw the rattling the sabre again in anger, asking for his $3 billion blank cheque or he will force us all back to the polls. Two weeks before, he said that Canadians needed an election like a hole in the head. It is a government that has simply not gotten to the point of accepting the reality. The reality is that Canadians are losing their jobs at an unprecedented rate. The very foundations of the Canadian economy, the value-added manufacturing foundation that has built this economy for many decades, are being eroded as we speak, in part due to policies that are prescribed by the government.
We all remember that the ideology and rhetoric was that if we keep cutting corporate taxes, even for those most profitable, things will be fine. I spoke to the forestry companies in my region and asked them how the tax break was helping them out right now. They said that they were losing money. They are in the red. What does a tax break mean to companies that are going out of business? Nothing. What does it mean to the small businesses and the contractors in my region who are unable to even get to or qualify for the employment insurance program? How is the government supportive of small business when it will not even consider that?
The aspect of seasonal workers goes right across this country. I imagine that even those who are heckling right now have some seasonal workers in their constituencies. If they fall below these threshold requirements for employment insurance, which are raised year after year by the government and therefore remove more people who have in good faith and conscience paid into the employment insurance program, they cannot collect. Go to those families in their constituencies. Sit at those kitchen tables and tell them that the employment insurance program is just fine as it is and does not need to be affected at all. It is absolutely irresponsible.
The government tacks on five weeks and suggests that this is the fix when it knows that, with 60% of the people who actually paid into the program not qualifying, this five week extension does nothing for them. At the end of the day, the government simply must move past denial. It must move past its sabre-rattling, prompting an election, proposing that $3 billion slush funds are the solution to this, and that we should simply trust them. It must move to a place of acceptance and realize that employment insurance reform is an actual part of the recovery package that this country should be considering and implementing.
The last budget that the government brought forward, supported by the so-called official opposition, does nothing to address this key factor in Canada's need to recover as an economy. The pain will be felt, not by members in this place but by those hardworking families who thought they were paying into an insurance program and were paying into nothing but a scheme.
Madam Speaker, I am pleased to stand in the House today to follow on from my very good colleague from Skeena—Bulkley Valley and to hear his passion about this motion. This is a very good motion before the House today and I am proud to speak to it.
The reason the NDP put this motion before the House today, which calls for some basic reforms to our employment insurance program, is because they were not contained in the budget. We looked at that budget and expected to see an economic stimulus package that would be real for people and would deliver real assistance on the ground to people but it was not there. The badly needed reform of our EI system to help people with coverage, eligibility and training was not in the budget. We, in the NDP, put this motion front and centre in Parliament to say that this is the most basic fundamental of getting it right in terms of helping people.
This morning the NDP held its third annual International Women's Day breakfast. We had a packed house in the parliamentary restaurant, with excellent speakers. One of those speakers was Peggy Nash, the former member of Parliament for Parkdale—High Park. She spoke about what was happening to women in this country and made a very good point when she said that the strongest economic stabilizer in a recession was a sound EI system. That is the most important element that gets support and relief to people in their pocket. As my colleague from pointed out, the money then goes back into the real economy, helps local businesses and supports families in need.
It is quite an outrage and a travesty that the budget, which was approved yesterday by the Conservative-Liberal alliance, contained virtually nothing on EI, except the one change in terms of extending EI for five weeks. The basic reforms needed to ensure that Canadian workers who are losing their jobs, the part-time workers who are being particularly hard hit and, in particular, women, there was nothing in the budget for them. The budget contained no substantial EI changes even though day after day the has faced questions in the House about how absolutely pathetic the changes are that were being made. The changes are so minimal that they will not get to the people who really need them.
I want to talk about the impact on my community of Vancouver East. It is a low income community and already statistics show that regular EI claims rose 41% in December from the previous year. In January 2009, metro Vancouver lost nearly 57,000 full-time jobs and 27,000 part-time jobs, but those are only numbers. We need to translate that into the human reality and the experience of what that means in a local community and what it means for an individual worker and his or her family. In my community there are often two parents who are working. Many families have a single parent who is working, often at multiple jobs. When we see these kinds of statistics, they do not even begin to portray the difficulty and the hardships people are now facing as a result of this recession.
It seems to me that the very foundation of responsible government would be to ensure that an employment insurance program, paid for by workers and by employers, with not a dime of government money in that program, in terms of employee and employer deductions every month, would not be allowed to fail so systematically. Today we know that only 43% of people qualify for EI and only 39% of women qualify, which means that the vast majority of people who should be eligible for employment insurance when they need it, will file a claim only to find out that they do not even qualify.
I find that reprehensible. It is the most tragic failure of public policy. We have seen this year after year. The over $54 billion that was contributed by workers were literally taken by the government for other programs. The money was not used to strengthen the employment insurance program. This is the biggest ripoff of workers. We, in the NDP, feel a great sense of anger and outrage that this has taken place. It did not just begin with the current government. It began with previous governments that decided to start using these surpluses that actually belong to workers.
What could that money have been used for? For one thing, it could have been used to increase the level of eligibility, as suggested in our motion, to 60% so that at least people would be getting some modest level of income when they are unemployed.
Why would we tell people that they need to live below the poverty line, that they need to scratch day by day and week by week to put food on the table or that they need to worry about paying the rent or being evicted? That is what we are seeing with the way the program is run now.
The other important aspect is that the fund should be used to encourage training and retraining. I am sure other members find that every day people come into our constituency office and tell us that they have a part-time job that they will soon be losing and that they want to get better training. They want to know if they can access EI to do that. The answer is invariably no because the restrictions are so narrow that fewer and fewer people even qualify for that.
To add insult to injury, for the people who miraculously do qualify for something, when they go to apply they find out that they have a two week so-called waiting period. The processing times that used to take maybe 20 days are now taking more than a month, up to 40 days. We have had many complaints about that.
I want to relate that back to a separate issue, which is the lack of staff resources. I have heard the Minister of Human Resources stand in this House, with sort of a gleeful look on her face, and say that the government was providing wonderful service to people, but that is completely untrue.
Most of the Service Canada offices are completely overburdened. We should be thanking those people because they bear the brunt of complaints and grievances from people who know that they are not getting what they need. It is those front-line civil servants who are trying to do the best that they can but they do not have the resources they need to service people who have a legitimate claim to file and who need the money as quickly as possible.
We did not cover that in our motion today because it does not deal with any kind of legislative change. It deals with a lack of resources, which is the direct responsibility of the minister and the government who deliberately undermined the system and made it difficult for people, even if they do qualify, to get the help when they need it.
We now have an incredibly serious situation in just about every region across Canada. I just cannot believe that, as members of Parliament, we would not understand that we have it within our power to easily fix the wrongs that have been done. We easily can fix the system to make it accessible and ensure people are getting better coverage.
The motion before us today is about getting help to people in a recession: the money they deserve, the money they are owed and the money they paid into their own employment insurance fund.
We hope the motion will pass and that the government will finally acknowledge what it needs to do to be responsible and to ensure that people who are unemployed or who are losing their jobs do not get left out in limbo and need to hit the welfare lines and live in poverty. This is something that should not be allowed to happen in this country.
Madam Speaker, I will be sharing my time with my hon. friend from .
The NDP motion proposes certain changes to employment insurance. This is an important issue to me, because I come from a very rural region where natural resources are a priority. Natural resources are the bread and butter of many families in Madawaska—Restigouche.
Every year, people in my riding have to rely on employment insurance, not to live, but to survive.
The economic crisis we are going through is nothing new. I repeatedly tried to make the Conservative government understand that the people of Madawaska—Restigouche were facing a serious crisis. That crisis is completely destroying many industries in my riding, The Conservatives always answered that there was nothing to worry about and that the economy was in good shape.
In the most recent federal election, the said that Canada's economy was in good shape. The people in Madawaska—Restigouche and other parts of the country had warned the government that the crisis was real and would get worse. But the Conservatives said nothing, put their fingers in their ears and hid their heads in the sand like ostriches.
The reality is that people were already suffering even before the government finally admitted that there was an economic crisis.
The number of unemployed is increasing. The motion mentions the alarming growth in the number of unemployed Canadians. These unemployed Canadians are people.
The said that the department is hiring more people, especially retirees, to process more employment insurance applications. It is shameful to hear such comments. It was like listening to the who, not long ago, explained how they were handling the huge increase in passport applications. A passport is just a document. Today, we are talking about human beings and families who are suffering every day. The only thing that the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development can say is that more people are being hired to process employment insurance applications.
Why did the Conservatives wait until it was too late to take action? Why was the government not there to prevent this from happening? Like a good father, the government is supposed to be present to ensure the welfare and future of its children.
The Conservatives told themselves that there was not a crisis. That is what they tried to make us believe for many months. They must have told themselves that it would pass without anyone noticing. Later they could have said that they were right. The government was not right.
Today, now that the crisis is alarming, the only thing they are trying to make us believe is that they are going to deal with the increase in employment insurance applications in the same way that they dealt with the increase in passport applications. That is not how you help people. They have to ensure that there is better accessibility.
Last week, I introduced for first reading in this House, a private member's bill asking the government—I hope to have its support for this—to make parents of sick children eligible for employment insurance so that they can accompany their children who must be treated in far away hospitals. That is a great example of accessibility. That is one way to help the most vulnerable, those in greatest need, survive and to have the financial resources needed to get through these difficult moments. Whether a child is ill or a parent loses their job, these moments are equally difficult.
The NDP motion mentions the waiting period. The waiting period is definitely a crucial element when we take into consideration how long people wait to receive their first unemployment cheque.
During the two week waiting period, citizens are not able to pay their bills or living expenses. We have to think a bit further ahead and consider the current delay that exists before people get their first employment insurance cheque. This delay is absolutely unacceptable.
I would like the members of the government to think about that. First I would like them to really listen and think for a second about the situations that arise daily in the constituency offices, certainly in my riding and in some of my colleagues' ridings.
By the way, I would like to thank the member for , my colleague and the natural resources critic, for doing such a fine job on this file and showing the Conservative government that it is not on the right track.
I would like to come back to what I was saying earlier about the waiting period, waiting for the first employment insurance cheque to arrive. People in my riding have waited 55 days for the department to decide that the information they provided in their application was complete. In the end, these same people had to wait 75 days between their last day of work and their first cheque.
That is 75 days before they receive their first cheque while no money is going into their bank accounts and they have to pay their electricity and grocery bills. Children and parents still have to keep eating to stay healthy. As I said earlier, this is not about lifestyle, but about survival. Then there is rent, mortgage and car payments.
In my rural area of Madawaska—Restigouche, working people have sent me messages and emails saying they had to give up their apartments. Where will they live? The government is telling us that even if they are not paid quickly, that is no problem: they can just become homeless. Then they have to get rid of their cars because they cannot make the payments any more. The government says no problem, people living in rural areas can use public transit. There is no problem going to work because they can use the subway or buses.
But there is a problem. When rural people live half an hour or three-quarters of an hour from their jobs, out in the middle of the woods, they cannot use the subway or public transit. There is no way they can walk or use a bicycle. These people need their cars.
Parents have had to choose between putting food on the table for their children and families and saving the car. They made a wise decision and got rid of the car, knowing very well that there was no more work and their jobs were in jeopardy. That is the everyday reality. The NDP motion deals with some of these things, while the employment insurance reality imagined by the Conservatives is not what people experience every day.
I remember when the Liberal government introduced the best weeks concept in the 2005 budget. I had started working on this as soon as I was elected in June 2004. It was very important. Instead of penalizing people by using their final weeks on the job when they worked the fewest hours—and that is the reality in seasonal industries—they were allowed to use their best weeks. Who voted against it? The Conservatives. It is hard to believe that they will really be open to this motion, but I want to tell them that they should start being open.
In Conservative ridings, people are losing their jobs and need to survive. The Conservatives have to realize that people all over the country have to get through this crisis. Getting through this crisis requires that they demonstrate some openness when it comes to employment insurance in order to assure our future and keep the economy going.
People are waiting 75 days for their first employment insurance cheque. How can they help to keep the economy going? It is impossible to keep the economy going because people do not have any savings in their pockets or under their mattresses nowadays to meet their regular expenses.
If we want to stimulate the economy, the people waiting for their employment insurance cheques have to receive them. Why is the government unable to understand that citizens and working people need their first employment insurance cheques in a reasonable amount of time?
A 55-day wait after applying is far from reasonable. That is two months of waiting, two car payments, two mortgage payments, two rent payments, and so forth. That is the reality people experience every day and the Conservative government must finally realize it. I strongly advise the government to listen to what the hon. members in this House are saying and show more openness so that our citizens, our working people, can survive and get through this crisis.