moved that Bill , be read the second time and referred to a committee.
He said: Mr. Speaker, I am pleased and proud to introduce at second reading Bill , which aims to amend the Employment Insurance Act so that people who have lost their jobs because of a labour dispute, be it a lockout or a lengthy strike, can qualify for EI.
Because of the changes the Liberals made to EI in the 1990s, it has become ineffective, because it is not very accessible to thousands of workers in Quebec and the rest of Canada.
In fact, according to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada figures quoted here in the House, more than half of unemployed workers do not have access to the plan they have paid into.
Given the current, ongoing economic crisis and the thousands of jobs that have been lost all across Quebec, the Bloc Québécois maintains that the current Employment Insurance Act is not meeting its objectives and needs comprehensive reform.
Clearly, the bill before us today does not dramatically change the employment insurance plan. That is not the aim of Bill . Its purpose is to correct a major gap in the act that penalizes workers when a company closes because of a labour dispute.
Currently, the Employment Insurance Act establishes benefits based on a given salary over a given qualifying period. The qualifying period is defined in section 8 of the Employment Insurance Act. Only hours of insurable employment included in the qualifying period are used in calculating the claimant's benefit period.
Although the qualifying period can be extended to a maximum of 104 weeks if a claimant is ill, in prison, in training or on preventive withdrawal, the standard qualifying period is one year, and it is based on the claimant's insurable income. Two criteria are used to determine the benefit period and level: the number of weeks worked in the previous year and the contributions made to the plan based on employment income.
Consequently, an individual who does not work during the qualifying period obviously does not contribute to the employment insurance plan and is not covered by EI, unless he or she is ill, in prison, in training or on preventive withdrawal.
But what happens if there is a labour dispute? “Labour dispute” is defined in subsection 2(1) of the Employment Insurance Act as follows:
any dispute between employers and employees, or between employees and employees, that is connected with the employment or nonemployment, or the terms or conditions of employment, of any persons.
That is the definition set out in the act. This definition serves to justify, in section 27, the fact that if a worker is unemployed following a labour dispute, he or she cannot access the system, which is not right.
So a striking or locked out worker cannot receive employment insurance benefits.
In other words, employment insurance benefits will not be paid to a striking worker or the victim of a lockout. So, what happens when the company closes the day after a labour dispute?
Obviously, if the labour dispute is short, less than 52 weeks, the worker could receive employment insurance benefits. However, what happens to that employee if the labour dispute lasts a long time, that is, longer than the qualifying period set out in the act? Even if he or she has paid into the fund for many years, that worker will simply be forced to turn to social assistance, because he or she would not receive employment insurance benefits.
According to the Quebec department of labour, from 1995 to 2004, there were 966 labour disputes, of which 39 were considered long-term, that is, disputes that lasted between 361 and 721 days. What is interesting is that when we compare that data with the numbers from 1985 to 1994, we note that the number of labour disputes dropped by nearly half, from 1838 to 966 for all disputes, and from 52 to 39 for long-term disputes. Thus, the number of long-term disputes has gone down.
In Quebec, on average, we have just under four long-term labour disputes per year. In most cases, these disputes are resolved without job losses, as was the case with the Journal de Québec after more than 14 months. But as I was saying, that is not always the case. The employment insurance system does not cover long-term labour disputes that end with a company going out of business.
One case in Quebec involved Domtar workers in Lebel-sur-Quévillon who were laid off and denied employment insurance even though they had contributed for years. In December 2008, the 425 Domtar workers at the Lebel-sur-Quévillon plant found out that they were going to lose their jobs and collect no employment insurance benefits. They had been locked out since November 24, 2005, and on December 19, 2008, Domtar finally announced that it was closing its Lebel-sur-Quévillon plant permanently.
Because the lockout lasted longer than 104 weeks and workers had accumulated no hours of work during that period, they were not eligible for employment insurance. After that long labour dispute, they received no financial assistance, so they had to resort to social assistance and welfare even though they had contributed to the fund for so many years.
To summarize, although the Domtar workers were locked out for over three years, they were still considered employees, but they were no longer contributing because they were collecting money from a strike fund. Under section 27, they were therefore not eligible for employment insurance. As soon as the plant closed, they were no longer considered employed and would have been eligible for benefits had they contributed during the reference period, which of course they had not because the dispute lasted longer than 52 weeks.
I am looking at my NDP colleague because I believe he asked some questions about this yesterday. This bill requires further explanation. It is an exceptional situation, but this is a major shortcoming in the Employment Insurance Act that must be corrected as soon as possible.
We must do something to help these workers who have been abandoned by the federal government. I want to thank the hon. member for for having initiated this bill and wanting to support the workers affected by this lengthy labour dispute in his riding.
In light of this situation that has to be corrected, Bill proposes excluding from the qualifying period the period covered by a labour dispute. It is as simple as that. It is not complicated.
That way, a worker who loses their job when a company closes following a lockout or a strike would have their benefits calculated based on the 52-week period preceding the dispute. It is simple. These people have paid premiums for a long time and then gone through a lockout or a closure following a labour dispute. If the company closes following such a dispute and the workers cannot go back to their jobs, they will be entitled to employment insurance instead of having to go on social assistance, which is all too often the case.
I think this is a quick and effective way to resolve what seems to us to be a simple omission in the legislation for a problem, let us not forget, that is quite rare, but immensely unfair to these men and women.
As I was saying at the beginning of my presentation, this bill is one measure being proposed by the Bloc Québécois to change the program.
We need to completely reform employment insurance—many questions have been asked in this House to that effect and various bills have been introduced by the Bloc—in order to ensure that the program can fulfill its main mandate of providing benefits in a fair manner to all and for a period of time that allows people to live with dignity.
We must not forget that there is a relationship between poverty and adequate government support in the form of an employment insurance program.
I would like to point out that 19% of Canadian citizens live in poverty, compared to 11.4% in Sweden, 14.1% in France, 16.2% in Belgium, 17% in the United Kingdom, 17.2% in Germany and, at the bottom, 23.9% in the U.S. With a rate of 19%, we have some work to do. Improving the employment insurance program is one way of helping.
It is quite simple. The lowest rates of poverty are found in countries that do more for their population. That is why it is vital that the federal government adopt a true policy for supporting its citizens who often find themselves in need and unemployed.
For that reason, the Bloc Québécois is proposing a complete overhaul of the employment insurance program, including improving accessibility and eliminating the waiting period. I presented to the House a petition signed by almost 4,000 people from Berthier—Maskinongé who also want the waiting period to be eliminated.
Bill does not make sweeping changes to the employment insurance program. However, as I already mentioned, that is not the objective of Bill . This bill will correct a major shortcoming of the Act, one that is immensely unfair to certain workers who lose their jobs because of a work stoppage caused by a long labour dispute.
Therefore, in the interest of justice and fairness, I invite all members of this House to vote for this bill, including the New Democrats, Conservatives, Liberals and Bloc Québécois, who will support it because it is one of its initiatives. I urge them to think about those people who have worked for so many years and who, because of a lockout or shutdown, can only turn to social assistance.
They find themselves in poverty.
We would like the House to support this Bloc Québécois initiative, which is one of many.
Mr. Speaker, I take it the hon. member has no valid reason for taking that position.
Mr. Speaker, I thank you for the opportunity to discuss the employment insurance program and examine the particular issue of the calculation of the qualifying period for benefits during labour disputes, as proposed in this bill.
I think it is important to note, first, that EI is an insurance-based program. It is supported by premiums paid by both workers and employers. It is important to remember that. Its purpose is to provide benefits to workers when they are unable to work because they are temporarily unemployed through no fault of their own, are sick or ill, pregnant, caring for a newborn or adopted child or providing care or support to a gravely ill family member. For one to be eligible for these benefits, a qualifying period must be established.
Let me examine how this works.
A qualifying period is the length of time for which a claimant must accumulate sufficient hours of insurable employment to establish a claim for benefits. This period is generally 52 weeks, or one year, preceding the commencement of the claim. In some circumstances, it can be shorter, specifically when there is a prior claim.
The current provisions do, however, allow for the extension of the qualifying period to up to 104 weeks, or two years. This provision is to cover individuals who are unable to work because of illness or quarantine. It does not, however, cover labour dispute situations, and there are several good reasons why that is so.
One very important reason is that the EI program should remain neutral during a labour dispute.
Bill would be contrary to this fundamental principle.
An hon. member: I learned something.
Mr. Ed Komarnicki: Mr. Speaker, the member learned something.
As I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, the EI system is an insurance-based system, supported by both employers and workers who pay premiums. We have to be careful about compromising the neutrality of the EI program in any labour dispute. Allowing the provision of benefits to workers, paid for in part by employers, during a labour dispute would disrupt the system's balanced treatment, tilting the system in favour of workers in a situation where they are negotiating with management. This would be a very awkward situation. The negotiating position of union workers would be unfairly improved at the cost of employers, who pay 58% of the EI premiums.
Another important reason for not extending indefinitely the qualifying period during labour disputes, as proposed in this bill, is that it would create inconsistencies compared to the limited time extension for those who are sick or quarantined.
Bill would also deviate from the EI system's basic insurance principle that there must be a reasonable proximity of timing and a fair value balance between the payment of the premiums and the disbursement of the benefits.
An indefinite qualifying period would make a mockery of this principle and would do so for workers who are not technically unemployed and who are available for work but are simply in a labour dispute and, therefore, not attending work.
The point about being available for work must be remembered.
It must also be remembered that under the current Employment Insurance Act, workers are able to accept other employment during the labour dispute so they can accumulate the required number of hours needed to establish an EI claim.
With the variable interest requirement, the number of insurable hours needed to qualify for regular benefits varies between 420 hours and 700 hours, depending on the unemployment rate in the region where the individual lives.
When changes are made to EI, especially in this rather turbulent economic period, it is essential that they be based on sound analysis of evidence. Their effects on the labour market, the costs that they would incur and the effects they would have on the system as a whole must be measured.
When we look at the need to extend the length of a qualifying period during labour disputes, we say in the vast majority of cases that doing so would not affect workers qualifying for EI benefits in any event if the firm should close shortly after the resolution of a dispute.
In the last six years, the average duration of a strike and a firm's closure was 110 days. For lockouts, it was 116 days. Together, they averaged about 16 weeks. In both cases, the duration was well below the current 52-week qualifying period. As well, in less than 4% of closures did strikes or lockouts last more than 52 weeks.
We also have no clear understanding of this bill's financial implications, though we know there would be, indeed, financial implications. Much research analysis would need to be done to determine its costs.
It was upon just such research and careful analysis that our government based Canada's economic action plan. As a result, Canadians are now benefiting from a host of measures.
We have improved the EI program by providing nationally an extra five weeks of EI regular benefits in areas of high unemployment.
The maximum duration of benefits has been extended from 45 weeks to 50 weeks. We have made it easier for employers to participate in work-sharing agreements. In fact, there are presently over 5,800 active work-sharing agreements that are helping to protect the jobs of almost 167,000 Canadians. We have helped young people get certified in skilled trades and have helped older workers make the transition to new careers.
Through our economic action plan, our Conservative government has increased funding for skills training under the existing labour market agreements with the provinces and territories. This additional investment will help EI clients receive the skills training needed in a scaled-down economy. With our strategic training and transition fund, we are assisting individuals who are ineligible for employment insurance to benefit from training and other support measures.
Just recently the announced a temporary measure to support long-tenured workers who have lost jobs because of the recent downturn. Long-tenured workers are people who have worked, paid EI premiums for a significant period of time, and have made limited use of the program. This new measure will provide between 5 and 20 weeks of additional benefits to long-tenured workers, depending on how long they have been working and paying EI premiums.
We made improvements to the program before our economic action plan. Through the establishment of the Canada Employment Insurance Financing Board, we are improving the management and governance of the EI account. We took that step to ensure that EI premiums paid by hard-working Canadians do not go into general revenues and are not available for future governments to use on their pet political projects or to fudge deficit numbers, like the previous Liberal governments did.
Our government's action on that issue is a good thing for working Canadians. We also froze the EI premiums for this year, 2009 and for next year, 2010. Keeping the EI premium at this level, its lowest in almost a quarter century in 2009 and 2010, rather than allowing it to rise to the break-even level, will achieve a projected combined economic stimulus of $10.5 billion just when it is needed most.
This measure therefore keeps premium rates lower than they would otherwise be. From an employer perspective, the measure provides an incentive to create and retain jobs. At the same time, it leaves more earnings in the hands of employees which impacts on consumer spending.
Under the economic action plan, we introduced career transition assistance. This initiative extends EI benefits to a maximum of two years for long-tenured workers participating in longer training. Up to three months of benefits following the completion of training could be available so that the claimant would have more time to search for re-employment.
Overall, with the measures that we have taken, the EI program is meeting the needs of Canadians. For this reason and the points I have outlined, I cannot support Bill .
I can say, however, that this government will bear in mind the issue raised in this bill and continue to be informed in our policy decisions by close monitoring of the EI program. One must take all of this in the context of what we have already done and what we are proposing to do.
We are looking after those Canadians who need our help most, those who have been affected and hardest hit, those who have contributed to the system by working for many years, contributing premiums and not utilizing the system, and who unfortunately now find themselves out of work through no fault of their own. Those are the people we are helping.
Mr. Speaker, I am glad to speak tonight to Bill , which is an act to amend the Employment Insurance Act addressing eligibility as a result of a labour dispute.
This country has been and is going through a major economic crisis. While there is talk of a rebounding economy, the reality is that it is a jobless recovery. The reality is that there are still people who are continuing to lose their jobs.
We know that at this moment there are over 700,000 Canadians receiving employment insurance, with over 1.5 million unemployed, so we can do the math in terms of who is receiving employment insurance at this point and who is not able to receive it.
Inaccessibility of course has been a major issue throughout this crisis. Many Canadians have not been able to access employment insurance at all, and many others of course have now exhausted their benefits and are not part of the small group that the government has chosen to be the deserving group to receive extensions on their EI benefits. I have no problem with extending it, except that it should be a much broader initiative to cover all of those people who are now in dire straits.
To come back to this bill, we all know that currently the act does not specify what happens after a work stoppage. It is not clear and this is important to clarify. How does the qualifying period impact people who have been on strike for awhile and then are laid off shortly after going back to work? The act is not very clear in that context. This bill actually clarifies that and certainly ensures that people are not left in the cold.
The qualifying period, as we know, is 52 weeks immediately before the start date of a claim or the period since the start of a previous EI claim, if that claim started during the 52 week period. While that part of it is clear, there is still the issue of what happens to people who find themselves out of work because of a strike. We do have coverage in other ways for other groups, such as sickness, but this is not something that is captured very clearly. This bill aims to clarify what happens to that qualifying period and I welcome that clarification.
Workers should not be penalized because they are out for a week, two weeks, ten weeks or however long it is, for a strike, because they do not have the choice to strike or not to strike. Obviously, if there is a lockout or a strike, the workers are affected very directly.
At the same time, they have not been laid off. None of these workers have actually received a pink slip that says they are no longer employees so that they can go and apply for EI during that process. They cannot. They are deemed to still be employees of that company and they are deemed to be workers receiving benefits and so on until such time as they are no longer employees.
However, if they are laid off through no fault of their own after the dispute is over; that is, shortly thereafter, and sometimes it can happen very soon after, this whole area is not clear as to whether that whole period can qualify them for coverage or not. In many cases, of course, it does not.
This bill takes care of that problem and it extends the qualifying period for the length of the work stoppage. That is a very valuable thing to do and I support that. As I said before, I do not believe that any worker who is either on strike or has been locked out should have to lose financial support.
I know that on the government's side, the hon. members have said that these two things need to be connected because it favours the employee over the employer and this is a problem that causes inconsistencies and conflicts.
I do not see that at all because whether or not there is a strike or a lockout, it is not always very clear. It should not affect the workers. As I said, the workers have not been laid off. They have not received layoff slips. The workers are still employees of the company. Therefore, they should be looked after. A lockout or strike should not impact whether workers qualify for EI if they are laid off after the work stoppage comes to an end.
The EI Act is quite convoluted and complex in many ways as it has been amended over the years in many different ways. If there is a work stoppage during an EI claim, it could be contentious if it is not specifically described in the act.
As I said, the act can be very difficult to interpret and it has a lot of different aspects. This is an area which to some degree has been left open and needs to be clarified. This is the right way to do it so that we do not continue to have the same kinds of tensions that exist now. The bill makes the process simpler and clearly defines how a claim can proceed if the worker was part of a work stoppage in the 52-week period prior to being laid off.
If people lost their jobs because of a long labour dispute, it prevented them from accumulating the required hours in the 52 preceding weeks. This is the impact of the current situation. This bill would make them eligible for EI, which makes a difference. It allows people to receive what is their right, in essence.
I do not see this as giving the workers an advantage over the company, as the hon. member on the government side said. The workers and the company both contribute to EI. I do not think people would stay on strike longer simply because they know that period is still covered. I do not believe that would be a defining factor in any way whatsoever. Therefore, I do not see that it gives a benefit to one over the other.
With this bill, benefits can be calculated based on the weeks worked prior to the labour dispute despite the length of the dispute. In my view, this tells workers that they are still employees of the company and during a lockout or labour dispute they will not be penalized with respect to employment insurance should they lose their jobs shortly after going back to work.
The hon. member across the way said that this would give advantage to the workers. However, the employer may also choose to let people go once they return to work for reasons that are not necessarily legitimate in order to punish or cut back the labour force. One could go in that direction as well and argue the other side. I do not believe that either one should be argued.
For me, quite frankly, the bottom line is whether the workers are still employees of a company, yes or no. If they are still employees of the company and they are not working because of a situation over which they have no control, then they should be able to continue to qualify for EI benefits for that period if they lose their jobs shortly after they go back to work.
I will be supporting this bill. It is going in the right direction. I would like members of the House to look at it from that perspective and support it.
Mr. Speaker, I would first like to congratulate the member for on introducing Bill , which amends the Employment Insurance Act to change the way in which the qualifying period is calculated in the case of a stoppage of work attributable to a labour dispute.
I do not claim to be an expert on employment insurance, but the qualifying period is the period of time during which a person normally worked, for example, from October last year to October this year. The person worked the required number of hours to qualify for employment insurance during this 52-week period. If this person is laid off, he is ordinarily entitled to employment insurance for a certain number of weeks, depending on the region he comes from.
This bill refers to a strike or lockout occurring during the qualifying period, which would prevent the person from working. If the strike or lockout lasts 52 weeks, the person will not have paid EI premiums during that time and therefore will not qualify for extended EI benefits.
It is interesting to listen to what the parliamentary secretary from said. He said that the Bloc Québécois bill did not make sense. Workers contribute to an employment insurance program in order to be entitled to employment insurance if there is a shortage of work. That is what the parliamentary secretary said.
In this case, I do not understand where the $57 billion stolen from the EI fund went. Workers paid EI premiums that wound up in the general fund and were used to pay down the debt. The parliamentary secretary says that we can pay down the debt. The Liberals and the Conservatives have been saying that for years. We can pay down the debt with that money, but we cannot help workers who have lost their jobs. The parliamentary secretary said that it would not be fair to the employer, who also pays into the plan, if an employee who decided to go on strike were then entitled to employment insurance.
The speech earlier by the parliamentary secretary from was more in defence of the employer. However, is the employee who has given 20 or 30 years of service to the company not entitled to some help?
We are not saying that employment insurance should be paid because of a strike or a lockout. There is a strike fund for that. We are saying that during a dispute, time goes by and the market changes. The company says, for example, that it can no longer keep 100% of its workforce because of the economic crisis and it will keep only 75%. Why should the other 25% have to go on social assistance? The company paid its premiums but so did the employee. The employee also paid premiums for 25 or 30 years. Why should he be denied employment insurance? He should not be entitled to EI because of the strike or the lockout, but because the company no longer requires his services. There is nothing wrong with that. It is not a sin to help workers. It seems that previous and current governments think it is a sin to give money to workers.
There is already a window in the legislation that would give someone on strike or locked out the chance to get EI. I will explain.
Take the example of someone who works for a company and ends up on strike or locked out. The company decides to hire scabs and resumes 85% of its production. All the employees who are locked out or on strike can stop using their strike fund and go on EI. The Act is clear: if 85% of production is resumed, the employee is entitled to employment insurance despite the strike or lockout. It is in the Act.
I see the parliamentary secretary shaking his head as if to say it does not make sense to give employment insurance to workers. That must be what he is thinking. I cannot really say what he is thinking. The way he is shaking his head is certainly not a sign that this makes sense. It is as though it does not make sense to him. The parliamentary secretary is here, he is listening closely and he has had his say.
I agree with the parliamentary secretary. He said that the premiums are paid by workers and by companies for when people lose their jobs, and he went on and on. I agree with him. If I had had a chance to ask him a question, I would have asked him why the government took all those premiums and put the money into the consolidated revenue fund and used it to pay the debt, continuing what the Liberals did. The Liberals started it, but the Conservative members have been in power since 2006 and they did it too. The Conservatives did it and they will not disagree with me. They have big smiles on their faces right now. They put a new organization in place and said that they would move $2 billion of the $57 billion into it and they would legalize what the Liberals had done. They said that they would keep it. They would put it in the consolidated revenue fund and that would be done and over with.
However, the worker has paid into employment insurance for 20 or 25 years. It is not a sin if there is a conflict or a lockout or strike, and when it is all over, the worker either returns to work or collects employment insurance. If there is a shortage of work and the employer terminates a worker because there is not enough production to keep everybody employed, it is not a sin.
The parliamentary secretary, the member for , said that money belongs to them. It is theirs. Why would the government stop a person from getting that money? Why would the government say it is a sin to get money from employment insurance, but the person is allowed to go on welfare? That is where the person will have to go. Why hurt the person's family? It is not a sin to go on strike or to be locked out. It is not a sin if that happens. If the mechanisms are in place through the union, people have the right to do that and to be in the union. The mechanisms are in place to try to have some negotiation. If a contract cannot be negotiated, the mechanisms are in place to try to find a contract at the end of the day. It is not unbalanced, because the employees have the right to go on strike and the employer has the right to lock them out. Both have the same power. I have never heard of a government yet, federal or provincial, go down on any company that has a lock out.
It is like saying it is a sin to go on strike; however, a lockout means that the company is doing something good.
The amount of money in the employment insurance fund—even though they have taken all of it—is still recorded in the banking documents. Although they took it, it is still borrowed money. Besides the $57 billion, no one ever talks about the interest owing on that amount, because, according to the law, they owe interest on that money.
That is why I am saying that this bill is a good bill that will help workers if they lose their jobs. They should not be punished when they go on strike or are locked out. That is in the legislation. Striking is not illegal. Having a lockout is not illegal. If there had never been any strikes or lockouts in Canada, people would still be making 50¢ an hour, because no one pooled their money together. That is part of the act. It is that part that some want to amend, but many other amendments could also help people, such as eliminating the two-week waiting period. There is also the issue of 360 hours, among others. We must help workers because, as it stands, only 50% or even less than 50% of workers qualify for employment insurance. In Canada, people receive only 55% of EI benefits, while in France, that proportion is 80%. My Bloc Québécois colleague was there with me and heard when I asked the question.
We can only hope that the government will change its mind on this matter and support this good bill, which is what the NDP will be doing.
Mr. Speaker, let us call it Nunavik instead of Nunavut. Nunavut is too far away for me.
I would like to respond to the member for who earlier claimed that he would not support such a measure before the costs were determined. I think that is the problem, because before costs can be calculated, income will have to be calculated. We are talking about workers who have 35, 40 or, in certain cases, 43 years of service, and who have never once filed a claim for employment insurance or unemployment insurance, as it used to be, and certainly not for 52 weeks of EI. The current legislation does not even make it possible to claim 52 weeks. We are nowhere near where we should be.
I am talking about a town that I know very well, that was founded in 1966. It was a single industry town. In 2005, it had a population of 3,500. Today, the population is 2,300. All the young couples have left the community because there were no more jobs for them.
We must not forget that because of the changing economy and changing labour laws, EI legislation must also be overhauled as quickly as possible, otherwise the effects of the current crisis will be painful and unfair for most workers in this country, except those in Ontario, of course.
The parliamentary secretary asked my colleague just now why we are not in favour of the government's reform. It is because it does not affect Quebec's forestry workers at all. The legislation only helps Ontario auto workers. These measures are in addition to the $10 billion that the government has already given to the auto industry in Ontario and that will do absolutely nothing for Quebec workers. To look at him you would say that the parliamentary secretary is a good man, but he is a bean counter. He does not think about the well-being of this country's workers.
This bill will quickly address an obvious problem brought to the forefront by this crisis. The effects of this crisis have been felt suddenly, as in the case of Lebel-sur-Quévillon, my riding, where 425 workers were locked out for 37 months before they were fired. The act states that an employee who is locked out or on strike has not severed the employee-employer relationship. Consequently, he is not entitled to employment insurance benefits. For that reason we are saying that we must not do this to workers who have worked honestly for so long. It would be the same thing even if they had only worked for five years. However, most of these workers, whom I first met in 1966 or in 1967, were just leaving the plant, on December 19, 2008, one week before Christmas. Imagine someone who has been locked out for 37 months and then, on December 19, finds out that the plant is closing.
I will probably be told that the company has the right to manage its affairs. No, that is an abuse of power and a step taken, during a crisis, to save money on salaries while restructuring. Furthermore, the $6.5 million specified in their collective agreement has not yet been paid. This company is still trying to save money at the expense of its employees and its overdue municipal taxes are still outstanding.
EI reform is necessary because of everything that has been done by companies and white-collar criminals. In fact, their actions make them no better than the white-collar criminals.
Worker protection legislation must evolve with a country's economic situation. All legislation must ensure justice for all segments of the population. It must respect not only the economic system but also the people.
For three years, the workers had no ties to an employer, ties that would establish a qualifying period. The company was able to use three years worth of salaries in its attempt to restructure, and did so deliberately, depriving the employees of their eligibility for employment insurance, after 25, 30, 35 or even 42 years of uninterrupted service for the same company. This situation was made obvious only because the employees kept demonstrating and maintaining their very reasonable claims, I should say. They made a number of concessions to their employer in the hopes of keeping the plant open.
Our bill is simple. We are proposing eliminating the duration of a labour dispute from the qualifying period. This does not apply only in Quebec or Lebel-sur-Quévillon, but it applies to the entire country. I see my colleagues from the Maritime provinces, who are no strangers to the problems of unemployment and lack of jobs. In that part of the country, which I have had the pleasure of visiting, work is often seasonal.
Workers who lose their jobs when their employers go out of business following a lockout or strike would have their benefits calculated based on the 52-week period preceding the dispute, as though they had been laid off the day the employer locked them out or they voted to strike. It would be calculated from that point on.
This is a simple way to correct what we feel is a simple oversight in the act with respect to a very rare but deeply unjust problem.
If the member for still has concerns, here are some statistics from Quebec's ministry of labour. In Quebec, from 1995 to 2004, there were 966 disputes, of which 39 lasted a very long time and 8 lasted over 721 days. The Lebel-sur-Quévillon dispute lasted 1,129 days. All of the Domtar jobs were lost; 565 people were laid off. That is the equivalent of 55,000 people losing their jobs in Montreal. Imagine the impact of that closure on a small, single-industry town.
In 2005, the population of Quévillon was 3,500. Now there are only 2,300 people to support a modern infrastructure that was very attractive. Imagine the effort that went into starting the business up again after nearly all of the young workers left town, except for those in high-level positions. Now there is a shortage of skilled workers, which has a very negative impact on efforts to get the business going again.
If only both levels of government had cooperated to help the Lebel-sur-Quévillon workers as much as they helped Ontario's auto sector, then the town would be in very good shape now. It is important to keep people in these towns. History has shown that this can be done at a relatively low cost.