Mr. Chair, vice-chairs, and honourable committee members, I'm pleased to be here today on behalf of the Canadian Bar Association.
The Canadian Bar Association is a national association representing approximately 36,000 members of the legal profession. Our primary objectives include improvements in the law and the administration of justice. It is through this lens that we have prepared our written submissions and appear here today.
Our written submission was prepared jointly by the privacy and access law section of the CBA, the constitutional and human rights law section, and the pension and benefits law section, which I am from.
Our written submissions and our comments today are focused solely on the clauses of Bill that repeal the former Bill . Those are clauses 12 and 13 of Bill C-4.
The CBA has previously expressed a number of concerns with respect to Bill , both in our written submissions and in appearances before the House of Commons finance committee, the Senate banking, trade, and commerce committee, and the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee. I am a past chair of the pension and benefits law section, and I was the one who appeared on behalf of the Canadian Bar Association at each of those committee hearings.
As I've said, the CBA supports the provisions of Bill that repeal Bill , which inserted into the Income Tax Act extensive reporting requirements for labour organizations and labour trusts. The CBA remains of the opinion that Bill was fundamentally flawed and it triggered serious concerns from a privacy, constitutional law, and pension law perspective.
I'll leave it to my colleagues to speak more at length about this, but from a privacy point of view, the disclosure of salaries and wages of employees and contractors of independently governed organizations went well beyond what previously existed, or what has previously existed, in Canadian law, and was inconsistent with the privacy protections embodied in numerous privacy policies and constitutional jurisprudence in Canada.
To the extent that Bill would have required particularized disclosure, it obliged disclosure of personal information that is normally considered amongst the most sensitive, such as financial information and information about political activities and political beliefs. In particular, from our legal profession's perspective, the CBA was concerned, as it was throughout the process with Bill , that appropriate provisions were not made for information that's usually protected by solicitor-client privilege.
Solicitor-client privilege has been called a fundamental civil right, one which the Supreme Court of Canada has said must be protected by stringent norms in order that it remains as close to absolute as possible. There were minor exemptions for solicitor-client privilege in the final version of Bill , but legal advice can be provided in a number of different transactions and contacts. The overriding concern the CBA had was that the bill in its entirety did not make provision for the protection of solicitor-client privilege.
The CBA believes Bill lacked an appropriate balance between any legitimate public goals and the respect for private interests protected by law.
From a constitutional law perspective, we believe that Bill was certainly open to challenge under both paragraph 2(b), freedom of expression, and paragraph 2(d), freedom of association, of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We know, in fact, that it already was subject to a legal challenge, I believe in Alberta.
In particular, the requirements that a labour organization file a statement detailing its disbursements for political activities, lobbying activities, organizing activities, and collective bargaining activities, we believe, could have been found to be unconstitutional, counter to the charter's protections of freedom of expression and freedom of association.
We also believe that section 149.01 of the Income Tax Act, which was inserted by Bill , interfered with the internal administration and operations of a union, which the constitutionally protected freedom of association precludes unless the government interference qualifies as a reasonable limitation upon associational rights. In that regard, it was unclear to the Canadian Bar Association exactly what the justification was for these severe infringements.
In a recent case, the Supreme Court of Canada said that the charter protects a union's ability to communicate and persuade the public of its cause, and that impairing its ability to freely express itself as it sees appropriate would be an unjustified infringement on section 2(b) protected rights.
Just as the Supreme Court of Canada has affirmed that section 2(b) of the charter protects a union's freedom of expression, it must also protect its freedom not to express.
Let me conclude on the pension and benefits concerns. Our concerns stem from the fact that Bill was broadly drafted and applied to labour organizations and labour trusts. The definition of “labour trust” was so broad that it included any fund in which a union member was a beneficiary. As we know, a great variety of types of benefits may be offered to employees and union members, and the small list of exemptions contained in Bill C-377 was not sufficiently broad. The list of exempted plans in the bill failed to encompass things such as charities, non-profit organizations, RCAs or retirement compensation arrangements, education and training initiatives, and mixed-purpose benefit plans. A plan that provided death benefits, for example, would have to disclose information about individuals who receive such benefits.
As a result of these concerns, the CBA is fully in support of the provisions of Bill repealing those provisions of Bill .
Mr. Chair and committee members, thank you for inviting me to speak with you regarding Bill .
In May 2015, I appeared before the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs to comment on some of the legislative enactments of Bill , which the bill before you now proposes to repeal. Namely, those provisions imposed certain public disclosure requirements upon unions under the Income Tax Act. Before that, my predecessor appeared before a House committee in 2012 and a Senate committee in 2013 on the same issue. As during my last appearance, I will keep my remarks at a fairly high level.
Firstly, as a matter of general government policy, I fully support efforts to encourage transparency and accountability, including for unions. These are fundamental organizational principles of good governance, and they underpin effective and robust democratic institutions. But transparency is not an end unto itself; it cannot be an absolute objective to the exclusion of other considerations such as privacy. Transparency efforts must be carefully balanced with the need to protect the personal information of individuals.
It was the aim of Bill to render operations of union organizations transparent and therefore more accountable. This was to be achieved by requiring publication of individual employee compensation over $100,000; details of all transactions and disbursements for which the cumulative value in respect of a particular payer or payee was greater than $5,000, including third parties; and the percentage of time spent by certain individuals on political activities and lobbying and non-union activities.
In my remarks before the Senate on the proposal, I expressed doubt that true accountability for union members required publication of such extensive personal information to the general public through the website of the Canada Revenue Agency. The vast majority of unions already have financial statements that are internally available to their members and in many cases publicly posted on their websites. However, these statements containing financial information are usually in aggregate form and seem to achieve their intended purpose without having to name specific individuals.
As I have emphasized in other venues, most recently before the House ethics committee, political activity can be and for many people is a very sensitive and personal matter. Publicly listing specific individuals along with their political and lobbying activities is, in my view, overreaching.
Likewise, publicly naming individual payers and payees, often third parties, associated with transactions involving cumulative value over $5000 seems disproportionately intrusive from a privacy perspective.
Finally, as for shining light on the compensation levels of a union's highest-paid officers, there are several ways this can be achieved in practice without having to legislatively require disclosure of specific salaries of named individuals. While several provinces require that detailed reports of a union's spending be made available upon request, these measures have stopped short of publishing the names and earnings of individuals. Similarly in France, for example, unions publish annual financial statements—that is, assets, liabilities, loans, etc.—but they contain no personal information.
In short, I am supportive of the legislation before you that will revoke these more problematic aspects.
I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.
Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today.
The Canadian Labour Congress, of course, is the single largest democratic and popular organization in this country. It speaks on national issues on behalf of 3.3 million workers. It represents more than 50 national and international unions in Canada. The Canadian Labour Congress strongly, of course, supports Bill , restoring balance, fairness, and stability to federal labour relations.
From the beginning, the CLC opposed Bill and Bill as flawed, ideologically motivated legislation. These private members' bills represented a fundamental and a dangerous attack on the rights and freedoms of working people in Canada to organize unions free from outside interference. These bills were developed without consultation with the labour movement. They threatened to polarize federal labour relations and fundamentally tip the balance between employers and unions.
Historically, changes to the federal labour relations regime have been incremental, based on careful study and research, and developed through extensive consultation with unions and employers. Bills C-377 and C-525 were the complete opposite. Bill C-377 was drafted and introduced without consultation with unions. The bill lacked any credible labour relations or public policy rationale. Bill C-377's purpose was to single out, interfere with, and weaken the unions.
No public company, registered charity, or non-profit organization has to disclose confidential or extremely detailed information, only unions. None of the organizations whose members can deduct professional fees, such as bar associations, medical associations, engineers and, of course accountants, were targeted, only unions.
Seven provinces and numerous constitutional experts warned that Bill C-377 interfered with provincial jurisdiction over labour relations. Experts in constitutional law pointed out that the bill violated the rights of workers under the Charter of Rights. Conservative senators warned of the serious risk to personal privacy and to thousands of individuals unintentionally put at risk by the bill, and so on.
Unions routinely issuing financial reports to their members in nearly all jurisdictions in Canada have laws entitling members to financial statements.
Bill C-377 would have cost taxpayers millions of dollars to spy on and/or punish unions. This is purely for the benefit of union-busting employers and the anti-union crusaders.
Bill C-377 was flawed as an offensive attack on unions and the constitutional rights of working people. We commend the new government in Canada for repealing it.
Bill C-525 was also drafted without consultation and without convincing justification. FETCO, the association of large employers under federal jurisdiction, did not claim there were problems with automatic card check certification. FETCO did not identify any problems with card check certification before or even during the debate on Bill C-525. Blaine Calkins, the sponsor of Bill C-525, justified the bill by referring to union intimidation in organizing drives and the mountain of complaints that end up at the labour relations board. In fact, most cases of intimidation and unfair labour practice during the certification process across Canada involve employers. Eliminating automatic card certification and imposing mandatory voting have nothing to do—
Imposing a mandatory vote had nothing to do with a more democratic system of accessing collective bargaining representation. This is clear from the fact that Bill originally required a majority of employees, not voters, to decide in favour of unionizing.
Under the original Bill , workers who didn't vote would have been counted as casting a “no” ballot rejecting certification. Academic research and the experience of the United States are clear: adding a secondary, mandatory vote gives employers the opportunity to interfere with union drives and engage in unfair labour practices.
Under card check certification, workers electing to become a union member in the course of an organizing drive are already indicating their preference. If there is any doubt about their intention, labour boards have the power to order a secret ballot vote. In its 2014-15 annual report, the Canada Industrial Relations Board confirmed that the vast majority of cases that result in a representation vote confirm the applicant's level of support at the time of filling of the application. The board found that the level of support following the vote remains relatively the same, or is greater than the level demonstrated by the membership evidence filed with the application.
In the period following Bill 's entry into force, this was true for all matters where a representation vote was conducted, except one. This reinforced our point that Bill C-525 forced workers unnecessarily to indicate their preference in a separate, second vote that was redundant, with no purpose other than to grant employers and third parties additional opportunity to influence the outcome.
In conclusion, we commend the government for moving to restore balance, fairness, and evidence-based policy-making in the federal labour relations forum.
Thank you so much.
Thank you kindly, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to this committee of the House of Commons.
I have two or three points I'd like to raise. First—
I would like to ask a question of Mr. Mazzuca.
You talked about privacy and the fact that the previous bill could cause difficulties with privacy.
However, as you know, our salaries are public. While we are not public servants, our salaries are still public. There is no problem with that because we receive money from the people.
Furthermore, under the Rand formula, all central labour organizations receive somewhere in the neighbourhood of $500 million in contributions from Canadian taxpayers. That's akin to taxation authority.
Why do you think it is acceptable for the salary of an MP to be public information—everyone knows what it is and it's always a hot topic come election time—whereas a union boss's salary, which is disclosed to union members, is not information that is available to the people who contribute some $500 million annually to the coffers of those unions?
Mr. Chair, I would like to ask another question, but this time of Mr. Yussuff.
You had some very strong words talking about dangerous and offensive attacks, even if we're talking about transparency and democracy.
Mr. Chair, I'd like to quote an excerpt from a brief submitted by the Conseil du patronat du Québec. Unfortunately, the committee won't have an opportunity to hear from the organization's representatives as witnesses, but since they went to the trouble of submitting a brief, I'd like to refer to it.
In talking about the secret vote, they say the following:
||Holding a secret ballot once all employees have considered the issue, were consulted, heard all the arguments and debated them may in fact result in the union receiving less support.
Mr. Chair, my question is clear. We are all democratic people. All of us here around the table have been elected under a secret ballot.
I think, Mr. Yussuff, that you and all the people around you have been elected by secret ballot, by a secret vote.
Why, in that case, would you not be in favour of a union being established by secret ballot?
That approach would significantly strengthen your moral authority.
In the federal jurisdiction we have had card certification for many decades, and it has proven, of course, to be a clear way for workers to indicate whether or not they want to belong to a union.
If the board is uncertain about whether or not there is support for a union, the board itself can order a vote. Of course, on many occasions when there has been a vote, the board has found that employers have truly interfered with the workers' ability to choose the union. At the provincial level where a vote is the only form of indication to join a union, the evidence has been quite clear. Never mind my saying it; that's what the academic research has told us, that it clearly allows the employer to interfere with the right of workers to join that union. The situation is similar in the United States.
Why would an employer care if the workers want to join the union? If it's their free democratic and constitutional right in this country, why would employers want to interfere in it other than the fact that if you do have a vote, it gives the employer time to use all kinds of tactics during the time the vote has been ordered? I could list some of the companies that clearly said they were going to close the facility, or cut people's salaries, or lay people off. Of course, ultimately it changed the workers' ability to truly exercise their free choice.
The evidence is there. Within the federal jurisdiction, it has worked very successfully. Again, the bigger question is that other than for ideological reasons, we don't know why this private member's bill was brought forward in the first place.
I just wanted to read a quote that speaks to some of the commentary by the panellists about the constitutionality of this particular Bill and Bill as well.
I was a member of Parliament when this was going through our caucus. Some weren't supportive of it; many were. I remember the proponent of Bill specifically coming and talking to us about what it would take for us to be more supportive of this particular legislation that he had moved, and amendments to it were allowed to proceed.
Understanding what the process was—and I saw it with my own two eyes—I saw how practical it really was. There really was a back and forth. I met with numerous union representatives in my office to talk about their concerns about the bill. I heard comments back that the amendments would address their concerns. Nothing was perfect; some were supportive of it. As a former union member myself, I was supportive of accountability for unions because I think it's necessary.
I just want to talk about the private members' bill process, the way it is. It goes through a process, I wouldn't necessarily say it's a strict process, but a process of constitutionality, and the bill essentially has to meet certain criteria before it's even allowed to come to the floor of the House. This bill passed that test and that particular vetting.
I'm going to also read a quote from retired Supreme Court Justice Michel Bastarache, who is a pretty good authority on Canadian law. It reads:
||I conclude that, if Bill C-377 is enacted into law, it would likely be upheld by the courts as a valid enactment of Federal Parliament’s power over taxation under section 91(3) of the Constitution Act, 1867.… As long as the pith and substance or matter of Bill C-377 is related to taxation, the law is a valid enactment of Parliament’s powers.... Because Bill C-377 does not attempt to regulate the activities of labour organizations or determine how they spend their money, it is unlikely that a court would find that it limits freedom of association under section 2(d) of the Charter.
What are your thoughts about that quote, Mr. Mazzuca?
Honourable members, please look at appendix A of our submission. The current web page of the largest Canadian local of the Labourers' International Union says this about union cards:
|| Don't sign anything! You do not have to sign anything. Don't be tricked into signing something “to get more information”....
||It's just a sneaky way to get a...[card signed].
The horse's mouth speaketh the truth. Union organizers lie.
Employees might be told the card is just to get more information or just to get a vote, but in card check jurisdictions, unionization is the goal and the result of this trickery.
The Minister of Labour, union leaders, academics, and labour boards point to the low number of rulings about such union tactics. The three most relevant reasons are as follows.
For decades, labour boards have ruled that card-signing tactics are not the employer's business. In 2005 the Canadian board stated: “Any disquiet about undue influence or coercion into signing... should be brought to the Board's attention by the employees themselves.” Unions have plenty of talented professionals and outside labour lawyers, funded by their $4 billion to $5 billion in revenue, to challenge employers and competing unions, but with labour boards telling employers to sit down and shut up, it's simply not credible that employees have any practical ability to file charges against unions and miss work to show up and litigate them, let alone to afford a lawyer instead.
Sadly, labour board rulings allow unions to lie to unsuspecting workers. One board ruled that a fraud against an employee is not a fraud against the board and did nothing about it.
Then there is outright card fraud. We got a small peak at the underbelly of a union's tactics in British Columbia via the Purdys case, in which the union was caught, but only years later, for forging employee signatures onto cards.
Is there a political party in this country that has not experienced real problems with card-based membership drives ahead of nomination meetings? Does any of your parties call a membership card a vote? All unions that I know of run their internal affairs with votes and not with cards.
In 1977, Nova Scotia's workers became the first Canadians to get legislated access to a bulwark of workplace democracy, a statutorily guaranteed secret ballot vote, which this bill steals back from federally regulated Canadians.
Appendix C includes a table summarizing the key provisions of Canada's 11 private sector labour codes. Every year in the seven vote jurisdictions, in government-run elections, workers still have been unionized. Even in Nova Scotia, after 37 years of workplace democracy—news flash!—unions have not disappeared. Labour relations have not been set back to the age of the Flintstones there in comparison with card check jurisdictions.
Voting is criticized for reducing the rate of new unionizations. Of course it does so, because votes reflect what informed employees making a government-protected private choice actually want. Getting unionized by trickery, as the labourers' union points out to its members, in a situation in which workers have no real means of litigating and proving the outcome—that is going to be the federal reality for Canadians, if Bill is not amended or pulled back by the Trudeau government. Stealing the vote from the weakest party, the party that is not at the table with FETCO and the Canadian Labour Congress, and giving the card check back to Canada's executive suite of union leaders is simply wrong and undemocratic. As the Labourers Union rightly implies, a card is not a vote.
Shifting gears. it is very troubling that Bill is a single bill that also amends the Income Tax Act to take away financial disclosure. MP Hiebert modelled his Income Tax Act of Canada amendments on the American system, which some Canadian unions already comply with. That U.S. law started as the Kennedy-Ervin bill. Yes, none other than Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby led the charge at a Senate committee and as President Kennedy implemented the legislation he had championed in the Senate.
Our submission has extensive and accurate content on financial disclosure to factually correct the complete misrepresentations by numerous labour leaders about the state of union disclosure and privacy law in Canada.
Our submission includes proof that workers have had to fight unions over years in the legal system to get even minimal disclosure—proof that there is nothing for taxpayers and watchdogs to hold government of the day accountable to enforce the existing union dues tax deductibility provisions of the Income Tax Act. That is what Bill was set to finally enable for Canada's now even more-indebted taxpayers.
If you look at appendix E, you will see that across Canada's 11 provinces and three territories and the federal jurisdiction, there are some 32 labour codes—32. Only 10, less than one-third, have any provisions at all dealing with financial disclosure. Nine of those 10 only mandate disclosure to actual union members. Under nine of these codes, unionized employees, who must pay dues as a condition of employment or be fired from their jobs, are not entitled to a shred of financial disclosure at law. Only one of 32 labour codes covers those types of dues payers. There is nothing required under those 32 codes for taxpayers.
In our submission we have the actual wording that will show you how little those provisions actually provide.
Union leaders, and those aiding and abetting their huge campaign to hide from taxpayers and dues payers, have led you to believe that they all disclose, that they must disclose. One union leader wrote that labour boards keep financial statements on file, for the asking. Plain and simple: not one labour board collects and keeps them. That was another lie.
The CRA can go back seven years in our tax returns, but labour boards have repeatedly denied access beyond the most recent fiscal year when a union refused to expose, took union dues, and fought the workers at the labour board and won to keep the prior years secret.
Let's make this even more real. Appendix B in our submission is the cover page from a 2014 petition to a local of the PSAC from workers of the federal government looking for detailed disclosure. As of last week, since 2014, Robyn Bensonhas been silent.
The labour code of these employees is the Public Service Labour Relations Act of Canada. It is one of the 22 labour codes out of 32 that has not a single disclosure requirement for those workers to get access to what's going on at PSAC.
Under the 10, the mere 31% that have limited provisions, I have never read a labour board ruling that ordered any detail. Labour boards just order an income statement, maybe a balance sheet—two pieces of paper—for a $90 million union. That's not disclosure.
The most important topic, finally, that we address relates to the range of assertions that these Income Tax Act provisions had no Income Tax Act purpose. We respectfully disagree. Appendix I contains our very detailed analysis of the act, CRA interpretation bulletins, and Tax Court case law.
Two provisions of the Income Tax Act, paragraph 8(5)(c) and subsection 8(5), read like this: Dues are not deductible to the extent levied for any purpose not directly related to the ordinary operating expenses of the union.
We simply do not know, as taxpayers in this country, if it's $100 million being inappropriately spent, or $1 billion inappropriately spent.
Finally, Bill should be split in two. Respectfully, for this committee, I do not understand it, as a Canadian, to be constituted to serve Canadians as an Income Tax Act expert. The truth is that Bill C-4 is a form of omnibus legislation moving forward in a rush that reverses achievements of the last Parliament for taxpayers and workers as a political strategy to pay back the union executives who helped this government win its last election.
Good afternoon. My name is Aaron Wudrick and I am the federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. I want to thank the committee for the invitation today. I will be limiting my remarks to the provisions of the bill that relate to the rescinding of certain sections of the Income Tax Act as they apply to unions.
For those who don't know, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation is a federally incorporated, not-for-profit citizens group, with over 89,000 supporters across the country. We have three key principles on which we focus all our advocacy. Those are lower taxes, less waste, and accountable government.
Very simply put, the CTF's view is that the sections of the Income Tax Act that will be rescinded by Bill represent a step backwards in terms of promoting transparency and accountability with respect to taxpayer dollars.
Obviously, there has been and will continue to be a very heated debate coming from both the union and non-union positions on the impact and desirability of these measures. We would merely say that it should not ever surprise the committee that any stakeholder—union or otherwise—who receives a hefty subsidy from taxpayers will inevitably resist attempts to have greater transparency imposed upon them.
In Canada, unions collect about $4 billion annually in member dues and can spend them as they see fit, with no mandatory public reporting. What makes this an issue for the broader taxpaying public is the fact that unions enjoy a range of tax benefits and special tax treatment that ultimately function as a public subsidy for their activities. Specifically, union dues are tax deductible, as is strike pay. These tax breaks have been estimated to have a net worth of about $400 million a year or more.
Charities receive somewhat similar but not as extensive special treatment, and they are accordingly required to file public disclosure in order to maintain their charitable status. This is the reasoning behind calls for public reporting of union finances. Where any entity receives the benefit of a public subsidy, the expectation of transparency is heightened as compared to those who do not receive a similar benefit.
To be absolutely clear, none of our comments here should be interpreted as opposing the political or social engagement of unions. Unions are legitimate stakeholders and should of course be able to engage in political activities. What we at the CTF object to is that unions are being subsidized by the taxpayer to do so. Indeed, we've even taken up the position that political parties themselves should not receive any, or at least, much less generous taxpayer subsidies. Given that they are subsidized, however, we believe that this special benefit should, as I said, attract a higher level of transparency than without the subsidy. This is analogous to our position on the transfer of public dollars to private businesses, also known as corporate welfare. We oppose it full stop, but if it is going to happen, surely the price for receiving a public subsidy should be transparency and accountability to the taxpayers who are footing the bill.
Finally, and with some regret, we would merely note that it is an unfortunate irony that this new government, which was elected on a platform that promised new and unprecedented levels of openness and transparency, has instead, of late, been making some troubling moves in the opposite direction.
While it's fair to say that the CTF does not support the overall fiscal direction of the new government, at least this is an honest disagreement. Contrast this with the transparency issue, where the CTF was very encouraged by and supportive of many of the Liberal Party's campaign promises. Indeed, our view is that the new government got off to a very good start on transparency by publishing ministerial mandate letters. Unfortunately, it's been pretty much been downhill from there.
In addition to the provisions in Bill, the government has ceased enforcement of the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, which risks leaving many first nations in the dark as to the compensation and expenses of their elected officials. There are of course concerns about withholding information from the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, which I won't belabour here, but in all it adds up to less transparency, not more. It flies in the face of the government's own commitments, and harms its credibility in presenting itself as the purveyors of real change, in contrast to their predecessors. We would certainly urge them to reconsider some of these positions, and looking at Bill would definitely be an excellent place to start.
Gentlemen, welcome to the House of Commons and this parliamentary committee. To say the least, we appreciate your speeches. They are quite different from what we have heard before. That's democracy, and this is the best place for democracy and for each of us to express our views.
Mr. Mortimer, I listened very closely to your remarks, and some of the things you said surprised me.
You can appreciate that many people have reservations about the risks surrounding the disclosure of personal and confidential information, such as union leader salaries. Six countries have nevertheless adopted the practice, France, for one, which can't be accused of being a right-wing country. It can be described as a country of rights, but not a right-wing country. Its left-leaning roots are firmly entrenched in history.
Just talk about President Mitterrand, to say the least, and the president we have now.
I'd like you to explain something to me, Mr. Mortimer.
How can you explain that here in Canada we are so afraid to be more public on this issue? We are less public on this issue than France, which has a very socialist history?
It was both French unions and the government that came together to ensure disclosure. I would draw parallels back to what happened in America when you essentially had a left of centre party, the Democrats, who backed what then senator John F. Kennedy did, because, the equivalent of the day to Mr. Yussuff, the head of the American Federation of Labor, George Meany, advocated the goldfish bowl theory, which was that unions would be better in every respect if the light of day were shed on their activities.
There was a certain amount of support in that period of time in America amongst the most prominent union leaders for what John F. Kennedy did. That has not been here. We have learned from the American government website about illegal activities of Canada's unions involving other political parties in this country because we were able to read in there about donations they made to political parties. For example, when UFCW 1518 in Saskatchewan gave money to the New Democratic Party.
I think it's tragic what's happening here. The current , as a member of Parliament and as a party leader, spoke for pay at union executive meetings across this country before reaching the Prime Minister's Office. He made it clear to those union executives what he was going to do. Bill delivers.
During the hearings on Bill C- and Bill C-, there were plenty of submissions to read. When I was to appear here before, it was cancelled due to events in the House; there was no submission there other than mine.
I would ask the , what consultation took place when you met shortly after you got your mandate letter with leaders in this country behind closed doors and told them in no uncertain terms that you would move one bill to take down Bill-525 and Bill-377, full stop, end of discussion? It was a very blunt meeting, I'm told, by people who attended it. This is not consultation. This is favours to Canada's union bosses plain and simple, and workers and taxpayers are the ones who lose.
Thank you, Mr. Mortimer.
I would like to ask Mr. Wudrick about the secret ballot because for us that is very important. We are democratic. We have been elected under a secret ballot, and we do respect that. To be very democratic, it is better to have a secret ballot.
We are not the only ones who say that, Mr. Chair.
There are six provinces in the country with mandatory secret ballot voting. In fact, the matter was brought before the courts in Saskatchewan.
As a side note, I'd like to take this opportunity to once again thank the people at the Conseil du patronat du Québec for their brief. Unfortunately, they aren't with us today. They won't be able to appear before the committee, but I do want to thank them for the brief they submitted.
In it, they point out that, in 2008, secret ballot voting was challenged before the courts. In his ruling, Saskatchewan Chief Justice Robert Richards had this to say:
|| The secret ballot, after all, is a hallmark of modern democracy.
|| Surely, in and of itself, a secret ballot regime does no more than ensure that employees are able to make the choices they see as being best for themselves.
Mr. Wudrick, would you say that secret ballot voting enhances a union's freedom and relevance?
Thank you for your comments about at least being open to the fact that we need different levels of information. Just using the word “transparency” and being transparent doesn't mean anything unless it has some value and unless it's giving you information but also protecting the interests of private individuals.
I think the bill is so flawed that there's nowhere to go, and the issue about private, commercial entities having confidential, business-related information released was a real concern. That's why we've had witnesses from all areas—employers, unions, privacy advocates, lawyers—because there was a real concern. I think that we're often just using the words “we want to be accountable”.
The last thing I want to mention is that aggregate information is audited financial statements; that's aggregate information about an organization's financial statements. Many unions post those publicly, including the Public Service Alliance of Canada; it is on their website.
I wonder whether you would like to comment on that kind of information. Many of us, including business and the non-profit sector, use that information as a good way to find out what an organization is doing, what's important to them, where their investments are, and whether they're doing what they say they do, as a way to share information with either the public or with union members.
The reality is that in the same way we say that unions speak for workers, who then speaks for Canada's workers who aren't represented—and even if they are?
I was the North American head of human resources for Future Shop back when the Vancouver family that fled Iran still owned it, before they sold it to Best Buy. We were deeply concerned about our employees and how life was for them, because they were necessary for us to serve our customers and stay in business. There are things that we made sure we did on behalf of our employees, from a legislative point of view and from a policy point of view, so that they could deliver for our customers what kept us in business and kept the doors open.
As I said earlier, the reality is that there is no.... Let me give you this example. A worker in Canada who has issues with their employer can go to employment standards or to human rights bodies and have a government-paid bureaucrat assist them against their employer. The only employment legislation in Canada in which there is no service to the worker is labour codes. If you go to any labour board in Canada with an issue with your union, they will say “we're neutral, we can't do anything”. But if you go to workers' compensation, human rights, employment standards, labour standards and you have an issue with your employer, they are going to help go after your employer for you.
LabourWatch came about, at the end of the day, because no one was looking out for Canada's unionized workers. They're not at the tripartite table. To say that unions, who don't speak for the 83% of the private sector who are union-free, actually speak for them is a contradiction in terms.
I believe that employers can and do speak to them, and that's what LabourWatch does.
Could we come back together, please?
We have a brand new, fantastic panel to speak to us. We have a little committee business that we're going to have to squeeze in at the end. I know I'm being a taskmaster today, but I want to get through everything.
I would like to welcome from Canada's Building Trades Unions, Robert Blakey, Canadian operating officer, and Neil Cohen, executive director; and Sandra Guevara-Holguin, an advocate from the Community Unemployed Help Centre; and Hans Marotte and Laurell Ritchie from the Inter-Provincial EI Working Group.
Thank you all very much for coming here today.
We're going to keep the opening remarks to under seven minutes, please. We've got such a big group, we want to make sure we get to everybody.
We'll start with Mr. Blakely.
As a result of the short notice, I haven't been able to get you any written material, but I undertake to do so in a timely fashion.
Thank you for having a look at this topic. I think the entire EI system needs to be looked at, but this is a great place to start.
I come from the construction, fabrication, and maintenance industry. We represent about 500,000 Canadians, 8% of all direct employment in Canada, and 14% of Canada's GDP. It's an industry that is transitory for both employers and workers. Every construction job ends. It is not unusual to have several employers over the course of a year, and it is extremely and highly unusual to ever have a career with one employer. The industry conforms to this characteristic of worker mobility both in its training structure and in the hiring halls we use. Our work patterns aren't very well understood: we have long hours, few days off, with periods of unemployment in-between.
At the outset, let me say that it supposed to be employment “insurance”. When I went to law school, insurance was a contract of indemnity against a foreseeable event. If you are unemployed, that is the foreseeable event, and you ought to get something. It doesn't work that way in our business now.
Your request talks about the issue of denials and the issue of access. Sometimes—and I've laboured through this a lot—people say that it's easy: let's just go back to the past. I'm likely the only person here who has spent a bunch of time in my hometown at the board of referees for unemployment insurance, as it then was, and then employment insurance. The truth is that the board of referees has been replaced by a tribunal of people who can sit in their PJs at home, having a look at everything, having coffee, and looking at a pile of papers, most of which are supplied by the commission. It is a poor way to deal with the issue of appeals for EI.
You know, you need to be able to get.... Sometimes, inarticulate people need a chance to be able talk to a human being to find out what the story actually is. Having the board of referees allowed those people to develop some local expertise in things like urban and rural, seasonal, and distance.... It gave them an opportunity to have a couple of people there who knew something about hiring halls. It gave those people an opportunity to understand the local labour market and to have some knowledge.
It also allowed people to explain a reason: “I didn't take the one-week job because I was at the top of the out-of-work list, and if I waited another three days, I would get a job that lasted eight months”. People don't know how to express those things, and when they're sent into the current set of tribunals, it doesn't work. The system is supposed to function in the interests of the people who are actually the claimants who fund employment insurance.
We have a series of hiring halls. We have roughly 300 hiring halls across the country that dispatch people to go to work in various places. We're not the only unions that run hiring halls. Other groups of unions do as well. Theoretically, in the last review of EI, hiring-hall agreements were deemed to be acceptable and were preserved in place. It simply depends on where in Canada your hiring hall is located as to whether Service Canada thinks you have a valid hiring hall agreement or not.
The premise of the hiring hall is a pool of skilled people. Employers invest in those people, paying somewhere in the vicinity of 25¢ to $2.50 an hour to get the workers trained. We maintain an infrastructure of $750 million across the country and spend $300 million a year training people at 175 training centres. There's an enormous investment there.
Threshold training may come from the community college, but the union training centre does all the graduate-level training, specialist training, refresher training, upgrading, and supervisory leadership training. They do that to maintain a pool of skilled workers whom they can call on when they need them.
We do the job search for the workers. We share work through the hiring hall. This is of enormous value to our employers, who actually agree with us that this is something that needs to be preserved.
The second point is on denials. People who take training are supposed to be in receipt of special benefits under sections 12 and 25 of the act. That isn't always the case. What ends up happening frequently is that people who go through their apprenticeship have to use regular benefits in order to go through training. Those are four or five periods of apprenticeship training. They have to use their regular benefits, not special benefits. When they get a journeyman certificate and enter the industry as full-fledged participants, they're already frequent users of EI. This doesn't work.
At the end of the day, we are still going to lose 25% of the construction industry in the next seven years. The baby boom generation is going to retire. We need to get access for people. The regional system of EI doesn't work very well. If you live in southern New Brunswick, you need 600-plus hours to qualify for 17 weeks' benefit. If you're a half a mile north, in northern New Brunswick, it's 300 hours over 52 weeks. This doesn't make sense.
We'll send you some material. I'll answer any questions you have.
Thank you very much for undertaking this. It looks to me like it's the start of a major review of EI, which is something that needs to happen. EI should not be an ideological football. It should be a principle-based system.
First, I want to thank the committee for undertaking this important work, and I want to thank you all for the opportunity to be here today. As with Robert and, I suspect, many other witnesses, given the short notice, I haven't had time to prepare a written submission in advance, but I certainly intend to follow up after today with more detailed comments. This is going to be a very quick overview of the kind of work that we do.
I'm joined today by Sandra Guevara-Holguin, an advocate with the Community Unemployed Help Centre. She's been with us for eight years now. I wanted Sandra to be here, in particular, because if I were here on my own and had sufficient time, I would probably do a high level policy analysis of the history of EI going back to 1940, and how the current system is failing workers. I would talk about the program structure and the way things should be, and things of that nature, but I think what Sandra brings is of real value, because she can talk about what she sees on a daily basis, acting on behalf of unemployed workers over the last eight years.
I want to begin by talking very briefly about the Community Unemployed Help Centre. We've been operating since 1980. We're a non-profit community-based organization located in Winnipeg. Although we provide direct services to unemployed Manitoba workers on issues pertaining to EI, we also do a lot of social policy work at the national level with some of our partners, particularly, the Canadian Labour Congress, and similar organizations throughout the country.
We were created to provide information, advice, and representation for unemployed workers. We have had a history of appearing before umpires and boards of referees. We also have extensive experience making requests for reconsideration and appearing before the Social Security Tribunal.
We're a small organization. We're a unique organization. There are not many similar organizations in this country. We certainly share a lot in common with Mouvement Action-Chômage, where my colleague, Hans Marotte, is employed. We provide essential and important services to unemployed workers in need.
You will understand—and I think we all share in this—we're dealing with a highly complex program which is not easily understood by the public at large and, dare I say, even by politicians. It's often been said that the Unemployment Insurance Act is the most complex act in government. We're dealing with a lot of adjudicatory issues that are very hard to decipher in terms of entitlement to benefit.
I want to focus on three areas very briefly. First, the program design really has to be reconsidered. I want to remind members that workers pay five-twelfths of the cost of the program, and the program is failing workers. I remember a recent EI commissioner for workers forum. I said to the minister at the time that if the EI program went to the private market, no one would buy it. I want to share that with you because we know, for example, that only 40% of workers who are currently unemployed receive EI benefits.
We look at the financing of the EI program, and you hear calls repeatedly from business that they want lower premiums and that premiums are a job killer. I want to tell members that in 1990, when the government withdrew from financing the EI program, the EI premiums for employers were $3.07 per $100 of earnings, and today they're $1.88. There has been a constant pressure to lower premiums, and that's done by reducing entitlement to benefits.
Historically, over a period of time, the trend since 1990 has been to require workers to work longer in order to receive benefits, to shorten benefit duration periods, to increase penalties for workers who quit their jobs or are fired. The service that they're getting certainly fails to meet standards of reasonableness. We're certainly aware of the issues.
I hope all members of the committee have had an opportunity to read at least the executive summary, the monitoring assessment report, which addresses some of these issues and the fact that 30% of workers who contact the Service Canada office receive a blocked call. That means they don't even go into the queue.
These are the kinds of things that Sandra sees on an ongoing basis. The program structure really needs to be reformed so that workers have a reasonable chance of entitlement to benefits for a reasonable period of time at a reasonable rate.
The second issue, certainly, is one of appeals. We do not support the change to the Social Security Tribunal. Most appeals end. The EI Monitoring and Assessment Report, for example, again indicates that 45% of decisions are overturned. That's an appalling rate, and it shouldn't be the case. Decisions properly adjudicated with the assistance of staff at Service Canada should be reasonably approved and should not be overturned at a rate of 45%.
Governments have told us that the system is working because few people appeal to the SST, for example. I would submit to you that few people appeal to the SST because dealing with Service Canada means encountering a succession of speed bumps, starting from the time one tries to call Service Canada and is unable to get through. Then, one encounters claim processing delays, which create another deterrent. Then one goes through the request for reconsideration stage—another deterrent. By that time, one is sufficiently discouraged from even pursuing their appeal rights to the social security tribunal.
That's the other area that we think really requires additional examination. We would certainly call upon the government to look at a major review, with meaningful consultation with stakeholders, particularly organizations like ours, which has a unique perspective and unique experience. In any given year, we do about 300 appeals, and our success rate on appeals has historically been, since 1980, over 80%. We have a good track record and we have a good body of cases upon which we can draw.
What's my time like? I would like to turn it over to Sandra now.
At any given time we have 300 cases, and four months is the average wait for a request for reconsideration to be processed. People are waiting four months to know what's going on. Most of the time we have to go to the social security tribunal.
As an example, I have a case of a person who was denied benefits on June 23, 2015. He finally has a hearing with the social security tribunal on July 12 of this year. During this whole time, he hasn't had access to EI at all.
In terms of my personal experience, I tried to call the general inquiry line last April 27. I went there. I called. I had the SIN number of my client, and the access code. The first message that showed up was that if you've provided all the records of employment and documents requested, it is not necessary to call. Mind you, there are eight weeks between the time you submit something to employment insurance until you hear from them.
After I went through that, I was lucky enough to get into the queue. The message I got was that my waiting time was an estimated 45 minutes. Who is expected to sit down for 45 minutes to get an answer as to what's going on?
My second try was to create a “My Service Canada Account” for my client. This particular client is an elderly client, so he cannot do that on his own. He does not have a computer. I tried to do it for him, and it took me an hour to create the account. When I finally got there, and I went to the most updated messages, it just said that his claim was in process. It has now been four months, and this person hasn't seen any benefits.
This is just to let you know what my front-line experience is with clients. I have at least 70 active files right now, and all of them are delayed: four months—to hear from them, to seek a decision—for all of them.
I'm speaking on behalf of the Inter-Provincial EI Working Group, which was formed in 2013, inspired by some of the EI coalition work in places like P.E.I. and New Brunswick, and of course groups in Quebec. As well, the Toronto-based Good Jobs for All Coalition has an EI working group, which I co-chair.
We most recently—this won't surprise you—have been joined by representatives from Alberta and Saskatchewan.
We developed a joint statement at that time, and in May 2014 issued it with signatures from well over 100 organizations from coast to coast endorsing the position. As you will appreciate, it is not easy to reach consensus across the country no matter what the issue, but that has been done, and we did also issue a statement this year to the government representatives and opposition parties with respect to the budget, EI reforms, and, in particular, stimulus spending.
There are four areas that we would like to see the HUMA committee direct its attention to, and I can't help it, but somebody said earlier that with these short presentations we have to keep our “sense of HUMA”.
Some hon. members: Oh, oh!
Ms. Laurell Ritchie: Sorry about that.
There are four areas that we want to cover.
First of all, we're obviously pleased to finally see some changes to EI in the budget. We want to see some of those moved up, though, from the times that have been set, whether we're talking about the 910-hour rule for new entrants and re-entrants or others.
We think some of them have gotten lost in the shuffle of the changes that did happen in 2012 and into 2013. We lost the hiring hall provisions. We lost parental and sick benefits for workers employed under the temporary foreign worker program. We had additions—many would say politically motivated additions—of new EI regions in Prince Edward Island and Canada's north, to the detriment of workers. In all, though, those who have suffered most are the low-income workers and the precariously employed workers.
We'd like to see that moved up.
Secondly, there are the rampant problems with EI service delivery and the appeal system. Others have spoken on this, so I won't dwell on it except to say that we're very much in agreement, and it is a shared experience across the country.
Thirdly, there is a need to ensure an independent EI account and to ensure that EI contributions are used exclusively to fund EI programs.
The piece I want to focus on is the fourth one. I'll make just a few comments. It is about the need to fast-track a significant review of the EI system. I'm going to quote from a certain party's political statement at the time of the election, because we couldn't have said it better:
||...to assess how successfully the Employment Insurance system is delivering its core mandate to provide income security to workers in a changing labour market. This will result in changes to the program that ensure more Canadians workers, particularly those in more insecure work, can get access to the benefits they need.
We think that review needs to happen and needs to be expedited. It needs to involve a lot of organizations on the ground, whether they be legal clinics or unions and the many others that are doing that kind of work.
Again, the business of there being an average 40% of unemployed receiving benefits is really the result of a couple of things. One is that those who don't qualify for benefits can't under the current rules; in particular, for problems with the hours system, that needs a complete rethink. Secondly, there are those who fall off benefits before they are able to find any work.
As a result of all of this and the need to make these kinds of changes, we do think that the government should be holding off on the premium cuts. If you can rethink definitions for who gets the 5 extra weeks and the 20 extra weeks, we think you should reconsider the premium cuts, because we need to know first what improvements need to be made in this system before we go reducing benefits even further.
We find it disheartening to see the debates focusing on the extra five weeks and on who, in addition to the existing 12, will get it. It used to be that there were five more weeks than we have now, right across the country. When you have both Calgary and Montreal currently with the same rates of unemployment, and now potentially up to 67 for those in Calgary and 42 max in Montreal, no wonder there are resentments building up.
We really think the hours system, which dictates entrance as well as duration, needs a complete rethink. It's based on the 35-hour week. The chart, the grid, is in 35-hour increments. We're long past the day of an average 35-hour work week; 80% of workers, according to the labour force survey most recently, are in the service sector, and the service sector average for paid employees is less than 30 hours.
Good afternoon. My name is Hans Marotte, and I am from the Mouvement Action-Chômage de Montréal.
If you were going to take away only one thing today, it would be this. The legislation currently deters those who know and penalizes those who try.
Last week, I defended an individual by the name of Maria. She worked at a company for 15 years before losing her job. She qualified for and began receiving employment insurance benefits. She then spent two weeks working at a job that was absolutely unacceptable, so she quit and is now no longer eligible for benefits. That means that a person receiving employment insurance benefits who then accepts employment cannot quit that job unless they show that they had no reasonable alternative to leaving, under section 28 of the Employment Insurance Act.
When someone on EI comes to me for advice, asking whether they should accept a given job, as a lawyer, I tell them that, once they do, they will have to stay in that job. So what do you think they decide? They decide not to take the job. Those who don't know their rights will take the job, try it out, and potentially be disqualified from receiving further benefits.
We all want people to have access to the best jobs possible. As part of their most recent EI reforms, the Conservatives claimed they wanted to help connect Canadians with available jobs. But, as things stand, the legislation does not allow for that, and it needs fixing.
With respect to the Conservatives' 2012 reforms, that is true. I gave a number of information sessions to employee unions active in the area of employment insurance. They said it was akin to being given a bazooka without the power to fire it. I don't have evidence of that. I am simply repeating what they told me. It's hearsay.
Although I had concerns about the impact, it is true that I didn't handle a great many cases stemming from the Conservative reform. Public servants had the legislative tool but rarely used it.
But what I'm going to tell you about now is much more serious. In 1993, the legislation was amended to disqualify an individual from receiving EI benefits if they had left their employment without just cause. Then, in 1995, the Federal Court of Appeal made a very smart ruling. The case was Jenkins, and I encourage you to read it. Under the act, an individual who had voluntarily left their employment—emphasis on the word “their”—was not entitled to receive benefits. The Jenkins decision established that claimants who were making an effort to find employment should not be deterred. That meant, then, that someone who was receiving benefits and trying to obtain employment was not penalized.
The Jenkins case gave rise to that very smart decision in 1995, but the Liberals amended the legislation the following year. In response to Jenkins, they changed the wording to refer to a person who had left “any” employment.
Trust me, for 20 or so years, I watched people struggle because of that sort of thing. Consider, for example, a machinist who comes to me and says he was making $20 an hour in a job with good working conditions but, after losing his job, has been unemployed for a month. He tells me he can get a job at Home Depot earning $12, $13, or $14 an hour. He wants to take the job on a short-term basis because his employer is going to recall him in three or four months' time and he doesn't want to be out of work. What I say to him is that, if he takes the job and has to quit later because he is having problems with the employer, he will no longer qualify to receive benefits. That means people are being deterred from taking jobs.
You are all creative thinkers. A myriad of options are available. For instance, if unemployed workers find a job while they are receiving benefits, they could be allowed to do the job on a trial basis for a certain period of time, without hindering their eligibility to receive benefits. It is akin to a probationary period on the employer's end, where the employer has the option to try someone out and let them go if it isn't working out in a month, say. Likewise, the employee could have that option.
The committee needs to give these issues serious consideration. Political stripes aside, we all want Canadians to have access to good jobs. But I don't think the current legislation allows for that.
That's quite informative, Mr. Marotte. Let's stay on this topic.
No one, by the way, is immune to losing their job. It's happened to a few of my friends who were in the midst of wonderful careers. Provoked or not, problems can happen at work and people can find themselves out of a job at the age of 35, 40, or 45. Despite having a good university education, they can stay unemployed for 7 or 8 months. All of us here today know that no one is immune to that possibility and we all want people to be working.
What I have a problem with, though, is diminishing the value of low-paying jobs. You talked about a job at Home Depot that paid $12 an hour. I'm not saying you are diminishing the value of those types of jobs, on the contrary. That's not what you're doing. I have, however, had colleagues, in the past and in other places, who did look down on such jobs. It always made me angry, but that's another story. I won't get into the details of my personal life here.
What I want to make clear is that there is no shame in working a job that pays $12 an hour when you are trying to get back on your feet. There is absolutely no shame in getting up in the morning, going to work, putting in 35 or 40 hours a week, coming back home, looking your children in the eye, and being able to tell them that you are earning your keep.
You said the situation needed fixing, but what would you recommend in tangible terms?
The idea is precisely to encourage people.
Most of the people I see don't want to receive EI benefits; they want a job. The skilled worker, the machinist who makes $20 an hour, is probably going to be recalled in four months' time by their employer, who had to lay them off because there wasn't enough work. In the meantime, that person would prefer to work at Home Depot and do just about any job. But the problem arises when the person takes the job and it doesn't work out. Say the worker was promised 40 hours a week but only gets 20; say they were promised benefits and don't get them. In that case, the employer is not respecting the employment agreement. Unfortunately, the legislation does not authorize someone to quit the job because they are getting only 25 hours a week when the employer promised them 40. Someone isn't allowed to do that.
To rectify this, three options are worth considering. First of all, the wording in section 28 of the Employment Insurance Act could be revisited, specifically as it relates to a person who voluntarily leaves their employment. The provision refers to an individual who leaves “any employment”. The wording used in the 1993 legislation could be restored. Second, the idea of a trial employment period could be introduced into the legislation. For instance, the government could decide that, when an individual receiving EI benefits finds a job, they should have a month-long trial period and incorporate that into the act. After all, the idea is to encourage people to work, rather than collect benefits. With that in mind, the government could build into the legislation a reasonable period of time to try out the job. How long would be up to you.
The government needs to encourage people. It especially needs to ensure that those who, for 10, 15, 20, or 25 years, worked and paid their premiums, and who are receiving employment insurance benefits do not lose access to those benefits when they accept a job. Let's not forget we are talking about insurance. I have been paying car insurance premiums for 10 or 15 years and if I have an accident next week, the repairs will be covered.
We also talked about timeframes. Work is also needed on that front.
Basically, it's an eligibility issue.
Take, for example, someone who works in the Gaspé region or out east. I don't like referring to people as “seasonal workers” because there is no such thing. They are people who work in a seasonal industry. The worker who fishes for a living in the Gaspé region would like to fish all year long, but unfortunately, in Canada, the weather gets cold and the water eventually freezes. Come October, the fisher has no choice but to put their boat away for the winter. They would probably prefer to fish year-round, but that's not an option. That person has worked hard in May, June, July, August, and September and accumulated many hours of work, but that often isn't enough to carry them through until the following season opens. Hence the importance of improving the eligibility criteria.
As those who represent unemployed workers' groups in Quebec, such as Mouvement Action-Chômage de Montréal, as well as many others across the country, we believe a standard should be introduced that would allow everyone to work and live throughout the year. If, for instance, someone works 35 weeks, they should qualify for at least 15 or so weeks of employment insurance benefits to carry them through to the next season.
I must confess that I am not at all objective. I ran for the NDP, and that's why I am telling you about it. Mouvement Action-Chômage de Montréal proposes that there be a single eligibility standard, under which 350 hours of work would allow someone to qualify for at least 35 weeks of benefits. That way, people would have enough to make it through the year. Whether a person loses their job in Edmonton, Saskatoon, Montreal, or Halifax, they still have to pay their rent, their electric bill and all their other monthly expenses. We no longer think the regional EI system is the right approach. It's not something that should remain in the legislation.
I don't have too much time left.
As a committee we have to take your feedback and come up with recommendations. Obviously, a number of recommendations have been made outside of this committee, and I think it's important for us to hear about them. I'm wondering if I could get a quick comment on a few of these from Mr. Cohen, Ms. Guevara-Holguin, Ms. Ritchie, and Monsieur Marotte.
We've heard about the need to protect the EI fund, which did come up today. I'm wondering if, perhaps, you could speak to the importance of that.
We've heard about the need to move to a 360-hour minimum and what that would mean for many people across the country, including those who are increasingly in precarious work, including many women.
Also, perhaps you could speak about the importance of including excluded regions, such as parts of Alberta and southern Saskatchewan, which are currently excluded and which of course are suffering as a result of the downturn in the extractive sector.
Could you please share some quick thoughts on those three topics?
Perhaps we could start with you, Mr. Cohen and Ms. Guevara-Holguin.
In terms of protecting the fund, there is, with all due respect, that nasty matter of the $57 billion. We certainly want to ensure that nothing like that happens again. This was a fund that was paid into by workers and employers. The integrity of the fund needs to be maintained so that EI premiums are used for EI purposes. That's critically important. We have to ensure that remains in place.
Second, there should be consideration given to independent financing of the fund. There was an independent commission that no longer exists. There has to be some mechanism to ensure the integrity of the fund.
On the 300 hours, I know it's a position advanced by labour. Is that the magic number? I'm not sure, but I support the intent.
The intent is to create an equitable format. I think this speaks to the variable entrance requirement as well. There are far too many anomalies among the various regions in the country. I'm sure many of you have heard of situations, and we see them all the time, in which someone says, “I can qualify with 400 hours, and my neighbour across the street needs 600”. We have to develop a rational regional approach to this.
The intent of the variable entrance requirement is really to ensure some equity. Under the Employment Insurance Act, when they changed the format, workers basically required two to three times the number of hours to qualify for benefits. That was a problem, particularly for people in precarious work.
We had the lead case in the country. Kelly Lesiuk's case went to the Federal Court of Appeal. Women, who were disproportionately represented in part-time employment, failed to accumulate sufficient hours to qualify. There are some real issues around not only the hours but also the way we measure labour force attachment.
We certainly welcome and support the government proposals to eliminate the re-entrant or new entrant requirement. We think doing that would go a long way. In terms of program review, we really need to look at the issues of accessibility in order to ensure they're fair, reasonable, and just throughout the country.