In Debate: EI Reform is Needed Now!

 

Ms. Irene Mathyssen (London—Fanshawe, NDP):  

    Madam Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for North Island—Powell River.

    While it is an honour to rise in the House today in support of this motion, I cannot say that I am happy; rather, I am concerned, disheartened, and angered by the repeated abuse and neglect of our employment insurance program, which is one of Canada's key social programs, a cornerstone of our social democracy, and an important part of our social safety net. That abuse and neglect makes this motion brought forward by the member for Jonquière very necessary.

    We have experienced nothing but lip service and empty promises on the part of Liberal and Conservative governments who conveniently forget their promises as soon as they are in power, by restricting access to benefits for vulnerable Canadians and using the funds, built from the premiums of workers and employers, like a cookie jar that they can raid in order to continue corporate pandering and give the illusion of a balanced budget.

    Let me remind members of the proud social democratic roots that are the foundation of our country, the foundation of programs like employment insurance in Canada, which were created to ensure fairness, equity, and that no one is left behind.

    A social democratic society provides balance in a capitalist economy with the recognition that some core values, such as access to decent employment, health care, affordable housing, education, pensions, food, and union representation, among others, are not commodities to be marketed away at the whim of the corporate or government elites.

    It was a Canadian, John Humphrey, who drafted the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. It is a declaration that was subsequently enshrined in international law in 1976. I should add that it is a law that was and is endorsed by every province in this country.

    In his autobiography, Humphrey was clear about the centrality of social and economic rights to the lives of ordinary people, and he stressed that other human rights have no meaning without them. This is the proud legacy we hold as Canadians; and the foundation of institutions, such as our employment insurance program, was created in the spirit of that legacy. We must not let the government tell us it cannot be done.

    In a lecture on the future of social democracy by the Hon. Ed Broadbent in November 2015, he pointed out that the most stable and robust economy that the U.S. has ever experienced was in the 1960s, a period in which social programs were strongest in that country. When we think about it, this is truly what trickle-down economics should be, because that economic stability, a period in which the U.S. GDP was strongest, was the result of progressive policies and social programs implemented by Franklin Delano Roosevelt following the Great Depression and World War II.

    Equal societies improve outcomes for everyone. A strong EI system in Canada not only benefits those whose employment has been interrupted, but it benefits dependent family members and children who are able to remain well fed, clothed, and adequately housed. It benefits the local economies, because even unemployed workers have money to spend in their community.

    Our motion today calls upon the government to honour its campaign promises and throne speech commitment to strengthen the employment insurance system by taking immediate action to do the following: one, create a universal qualifying threshold of 360 hours for employment insurance, regardless of the regional rate of unemployment; two, immediately repeal the harmful reforms of the previous government, including those that force unemployed workers to move away from their community and take lower paying jobs, and those that eliminated the extended EI benefits pilot program to help seasonal workers; and three, protect the employment insurance account to ensure that the funds are only spent on benefits for Canadians, including training, and are never again used to boost the government's bottom line. We certainly saw that from the Conservatives and the Liberals.

    In my community of London, Ontario, the unemployment rate is 5.8%. This is a bit of good news for a region that has been very hard hit in the last five years, but we cannot forget that this region has long been hard hit by the loss of well-paid and stable manufacturing jobs as a result of government's historical refusal to insulate our economy from globalization. It is becoming harder and harder for those who have not found a stable, lasting job to get help when they need it.

    Currently in London, workers need a staggering 700 hours to qualify for employment insurance benefits. That amounts to more than four consecutive months of full-time work. Sadly, in a world where precarious, temporary or short-term contract jobs dominate the job market, many people find themselves in jobs that only last 90 days, leaving workers a full month short of eligibility for EI.

    Let me tell the House about the situation faced by one of my constituents. Steve completed his training program last year, having returned to school to retrain as a machine operator. He successfully secured an apprenticeship and put his new-found skills to work over the summer and through the fall. He was laid off recently and did not qualify for unemployment because he fell 17 hours short of qualifying for EI benefits. Steve has always been a hard worker. He contributes to society. He pays his taxes. Now, as he has been unable to find any sort of job, he is left to live on social assistance of $590 a month, much less than he would have been eligible for on employment insurance.

    Steve is an example of why we need a 360-hour eligibility standard. If Steve is lucky enough to locate work, there is a good chance in today's economy that it will be a low-wage, temporary, or contract job. Even apprenticeships are precarious and all the retraining possible does not help workers who have taken the initiative to retrain themselves but remain ineligible for EI.

    Another constituent, Chris Gerrits, wants this House to know about his wife whose employment was interrupted because she required two major surgeries in the past year. She went back to work between surgeries, and as a result, has been left without an income since August because she was not able to work enough hours between surgeries to qualify for further benefits.

    These people are contributing to the EI program. In both cases they have contributed for many, many years before needing to turn to EI for help, only to find that the help was not there when it was needed. These are the people our current system is failing, and this is the reason we stand here today in this House calling for reform.

    The sad reality for Canadian workers today is the erosion of full-time, permanent, and well-paid work, and the need for people to work two, three, even four jobs in order to make ends meet. More and more Canadians must contend with precarious work conditions because our market cannot or will not provide better. We cannot ignore the fact that an intersectional analysis of this phenomenon reveals that subsections of workers, such as women, young people, seniors, immigrants, indigenous people, and disabled people are most vulnerable to the effects of precarious work.

    According to the parliamentary budget officer, many Canadians who are not receiving EI have been unemployed for more than a year or were employed in precarious work that made it difficult for them to accumulate enough hours to qualify.

    The New Democratic Party of Canada believes that higher levels of employment, gender and economic equality, social rights, civil liberties, and environmental economic sustainability can be achieved in this system where government plays a major role. That role is to strengthen social programs, ensuring their sustainability in order to fuel a thriving, robust economy.

    Sadly, the legacy of Liberal and Conservative governments has been to weaken social programs such EI. The systemic disregard of previous governments also ignores the reality that social programs provide infrastructure for a healthy economy. We have seen Liberals and Conservatives drastically slash access to employment insurance, leaving a majority of Canadians without benefits. This is simply not acceptable.

    I hope this new government is listening and is ready to act instead of giving old promises. I have seen promises. I remember red books in the past.

 

Mr. Pierre Nantel (Longueuil—Saint-Hubert, NDP):  

    Madam Speaker, I would like to commend my colleague on her speech.

    I had the opportunity to meet some of her constituents a few years ago. She is talking today and I would like people to listen to what we have to say because this is a really important issue.

    People who are getting employment insurance benefits are already having problems. Imagine those who are waiting to get them. The number of people waiting for benefits right now is staggering. It does not make any sense that they all contributed to a program that they do not have access to.

    When my colleague speaks about people, she refers to them by name because she knows them. I know how close this member is to her constituents.

    Does she not find it appalling to see the cynicism of members who are saying that, of course, we need to reform the system, when in reality we all know that the Liberals signal left during elections and then turn right once they take office? They have been doing that for a long time. Is that not true?

 

Ms. Irene Mathyssen:  

    Madam Speaker, when I talk about the fact that I remember Liberal promises of the past, I remember the red books of 1993, 1997, 2000, and 2003. The Liberals promised all kinds of things. In 1997, they promised that pharmacare was going to exist by January of 1998. They promised child care. They promised all kinds of supports for workers, and they never delivered.

    I have this very terrible feeling that as this budget unfolds, we are going to see a pulling back, like we saw in the 13 years of Liberal government, a pulling back from the promises that Canadians depended on and believed in. As my colleague says, they signal left and then turn right.

 

Ms. Kate Young (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport, Lib.):  

    Madam Speaker, as the representative of London West, I agree that people are suffering. They are hurting and struggling, and changes need to be made.

    This government is working to fulfill commitments made in the campaign and in the Speech from the Throne on employment insurance. It is being reviewed and changes are coming very soon, as the Prime Minister has stated many times in the House of Commons and as I state again today.

 

Ms. Irene Mathyssen:  

    Madam Speaker, I have to tell a story, which I perhaps have told before. In 1997, then prime minister Jean Chrétien gave a speech at a $250-a-plate luncheon to those very well placed in society, such as business corporations and those in the industry sector. He said, “You have slain the deficit. You are wonderful, you have slain the deficit that this country had.” That was not quite true. The deficit was certainly lower, but it was not that bunch who slew it, it was the workers of this country, because $54 billion was stolen from the employment insurance account that those workers and employers had diligently put aside so that workers could benefit.

    I have some concerns and this motion is absolutely directed toward the government. We are saying it should live up to its obligations and help the people of this country.