Tracey's Speech on Making EI Work For Canadians

Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time today with the member for Windsor West.

I am pleased to speak in support of today's opposition day motion brought forward by the hon. member for Jonquière. The motion calls on this place to acknowledge that Canadians need better access to employment insurance benefits. It also calls on the government to take immediate action. The motion is very relevant to the people I represent in Essex.

Over the past number of years and decades, southwestern Ontario has lost tens of thousands of good paying manufacturing jobs. Manufacturing accounts for 11% of Canada's GDP and employs over 1.7 million Canadians, many of whom live in southwestern Ontario. However, over the past decade, under the Conservatives' watch, 400,000 good paying manufacturing jobs have been lost. Those job losses have impacted communities across my riding, including Amherstburg, Belle River, Essex, Harrow, Kingsville, Lakeshore, and LaSalle.

According to Service Canada, the EI region of Windsor, which includes the riding I represent, has an unemployment rate of 9.6%. This is one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, much higher than the 7.2% national rate. In reality, we know the rate is probably much higher than the 9.6% at which Statistics Canada looks. Statistics Canada has a narrow measure of unemployment that really only looks at those who are actively looking for work.

In a region like the one I represent, which has experienced chronic underemployment over the years, people simply stop looking or they settle for lower paying jobs, or part-time work, sometimes piecing together two or three part-time jobs to make ends meet. They may also seek retraining opportunities as I did in 2008 after being laid off from my auto manufacturing job.

When I started working on the assembly line at Ford, we had 6,700 people and 20 years later we are down to 1,500. People in my riding deserve fair and equitable access to employment insurance. When people lose their job through no fault of their own and there are not many opportunities in the area they can turn to, they need time to make the important decision about their future and the future of their families.

Yesterday, I published an editorial in the Windsor Star that talked about Neil from London. Canadians were introduced to Neil during the Prime Minister's one-on-one interviews on CBC. Neil's interview embodied more than just a generation concerned about their financial retirement. He reminded me of all the people I had worked shoulder to shoulder with during my 19 years at Ford. It reminded me of the conversations I had at the doors of Essex voters. It reminded me why I am now working in Ottawa as the MP for Essex.

Thanks to Neil, the concerns he raised with the Prime Minister were brought to a national audience. His questions reflected the real anxiety that resides in manufacturing towns across southwestern Ontario. He became the face of tens of thousands of families. His questions were real and they were poignant. Sadly, they largely went unanswered by the Prime Minister.

Canadians from all corners of our country face anxiety about mounting job losses. We know the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan are facing an extraordinary period of slow economic growth and falling energy prices. This has led to tens of thousands of workers losing their jobs, which means tens of thousands of families concerned about how they will make ends meet while trying to secure quality jobs in this economic downturn.

When communities face mounting job losses, like Alberta over the past year or so, and southwestern Ontario over the past few decades, workers rely on fair access to the employment insurance benefits they paid into for so many years. The premier of Alberta, the Hon. Rachel Notley, knows EI is an important component supporting families in these tough economic times. She has said that they are looking for a fast-paced adjustment to EI so they can extend eligibility and eligibility for the length of claims, which are shorter in Alberta than in any other part of the country.

While the Liberals talked a lot about improving access to EI during the election campaign, many Canadians will remember that it was a Liberal government that created many of the problems with EI that we now are dealing with today. In fact, successive Liberal and Conservative governments have tightened eligibility criteria and have pillaged $57 billion from the EI fund. They have distorted the purpose of the EI program, which is to provide income to workers who have the misfortune of losing their job.

Looking back into the 1990s, the Liberal government of the day embarked on a devastating austerity program, reducing transfers to the provinces and cities and slashing services on which Canadians relied. Under the Liberals, employment insurance was radically overhauled to restrict eligibility requirements. In 1990, eight out of ten Canadians qualified for EI benefits, but after the Liberal government's changes, EI coverage fell to less than 50% of the unemployed.

Let us talk about what the Liberal government did to the EI account.

To provide a little background, when employers and workers pay into EI, the money goes into a consolidated specific purposes account. These specific purposes are very straightforward. EI premiums are intended to provide relief for workers who have lost their job. They are not meant for any other purpose, like funding reductions in the corporate tax rate, or giving subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. EI premiums are meant for unemployed workers.

What the Liberals did to the EI account was unconscionable. They raided the fund of about $50 billion. Rather than reducing premiums for small business owners and workers, the government took the money for its own purposes. Rather than increase access to EI for the unemployed, the government took the money for itself. Rather than provide greater retraining opportunities for unemployed workers, or address the serious skilled labour shortage that existed across Canada, the Liberal government took $50 billion out of the EI account and away from Canadian workers.

It is all well and good for the Liberals today to be talking about fixing some of the Conservatives' mess, but let us not forget the governing party's sordid history on this file.

Fast forwarding to the 2000s, let us take a look at what the Conservatives did with EI.

Faced with deepening recession in 2012, the Conservatives failed to address the economy and instead focused on attacking Canadian workers. They undertook a large series of reforms to EI that were designed to further restrict eligibility, especially for seasonal and lower-wage workers. The number of people qualifying for EI hit an all-time low. Let us remember, in 1990, eight of ten Canadians qualified for EI benefits. After the Liberals were done with their changes, this number dropped to about five in ten. After the Conservatives, just four out of ten Canadians qualified for the benefits they had paid into.

The Conservatives introduced new rules forcing workers to accept lower wage jobs that paid up to 30% less than their previous jobs, or accept jobs that were up to an hour's drive from home. Refusing such jobs meant workers risked losing their benefits.

The Conservatives also changed rules for the working while on claim pilot project, which penalized lower income earners, and they killed the extended EI benefits pilot program, which granted five extra weeks of benefits for workers in regions of high unemployment.

Stealing a page from the Liberal playbook, the Conservative government diverted another $3 billion from the EI account to cover budget holes left by its multi-billion dollars in corporate tax giveaways.

Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, put it well, "How is it acceptable to be accumulating annual surpluses in the EI account, when 63% of unemployed workers aren't receiving any benefits?"

It is time the for the federal government to stop raiding the EI account. Enough is enough. This money can never be recovered, and it is a grievous theft from Canadians who are at their most vulnerable.

Today's motion proposes a clear way forward.

First, it proposes to create a universal qualifying threshold of 360 hours, regardless of the regional rate of unemployment. Currently, the required hours range from 420 to 700 hours, which restricts EI eligibility for many Canadian workers. Levelling the playing field with a standard number of hours is good for workers. It is a proposal that has been endorsed by 80 Canadian groups, including anti-poverty, women's groups, labour unions, and students groups.

Second, the motion proposes to repeal some of the Conservative government's harmful EI reforms. Forcing workers to accept low-paying jobs far from their homes puts an undue strain on families and prevents workers from securing the right job for their future. Let us get rid of these unnecessary measures and restore the pilot program to help seasonal workers.

Third, the motion calls on Parliament to protect the EI account, to ensure that funds are only spent on benefits for Canadians, including training, and never again used to boost the government's bottom line. This is such a critical part of the motion.

I encourage my colleagues to acknowledge the wrongs of the past and support today's motion as a positive way forward that restores the EI program to its intended purpose.

I thank my hon. colleague from Jonquière for bringing this motion before us today.

On behalf of the people I represent in Essex, I will be voting yes to this motion.