Speaking Out Against Conservative’s $54 Billion EI Theft

Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP):

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House today to speak to these amendments at report stage of Bill C-50. My colleague from Acadie—Bathurst is the NDP EI critic and all of us in the NDP caucus are very concerned and disturbed about what is taking place on Bill C-50 and the significant changes that are taking place to the Employment Insurance system.

We have previously debated changes that would take place to the immigration system and we had a lot of concerns about that. Certainly on the amendments that are now before us, which will delete sections from the bill that have to do with setting up the new corporation for crown corporations, we think this is a wrong move by the Conservative government.

When we look back over the last 10 or 15 years, we see how much the employment insurance system has changed. It is very frightening. When workers in this country go to work, their EI deductions are made and employers pay their premiums. It is a system that workers believe in and feel they should be able to have faith that the system will work for them, that it will be there to help them through difficult times of being laid off or unemployed, particularly if they are seasonal workers.

That system previously worked. That system is paid for by employers and workers. There is not a penny of public funds or a penny from the government coffers in that system. It is a system designed to protect the interests of workers.

We know that today only about four in every ten male unemployed workers are collecting EI benefits at any given time. That is down from 80% in the 1990s. It is now down to 40%. It is even worse for women. Only one in three unemployed women is collecting benefits at any given time. That is down from 70% in 1990. Only 20% to 25% of unemployed workers in most major urban centres like Toronto or the Lower Mainland in Vancouver, British Columbia now receive benefits.

These are the statistics, but behind those statistics are unbelievable hardship cases. People who, in good faith, work and pay into the EI fund and then when they apply for coverage because through no fault of their own they are laid off or unemployed, they find out suddenly that this system has, in effect, crashed. It is a system that does not work for them any more. In my own riding of East Vancouver there are many cases involving Employment Insurance. People come to my office who cannot understand why it is so difficult for them to get benefits and why they do not qualify any more.

Clearly, what has happened since the 1990s is that coverage has shrunk because there have been so many changes in the program rules. It began with the Liberal government and has now continued with the Conservative government. They are changes that have made it near impossible for workers to collect something that is their right, which are their unemployment insurance earnings.

In all urban centres except Windsor, people now require 630 to 700 hours minimum to claim for 22 weeks or less. The threshold for new entrants is even worse. They need 910 hours and that really impacts young people, recent immigrants or women who are returning to work. All of these barriers exist to collecting something that people should have by right.

Under the current system the basic benefit that is paid is 55% of the insured earnings, with a level of insured earnings averaged over a 26 week period, to a maximum of $423 weekly. That is not enough to live on. Is it any wonder that the income gap is growing between people who are affluent and doing very well and people at the bottom, working people particularly, who are really struggling? People who go on EI basically live below the poverty line. They struggle to support their families. Then end up going to food banks. These are the kinds of cases I have seen in my riding.

We know that the replacement rate for insured earnings was cut in 1996 from 57% to 55%, itself the result of a cut from 60% in 1993. That was a cut from 66% in the 1970s.
We can see that we have an insured earnings rate that went from 66% down to 55%. These are really appalling figures and they really tell the story of how bad things are under the EI system. So we want to bring this to light and to show how this is impacting millions of workers in this country. I want to congratulate the Canadian Labour Congress and many affiliates of the CLC who have valiantly kept pace, done the tracking, done the monitoring of what is happening to the EI system. Many of these figures come from the Canadian Labour Congress. If we did not have that independent research being done, I do not think we would have any idea just how bad things have become.

We know that in this budget bill the government created the Canada employment insurance financing board act and we know that it has set up this separate crown corporation, but to add insult to injury is the fact that the surplus in the EI account is now at $54 billion. I cannot visualize that amount of money, but I know it is money that is being robbed from workers. I know it is money that has gone into general revenue that is being used for other purposes. Again, the previous government started it and the current government is continuing it. There are so many questions about what it will mean in terms of this new crown corporation.

One of the basic questions we have is why is it that this crown corporation has only been set up with a fund of $2 billion, when even the Auditor General of Canada says that what is required for insurance purposes is closer to $10 billion to $15 billion. So we are very concerned that not only has the system so fundamentally changed in Canada over the last 15 years, but even this new setup that we are dealing with today is going to do a great disservice to workers. It is going to be a situation where yet again workers get cut out. Workers lose entitlement and rights, and there will be no oversight from Parliament. At least now we have had some parliamentary oversight of the goings on and the scandal really, and I do call it a scandal, of what has happened to EI. Now with this arm’s-length crown corporation, where will that parliamentary oversight be?

We are very concerned about these changes in the budget implementation bill. Our leader, the member for Toronto—Danforth, when he was at the Canadian Labour Congress convention just last Thursday, spoke on this issue to the 1,800 delegates who were there representing all of their affiliates across the country. He pointed out that the former government treated the money in the EI fund like money that it found and could use it however it wanted. He pointed out that the $54 billion from the EI fund was used to pay down the debt. That was money that was owed to workers. That is money that belongs to workers.

We see this as the biggest theft in Canadian history. There is a great deal of anger among working people within the organized labour movement about what is taken from EI. I want to assure the affiliates of the CLC and all of the labour partners that we are not going to let this issue go. We are going to fight this tooth and nail, because we think it is pretty scandalous the way workers are being ripped off in this country.

I know for example that the building trades, at their recent policy convention here in Ottawa, raised the issue of EI. The Liberals did not have any answers for them. The Conservatives did not have any answers for them, even when they asked basic questions as to why the new board would only be allocated $2 billion.

We have made these amendments today under Bill C-50 because we are so outraged about the budget bill generally, how it is really robbing workers of very basic entitlements – to feel secure, to feel safe and to feel like they have something that they can rely on when they are hit by hard times.

I know that all of us in the NDP will be fighting these changes, and I hope that other colleagues in the House will rethink their position. It is pretty appalling that the Liberals are willing to sit on their hands and to let this terrible bill pass through the House. That is what they have done and that is what they are prepared to do again today. It is pretty appalling that they are going to let workers down that way. We should be fighting for these rights. That is what we intend to do.