Second reading of Bill S-244, An Act to amend the Department of Employment and Social Development Act and the Employment Insurance Act (Employment Insurance Council)

By: The Hon. Marty Klyne

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Hon. Marty Klyne: Honourable senators, I rise to also speak in support of Bill S-244, Senator Bellemare’s bill proposing an Employment Insurance council. I believe the thoughtful measures this bill contains will play a key role in reforming Canada’s Employment Insurance system. This bill will help create a more resilient, adaptable, responsible and practical social safety net for Canadian workers.

The EI system was established in Canada in 1940. The federal government used to be one of the financial contributors to the program alongside employers and labour. However, in 1990, the federal government’s financial contributions were eliminated as the fund became self-financing. That is to say that the entire cost of the program is now shared between employers and employees. The system continues to be administered through Employment and Social Development Canada. I note this so that we understand how little feedback and involvement businesses and employees have in the design of Canada’s EI program.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought to light where our social safety nets and service delivery systems underperformed, albeit in extraordinary circumstances — I will give them that. Canada’s EI program was one of those safety nets that failed to live up to expectations. The system was not equipped to deal with the sudden decrease in labour force participation caused by the pandemic. As our country grappled with the situation, the EI system struggled to provide benefits for those who needed them the most. The federal government stepped in to respond to the urgent economic needs of Canadians by implementing the temporary Canada Emergency Response Benefit, also known as CERB, which provided financial support to employed and self-employed Canadians directly affected by COVID-19. Applicants received $2,000 for a four-week period, or $500 a week.

That was helpful, but the CERB did not solve the problems with EI. While the pandemic was perhaps the most recent example of the system failing to work for those who need it most, in truth, it has operated for decades without fully considering the realities of the changing labour market. In a recent op-ed published in the March 25 edition of the Toronto Star, Senator Bellemare argued that the government’s decision to create the CERB was a necessary response to an unprecedented crisis, but that the need to have to create the program at all highlighted long-standing problems and inefficiencies with our EI system.

Many papers and reports have been written on this subject, among them the 2021 House of Commons report titled Modernizing the Employment Insurance Program. Here are some of the issues that report identified: inadequate eligibility criteria that excludes many workers; long wait times for benefits; a lack of support for workers in non-traditional employment arrangements such as the gig economy; inadequate training and education programs that may not equip workers with the skills needed for emerging industries; inflexible maternity and parental benefits and insufficient support for caregivers. The report concluded that the program:

. . . no longer reflects the realities of today’s labour market and is not well-positioned to respond to sudden labour market disruptions, such as those that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. . . .

Our long-term resilience requires a more flexible and responsive EI system that can meet the needs of Canadian workers and employers, regardless of their location or industry. We need a system that can adapt to changing needs and the ever-increasing demand for new skills and education. A flexible and functional Employment Insurance program will undoubtedly be a crucial component of Canada’s preparedness for future crises that may disrupt economic activity. It could provide financial stability to workers who have lost their jobs due to a crisis or due to the impact of automation and AI — artificial intelligence — replacing repeatable jobs. It could, or should, also promote fiscal recovery by continuing to stimulate the economy, support social cohesion by reducing the social and economic impacts of a crisis and provide support to vulnerable groups such as low-income workers, women and marginalized communities.

The federal government, seemingly in agreement with this argument, recently reached the end of extensive consultations aimed at modernizing EI for the post-pandemic period. However, it is Senator Bellemare’s belief, which I and many others share, that to create a resilient and adaptable system, reforms and new solutions must be informed by a continuous dialogue where there is an exchange of ideas and information between government, employers and employees. The main difference between consultations undertaken by government and continued social dialogue is that consultation is usually a temporary event aimed at gathering information for a specific purpose, unlike continued social dialogue, which is an ongoing process of engagement aimed at building relationships and promoting mutual understanding, which leads to building trust and promoting transparency.

Continued social dialogue is the most conducive to fostering long-term collaboration between stakeholders and policy-makers. Continued social dialogue involves regular meetings, consultations, negotiations and other forms of engagement to ensure that policies reflect the needs and interests of all stakeholders across dynamic and diverse regional economies. In the case of EI reform, continued social dialogue is crucial because it allows us to take a holistic approach to the issue. We can involve all stakeholders in these discussions, listen to their concerns and develop solutions that are practical, effective and sustainable. For example, by involving employers in the discussion and by identifying ways to provide more training and support to Canada’s diverse workforce, we would effectively reduce the need for EI in the first place.

Involving the labour force in the discussion will identify ways to also improve access to training and education which, in turn, will help workers find new employment quicker than otherwise — contributing to their household finances and our economy, as well as the tax base and shared prosperity.

Furthermore, continued social dialogue helps to ensure that policies are fair, inclusive and effective. When all parties feel that they have been heard and that their needs have been considered, they are more likely to support reforms and to implement them successfully.

Senator Bellemare’s bill seeks to address the imbalance between employers, employees and the EI regime itself. The bill takes a holistic look at the system, and recognizes that for the reform to effectively address the challenges that Canada faces, the government must treat employers and workers as true partners in finding and implementing solutions. The bill proposes to create a council that would act as an advisory body to the Canada Employment Insurance Commission, or CEIC, which is the commission that oversees and sets policy for the Employment Insurance program. This new council would be comprised of an equal number of labour and employer representatives. It would be co-chaired by the Commissioner for Workers and the Commissioner for Employers, both of whom sit on the CEIC. It would not alter the membership or structure of the CEIC itself, but would be an advisory council that could provide advice and make recommendations.

The rationale for creating this advisory council is to give labour organizations and employers a formal structure to provide feedback to the CEIC on matters related to Employment Insurance. Currently, many labour groups and organizations that represent employers feel that they do not have enough opportunity to provide the CEIC with the necessary feedback, which underscores the need for this new advisory council.

This bill is being supported by labour groups, including Unifor, the Canadian Labour Congress and Canada’s Building Trades Unions, among others. On the employer side, it is being supported by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, among others.

Honourable senators, this bill seeks to address one of the key issues with the Employment Insurance regime: It doesn’t work as well as it should for both employers and labour. Continued social dialogue can help us develop a more flexible, responsible and sustainable EI system that can meet the demands of all employable Canadians. It can also help to build consensus and trust between different stakeholders, and ensure that the reforms are implemented and embraced successfully.

Establishing a council such as this one is a positive step that will benefit the entire system. For that reason, I support Bill S-244, and I respectfully ask all colleagues to support this initiative in its speedy referral to committee. Thank you. Hiy kitatamîhin.

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