Mr. Michael Savage (Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, Lib.)
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to Bill C-624 brought forward by my colleague and my friend from Sydney—Victoria.
The member has a history of standing up for people who need help. His bill on extending employment insurance sick benefits from 15 to 50 weeks was a very well crafted piece of legislation as well. It passed through the House and went to committee where we heard from a number of stakeholders who said this is exactly what is needed. The bill passed at committee and came back to the House. It needed a royal recommendation which the government refused to give.
The member has done his homework, as he always does. He stands up for people who need help, whether it was getting money for the tar ponds, or whether it was forcing the government to come forward with money for the dredging of Sydney Harbour. He has always done the work. He has led the way, and I am sure he will do that for many years to come in this place.
Bill C-624 would protect beneficiaries under long-term disability plans by giving them preferred status. As my colleague said, this is not about pensions. This is about long-term disability. My NDP colleague who just spoke mentioned the Urquharts and the work that they have done.
I had the opportunity to meet with Nortel workers in my office. It is a very sobering experience to sit in an office with a number of people who have multiple sclerosis, cancer, crohn's disease. These people cannot work, not because they do not want to work, but because they cannot work.
All of a sudden the money they have to live on in long-term disability is being reduced in some cases by over $2,000 to $300 or $400 a month. I would like members to think about that. All members in this House make $150,000 or more. How would we be able to live on 20% of that salary? At least we would have the opportunity go out and work and add to that, but it is very difficult to do that when one has advanced multiple sclerosis or cancer. This is a fundamental issue of fairness. There are 400 Nortel workers affected by this and there are many others across the country. Imagine living on 20% of a salary that is pretty meagre to begin with.
I asked a question earlier in the House about what people with disabilities make in this country compared to what was paid out to the former Integrity Commissioner. The average salary for a person with a disability is $28,000 a year. Some of these people have families to support on that. Why add to that burden? It makes no sense.
Other countries have done this. Studies by the OECD and the World Bank indicate that well over half of the countries that we would consider comparable have some kind of pension protection. Countries like Germany, the U.K. and the U.S. have preferred status for people on long-term disability.
We pride ourselves in Canada on our social infrastructure. We pride ourselves on the way we stand up for people who need help but we do not always help them. This bill provides us with an opportunity to do that. This bill provides us with an opportunity to put a stake in the ground and say that this is patently unfair. We pride ourselves here in Canada on what we do to protect people who need help. Sometimes we miss that opportunity. We do things individually and collectively as members of Parliament to try to help the people in our constituencies. What happens to people whose companies have experienced a downturn and go bankrupt?
I had a similar experience in my constituency a couple of years ago. The Moirs plant, a well-known company in Dartmouth that has been there for many decades, all of a sudden went out of business. The union came to see me and asked me for help. Monte Solberg, who was the minister of human resources at the time, was somewhat helpful in that regard. The people at Service Canada went out of their way to ensure that we could help those folks. But they did not lose their pensions in the way the Nortel workers did.
How many people in this country think they have a solid pension and/or disability plan? The people at Nortel certainly did. Who would have thought 10 or 15 years ago that Nortel would go under? Who would have thought this would happen? Who would have thought that their pension and their long-term disability was self-insured? They were not given any reason to believe that. All of a sudden, through no fault of their own, they are without luck.
There are enough problems for people already in this country, particularly through the economic downturn that we had. People at home spend nights at the kitchen table wondering how to make ends meet, how to pay for gas when the price of gas is where it is. They see articles about the price of food going up. The cost of sending their kids to post-secondary education has skyrocketed in the last couple of decades. People are sitting down everywhere across this country and asking, “How do I stretch what I make? How do I do it? What is my pension like?”
There are a million Canadians who probably think they have a long-term plan or a pension plan who do not even have it. Add to that the fact that three-quarters of people who work in private companies do not have pension plans to begin with. People are concerned. They are scared. They do not know where to turn.
Credit card debt is through the roof. People are being dinged exorbitant rates of interest on their credit cards. People just do not have the ability to stretch their paycheques to cover their expenses. They worry about paying for their kids' post-secondary education. Many of them cannot afford RESPs and things like them that perhaps we have the benefit and luxury of doing.
Government has a responsibility to assist in those areas. People do not ask that much from government, but what they do ask for is some consideration of their circumstances. They sit at the kitchen table trying to match what comes with what goes out. When what comes in goes down by 80%, who among us could survive that? We need to do more. We need to help.
This bill initially was brought forward by Senator Art Eggleton, who has done a lot of work on issues of poverty as well. He is somebody for whom I have great regard and respect. He has done a lot of work on the social condition in Canada.
This bill had a chance to be passed by the Senate just before Christmas. The night the Conservatives had their big Christmas party, the night the Prime Minister sang and played piano for his caucus, the night they were making merry in Centre Block, enough senators snuck away from the merriment to kill the bill.
Now my colleague from Sydney—Victoria has picked up the challenge. He said that someone has to stand up for these people. These are not people who are hurt because of anything that they have done. They are hurt because of circumstances beyond their control.
Let us think about who is at stake. Let us think about the people we are talking about. Let us think about people with cancer, multiple sclerosis, Crohn's disease, and other debilitating diseases. They are trying to survive on a pension of $2,000 or $3,000 a month, on top of which there are medical bills, on top of which there are all kinds of other concerns. All of a sudden, they are left defenceless and their income is chopped.
How do we tell people with advanced multiple sclerosis to go out and make the money that they have lost in their long-term disability? It cannot be done.
We need to do something. I have never been one to say that government has all the answers, because I do not believe that government has all the answers. Sometimes government does not even know the question. In this case we know the question and we know the answer. The question is, how do we stand up for workers who, through absolutely no fault of their own, have been let down by their company, who thought they were protected and it turns out they are not? They are looking to us to stand up and do something.
Well, we can do something. It is within our power to do something about the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act. We have the chance to do it. Bill C-624 is a very important step.
Again I want to congratulate both Senator Eggleton and my colleague from Sydney—Victoria. I also want to thank my colleague from York West who is our critic for seniors. She has been tireless in her support of workers, whether it is on retirement or long-term disability issues. She has been on the front lines, making sure her voice is the voice for people who need a voice in Parliament.
If there is one thing we should all do as parliamentarians, it is stand up for people who need help. There are all kinds of people in this country who will stand up for people who do not need help. There are chambers of commerce and business organizations, labour unions and lots of other organizations. What we need to do as parliamentarians is stand up for those who do not have a voice, for those who are stuck in a situation that they did not create, over which they have no control, and out of which there seems to be no solution.
Bill C-624 is a solution.
Topic: Private Members' Business
Subtopic: Protection of Beneficiaries of Long Term Disability Benefits Plans Act