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Figures released by Statistics Canada today show that less than 45 per cent of unemployed workers actually receive Employment Insurance benefits.

The Liberals gutted EI in the 1990s when Paul Martin was finance minister. Now, only about four of every ten unemployed workers across Canada are eligible to collect EI benefits, down from 80 per cent in 1990. Severely tightened qualifying rules means roughly 20-25 per cent unemployed workers in most major urban centres can receive benefits at any time.

The impact is even worse for women, young people and marginalized workers who often have to work in part-time, temporary and contract jobs and so find it much more difficult to qualify for EI. In recent years, only one in three unemployed women have qualified for EI, and Statscan has shown that 35 per cent of mothers with newborns did not receive benefits in 2003.

Making things worse, benefits have been reduced to 55% of insured earnings – to a maximum of just $413 per week. The average benefit is just $312, which is below the poverty line in most areas of Canada.

These shocking figures should show that Liberals aren’t the friends of workers that some make them out to be.

Social assistance levels in most provinces add to the weight of Canadian poverty. In New Brunswick, a single employable person receives less than $10 a day from social assistance – no wonder dependence on food banks has increased so much in Canada. The EI clampdown has left over half a million unemployed Canadians to depend on social assistance or food banks to survive.

The slashing of support to the unemployed has meant that the EI program has built up $50 billion in surpluses, despite the Liberals cutting the EI premium rate twelve years in a row. The cuts in the premium rate under the Liberals now save employers about $7 billion per year, while the federal government banks the EI.

CUPE and other unions are calling for a return to 360 hours of work to qualify for benefits and higher rates which should be based on the worker’s highest-paid 12 weeks. CUPE also calls for an EI training benefit, a prohibition on diverting EI funds to other purposes and changing the name back to Unemployment Insurance (UI), among other changes.

Paul Martin’s Liberals have refused to enact these simple, affordable reforms for over a decade. Even the government’s own Parliamentary committee, with Liberal MPs, has been calling for these common-sense reforms, but the Liberal government is ignoring them. The committee freely admits that the “Federal government has collected far more EI revenues than it has spent on this program” and has called on the government to halt this practice and to restore workers’ access to their insurance program.

The committee’s conclusions reflect the work of NDP MPs and others who have been listening to the broader labour movement on returning EI to its owners – workers.