Mr. Robert Vincent (Shefford, BQ)
moved that Bill C-380, An Act to amend the Canada Labour Code (pregnant or nursing employees), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am very proud to speak to the hon. members in this House about the value of Bill C-380 on preventive withdrawal for pregnant or nursing employees.
This is the fifth time the Bloc Québécois is championing this important matter. This issue has been going nowhere for over 15 years now. The Public Service Alliance of Canada issued a pamphlet on preventive withdrawal over 10 years ago to pressure the government into making sure that working conditions for pregnant or nursing women were healthy and safe.
Studies show that chemical, biological, physical and even ergonomic risks can seriously affect both mother and fetus by causing premature birth, birth defects, miscarriage, stillbirth, etc.
Let us look at what the federal government has to offer to Canadians and Quebeckers in terms of maternity protection:
Section 132 of the Canada Labour Code stipulates that an employee who is pregnant or nursing may cease to perform her job if she believes that, by reason of the pregnancy or nursing, continuing any of her current job functions may pose a risk to her health or to that of the fetus or child. The employee must consult with a qualified medical practitioner to establish whether such a risk exists. While waiting for the medical report, the employee shall continue to receive the wages and benefits that are attached to that job.
Under section 205, the employee can request to be reassigned, if the medical practitioner determines that a risk exists. If reassignment is not possible, the employee can take a leave of absence for the duration of the risk, although there are no financial measures associated with this in the Canada Labour Code. Section 205, Paragraph 6, reads as follows:
An employee referred to in subsection (4) is entitled to and shall be granted a leave of absence for the duration of the risk as indicated in the medical certificate.
There is no question here of ensuring financial compensation for such workers. Furthermore, studies show that, overwhelmingly, employers prefer to take the woman out of the workplace rather than invest money to remove the source of the danger.
What financial recourse will the employee have? Sickness benefits under the EI program.
Here is a typical scenario: let us imagine a woman who drives heavy-duty trucks. This industry falls under the Canada Labour Code. The driver is pregnant and her work poses a real risk to her fetus. On her doctor's instructions, she gives her employer her medical report confirming the risks her duties pose to her pregnancy. I am thinking particularly of the truck's vibrations or the employee having to stay seated for long periods of time.
Since the employer is unable to reassign her to another position, she is sent home.
The employee then has to qualify for sickness benefits under the EI program. First, she has to have accumulated 600 working hours within the last 52 weeks, otherwise she has to take leave without pay. If she has the hours, she must present her doctor's report indicating the risks to which she is exposed. The problem is that pregnancy is not an illness. So, in order to get sickness benefits, the employee must be sick as a result of her work, not her pregnancy. If she meets all the requirements, she is entitled to a maximum of 15 weeks; the program makes no allowance for certain categories of professionals who must totally cease work because their job poses a risk throughout pregnancy.
The only way she can receive any financial compensation under the current legislation is to apply a maximum of 8 of her 15 weeks maternity leave to her preventive withdrawal, that is prior to delivery. She is therefore penalized by that amount of weeks post-delivery.
Note that the rate for all EI benefits is 55% of the employee's net income, to a maximum of $413 weekly, and then there is the two week mandatory waiting period on top of that .
Federal preventive withdrawal measures are therefore incomplete and inconsistent.
In Quebec, on the other hand, the Occupational Health and Safety Act clearly pays occupational health and safety commission benefits for preventive withdrawal. These are equal to 90% of the income of the worker who has taken preventive withdrawal and are for the duration of the period of withdrawal stipulated by her physician. This financial compensation is paid to the employee as soon as she withdraws from her job, with no waiting period.
This creates two categories of workers in Quebec: those covered by the Quebec labour code and thus entitled to real occupational health and safety measures, and those covered by the Canada Labour Code who are, in practice, entitled to either reassignment to a less hazardous position or to leave without pay.
The bill I am proposing corrects that injustice. It offers women workers covered by the Canada Labour Code the same rights as those available under the legislation in the province in which they work, if the latter legislation is more to their advantage, as is the case in Quebec at the present time.
Some will say that this creates two categories of workers under the federal code. Harmonizing services to the public is done according to the best services available: leveling up. This being a jurisdiction that for the most part belongs to Quebec, since 90% of workers are covered by provincial legislation , practices must be made uniform throughout Quebec.
Enabling working women in Quebec who come under the federal code to benefit from Quebec legislation relating to preventive withdrawal does not deprive Canadian working women of anything. On the other hand, not doing so is unfair to working women in Quebec.
The fact of the matter is that there is no denying that both categories of workers already exist in the federal public service. Just think of an employee entitled to preventive withdrawal, who is defined as “an employee working in an institution where she is in direct and regular contact with offenders, if the employer concludes that a modification of job functions... is not reasonably practicable”, which applies to fewer than 2,000 of the 165,000 members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. Need I remind hon. members that correctional officers are currently challenging a unilateral decision by the Treasury Board of Canada to take away from some 2,000 employees of Correctional Service Canada the penological factor allowance used to provide compensation for the hazards involved?
Occupational health and safety represent a challenge the community as a whole must take on. Balancing our ability to increase the birth rate against that of providing our fellow citizens with better work conditions is a matter of political will. We must decide what we want as a society. An increasing number of women on the labour market are confronted with globalization and casualization; we have a duty to ensure that they have healthy and safe work environments, especially when they are pregnant or nursing.
In the steps it has taken with respect to both work family balance and occupational health and safety, Quebec has made a choice: to recognize the essential social function of women in having children and working.
The federal government does not seem to view the evolution of social life the same way. While these issues fall more within the jurisdiction of Quebec and the provinces than that of the central government, the latter is nonetheless the one responsible for entering into international treaties or agreements and, in spite of promises made last year, it no longer recognizes the Gérin-Lajoie doctrine.
Concern for adequately protecting the health of pregnant employees and their unborn children is nothing new. In 1952, the first Maternity Protection Convention was ratified by more than a dozen member states of the International Labour Organization, or ILO. This convention provided not only for the preventive withdrawal of pregnant or breastfeeding workers, but also for cash benefits to be paid out to these workers.
Canada did not ratify the convention. It never even signed the agreement in principle. Yet, the Canadian government tried to look good in 1999, by taking part in a consultation process conducted by the ILO among its member countries to determine whether a review of the 1952 convention would be in order. The government not only supported such a review, but also said it was in favour of including other specific guidelines regarding the protection of maternity. However, it remained rather vague on its willingness to financially compensate a woman on preventive withdrawal from work.
This is probably one of the main reasons why Canada has yet to ratify the revised Maternity Protection Convention, adopted in 2000.
This tends to confirm the federal government's blatant lack of political will regarding the rights of female workers. Not only is this the fifth time that our party has presented this important legislation, but the government continues to block any measure that would benefit workers. I am thinking, for example, of the bill on replacement workers, which was defeated last spring, and of the legislation to prohibit psychological harassment in the workplace, which was also defeated on October 5. Then there is the federal government's laxness regarding the reintroduction of the Program for Older Worker Adjustment, or POWA, and regarding the changes and improvements that were requested for the employment insurance program.
In fact, the most blatant example of the government's lack of will is unquestionably that of the pilot project on preventive withdrawal. This project, which was introduced in 2002 and which ended on October 1, was not renewed, even though it corrected another injustice done to female workers. Indeed, it made it possible for Quebec women on preventive withdrawal from work not to have to rely on partial employment insurance benefits to supplement the benefits paid by the CSST. This allowed women to use all the weeks of the maternity leave to which they were entitled after giving birth to a child.
As of two weeks ago this is no longer so, which means the employee on leave from her work has one month to declare her stoppage of work for employment insurance purposes. After the prescribed two-week penalty period, she will be forced to receive partial benefits, which will amount to very little, if anything at all, because of the calculation method. This benefit, although partial, is considered in number of weeks as full benefits. Thus, workers in Quebec on preventive withdrawal paid by the CSST, are penalized several weeks' maternity leave after delivery. The unfairness has resumed.
In 1991, when my colleague from the Bloc Québécois, the member for Laurentides, introduced a similar bill, this is what the then parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Labour said, and I quote:
In the case of pregnant or nursing mothers, perhaps there are some useful lessons to be learned from Quebec's experience in the area of social policy but we need to look at that experience much more carefully before we can vote for the kind of fundamental change proposed in Bill C-340.
Is 15 years enough time for the government to look carefully at Quebec's experience? The argument no longer holds water today, since the government has missed too many opportunities to provide all workers with healthier and safer working conditions. Nothing has changed in 15 years.
The case for providing our workers with effective health and safety measures in the workplace has been made perfectly clear. Now it is time to take action.
According to 2003 data, 252,000 of all the Quebec workers governed by the federal code, men and women alike, do not have the same employment rights as their colleagues governed by Quebec legislation.
Bill C-380 is the first step to providing an important balance for Quebec workers. They deserve our recognition. Let us show it to them by supporting Bill C-380.
Subtopic: Canada Labour Code