House of Commons Hansard #92 of the 35th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was reform.

Topics

Questions On The Order Paper
Routine Proceedings

11 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Questions On The Order Paper
Routine Proceedings

11 a.m.

The Deputy Speaker

I wish to inform the House that, because of the ministerial statement, Government Orders will be extended by 54 minutes.

The House proceeded to the consideration of Bill C-35, an act to amend the Canada Labour Code (minimum wage) as reported (without amendment) from the committee.

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11 a.m.

The Deputy Speaker

There are two motions in amendment standing on the Notice Paper for the report stage of Bill C-35, an act to amend the Canada Labour Code.

Motion No. 1 will be debated and voted upon separately.

The motion will be debated and voted on separately.

I will now submit Motion No. 1 to the House.

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11 a.m.

Bloc

Réal Ménard Hochelaga—Maisonneuve, QC

moved:

Motion No. 1

That Bill C-35, in Clause 1, be amended by replacing line 12 on page 1 with the following:

"employee is usually employed or, if the employee works in more than one province, the minimum hourly rate of the province that is highest, and that is".

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to take part in today's debate, at report stage of Bill C-35, which, for all intents and purposes, eliminates the federal minimum wage, aligning it with the minimum wages established by the provinces.

We supported Bill C-35 with the feeling that we had to do our work as the official opposition and help improve this legislation. This is why we proposed an amendment. Let me elaborate.

As you know, the federal minimum wage was set at $4 in 1986 and has not been reviewed since. The situation was a bit paradoxical: in a given territory, there could be two categories of workers. Indeed, workers doing the same job in the same company were not necessarily paid the same salary.

Three main considerations must be kept in mind when we deal with minimum wage. First, those affected are often part-time workers, employees whose jobs are precarious, and people who live below the poverty line, or just at that level. In this regard, the government should have introduced, along with the minimum wage review, a bill that would have truly targeted the causes of poverty.

We can never say it too often: the issue of minimum wage should remind parliamentarians that, in Canada, one person in six currently lives below the established poverty levels. This proportion increases in the case of certain groups, particularly single parents.

What does being poor mean in today's Quebec and Canadian society? We know what it means. It is not a reality that escapes us. We know precisely what it means. From a statistical point of view, a person is considered to be poor when he or she must spend more than 56 per cent of his or her salary on housing, food and clothes.

It would have been a good thing for the government to deal with this issue. It is hard to square the minimum wage bill with something like the Employment Insurance Act, which is a factor in poverty, because we know for a fact that only 38 per cent of the labour force will qualify under that legislation.

The amendment we are presenting today introduces a mobility provision whereby a worker employed by a company operating interprovincially, or conducting business in two or more provinces, will receive the minimum wage that is most to his advantage. It is a cause for some concern that the government did not think of this.

When the minister appeared before the committee, we pointed out to him that the situation was, of course, clear when a worker was employed by Ontario. When he works in an area coming under federal jurisdiction but the head office of the company or the place where he works is in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba or Prince Edward Island, understandably everything is crystal clear, and he is paid the minimum wage in effect in that province.

But what will happen when this same worker is required to work in one or more provinces, when there is no set place of work? Such a situation can arise. With the advent of telework, the whole question of interprovincial mobility and, of course, interprovincial transport, this is more than just an isolated case. Had the official opposition not been vigilant, there would have been an omission in the act that must most definitely be corrected today.

I would remind members that the intention of the amendment is to have the legislation spell out very clearly that, when a worker is

called upon to provide services or work in more than one place within the Canadian common market, he will be paid the highest rate.

You know how widely the minimum wage varies in Canada. It ranges from $5 in certain provinces to $7 in British Columbia, the most generous province in this connection and undoubtedly the one with the most favourable financial situation.

I would like to emphasize, for the benefit of viewers, just how much the situation varies. This must be borne in mind. We are certainly not talking about a uniform situation where the minimum wage is concerned.

I will give the example of Alberta, where the minimum wage is $5. In British Columbia, it is $7; in Prince Edward Island it will be raised to $5.40; in Manitoba it is $5.40; in New Brunswick, $5.50; in Nova Scotia, $5.35; in Ontario, $6.85; in Quebec, $6.70; in Saskatchewan, $5.35; in Newfoundland, $5.25; in the Northwest Territories, $7; and in the Yukon, $6.86.

It could, therefore, be a great temptation for a employer with interprovincial mobility to decide that the place of employment of a given worker is a specific province. If a worker works in three or four provinces, for example, the employer could have his choice of province. He could say: "I consider that the place of work to which the worker is attached is the province with the lowest minimum wage." This is a trap which must be avoided for, as we have seen, there is a disparity between provincial wage levels.

When speaking of minimum wage, we must keep in mind that often non-unionized workers are involved, people who lack the protection of a large union to which they pay dues, which looks after the rights of workers, which is certainly not the case for minimum wage earners.

Generally speaking, this minimum wage covers 10 per cent of people in the work force. Ten per cent of workers therefore come under federal jurisdiction. Obviously, therefore, the bulk of workers are in areas where legislation other than that of the federal government applies. Nevertheless, 10 per cent of the work force is involved in the sectors of transportation, banking and communications particularly, but not exclusively, affected by Bill C-35. Of that 10 per cent, a very large majority, which the minister estimates at 60 per cent, are not protected by a union and work at minimum wage.

It is, therefore, important to ensure that, if the government were preparing to defeat the official opposition amendment to Bill C-35-which I doubt, since I believe the parliamentary secretary is nodding that he will support the amendment by the official opposition-but at any rate, if the government were preparing to defeat the opposition amendment, well, then we would find ourselves in a legal vacuum. In the case of workers with several different places of work, working in more than one province, workers having to move about within the broad Canadian common market, it could be extremely tempting for the employer to make a decision that would not be to their advantage, choosing to attach them to the place of work where the minimum wage was lowest, to the workers' disadvantage.

I will close my remarks by saying that, today, we are just beginning the process. Bill C-35 is the first indication that the government intends to review part I of the Canada Labour Code, as the hon. member for Québec is well aware-and I know she is very concerned about the plight of workers today. Parts II and III will also be reviewed.

This review process has given rise to considerable debate on, for instance, the possible unionization of the RCMP and the issue of replacement workers. In report after report, year after year, the government has been urged to bring peace to the workplace and introduce anti-scab legislation that make the use of replacement workers an unfair practice and as such subject to sanctions by the Canada Labour Board. I know that the hon. member for Bourassa, a long-standing member of the labour movement, has some very specific proposals in mind.

So as part of this review process, it will be very important to ensure, of course, that the Canada Labour Code is the locus for establishing a certain balance of forces, where the legislation defines a number of positions to be used in dealing with future labour disputes. But I think it is also important to ensure, in 1996 and in the years to come, that the Canada Labour Code is also a weapon against poverty. Why not consider including provisions in the Canada Labour Code that would set limits on working hours and overtime?

The minister told me he was regularly asked to authorize overtime in the private sector because a federal provision says that the minister's authorization is required for work in excess of the statutory number of hours. I think, at a time when one Canadian out of six lives in poverty, in other words, 2.8 million Canadians in all Canadian provinces, that we should ensure that the Canada Labour Code is also a weapon against poverty.

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11:15 a.m.

Hillsborough
P.E.I.

Liberal

George Proud Parliamentary Secretary to Minister of Labour

Mr. Speaker, we have listened to the concerns of my fellow members with regard to the wording of the amendment and we have given the matter very careful study.

The hon. member for Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and the opposition were originally concerned to clarify that employees who perform work in more than one province be paid the rate of the province in which they are employed. They were concerned over any loophole which would permit a lower rate than that of the employee's province of employment. Now the hon. member is proposing an amendment that is somewhat different. It is proposed

that where an employee performs work in several provinces, the minimum wage would be that of the province with the highest rate.

While I appreciate my colleague's concern for clarity to protect the worker, I believe that the solution will create more problems than it will solve.

The proposal would be cumbersome to administer. Even one trip across a provincial border could alter a truck driver's hourly rate. What would be the justification for this approach? Surely we would want to establish labour standards that reflect the conditions in the local area.

The whole approach of this bill has been to align the federal minimum wage with regional economies. Why would the government impose the rate designed for one region on an enterprise within another? Furthermore, in the case of an employee who makes infrequent trips outside the province, it is unclear how long the higher rate would apply. Would it apply for a day, a week or a month?

The amendment would impose unnecessary rigidities on an employer who might have to refuse small amounts of business in another province. Surely we do not wish to place additional complexities and paperwork on businesses, and small businesses in particular.

The amendment would create inequities within an enterprise. For example, two employees travel the same distance but one travels across a provincial border while the other is going in another direction and does not cross that provincial border. Under this proposal the two drivers would not be entitled to the same rates.

Most important, the amendment is unnecessary. Our legal advisors do not see any difficulties with the present French and English texts of the bill. The current wording refers to more than one province where an employee works. It relates to the overall employment relationship which includes the province where the employee reports to work, where he or she picks up equipment and tools, is supervised by his or her employer and where, for example, the provincial worker compensation laws apply.

Similarly, the term usually or habituellement relates to where the relationship customarily takes place or commonly occurs, rather than simply the notion of time. When this was raised in the committee, the minister explained that in the case of a truck driver who drives across a provincial border the rate of the province in which the employee's home terminal was situated would be used in applying the law.

Very few workers are paid the federal minimum wage. About 2 per cent of workers come under the jurisdiction of the federal act and even fewer in the kind of employment that would take them outside the province. Since the minimum wage order came into effect on July 17, 1996 establishing the rates current in the provinces at that time, there have been no problems or complaints on the issue of concern to my hon. colleague.

Given the problems with the amendment proposed and the assurance of the Department of Justice that the existing bill is enforceable, I cannot support the Bloc's amendment and ask members to pass the bill as it stands.

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11:20 a.m.

Reform

Lee Morrison Swift Current—Maple Creek—Assiniboia, SK

Mr. Speaker, the purpose of Bill C-35 is to align federal minimum wage rates with the general minimum wage rates established by the provinces. The involvement of the federal government in setting minimum wages is only about 30 years old.

In 1935 Canada ratified an ILO Minimum Wage Fixing Machinery Convention which had actually been introduced in 1928. It specified that workers would be guaranteed a minimum wage mainly in cases where wages were exceptionally low. However, it was 1965 before Canada actually began setting minimum wage rates. The Canada Labour Code covered less than a million workers so the government of the day did not feel pressured to establish a federal rule.

Between 1965 and 1986 there were sporadic changes in the federal minimum wage rate but 10 years ago only one-tenth of 1 per cent, or 7,000 workers under federal jurisdiction were directly affected. While updated estimates are not available from department officials, there is a presumption on our part that very little may have changed.

The big changes for Canadian workers over the last 30 years have been the diminished opportunities and lack of security which they now endure. Today one in every four Canadians is afraid of losing his or her job.

If the government was really concerned about workers and their wages it would not be sidestepping the real issue. It would be lowering the payroll taxes that kill jobs. At a time when 1.4 million Canadians are unemployed, about 2.3 million Canadians are underemployed and 500,000 Canadians have given up looking for a job, the best the government can come up with is a plan to realign minimum wage rates with the provinces. This is not even a decent band-aid.

If the government was really concerned about helping workers make ends meet it would be launching a plan, like the Reform Party's fresh start proposal, that would give workers much needed tax relief. Canadian workers deserve a tax break because they are working harder for less money.

The Fraser Institute estimates that the average worker's income has decreased by over $3,000 since the government was elected three years ago. Why are Canadians taking home less money? The government wants to lay the blame by pointing a finger at

employers. However, the real culprit is the ever increasing tax burden.

In 1996 the average family pays a staggering 46 per cent of its income in taxes. Twenty-five years ago, when one income families were the norm, families could pay their way and even prosper. Today it takes two incomes just to scrape by. One partner works just to pay the taxes for the household.

If the government was really concerned about Canadian workers' wages it would get its greedy hands at least part way out of the workers' pockets. If the government was really interested in helping workers it would streamline its operations and relinquish jurisdiction to the provinces in those areas that the provinces are best equipped to manage.

Take Bill C-35, for instance. On one hand the government is saying that it trusts the provinces to set realistic and fair minimum wage rates. However, on the other hand it is saying that it does not trust future provincial legislatures to set realistic and fair minimum wage rates so it will retain the right to set its rates whenever it sees fit. The provinces have already proven that they are better fiscal managers than their federal counterparts. What governments in this country have succeeded in balancing their budgets? Provincial governments.

Now is the time for the federal government to show that it is serious about streamlining and delegating more power to the provinces. Instead of retaining the right to set the rate, the government should seize this opportunity to enter into agreements with its provincial counterparts to give them sole discretion over the setting of rates. The agreements could feature clauses stipulating that each province and territory retain a minimum wage rate. It would be obligatory. That would protect Canada's international commitments and the free trade agreement.

The provisions of Bill C-35 have actually been in effect since July 1996. This is not a concern for Reformers since the overall intent of the bill is positive. However, there is still time to improve the bill.

Section 178(3) gives the governor in council the option of "replacing the minimum hourly rate that has been fixed with respect to employment in a province with another rate, or fix a minimum hourly rate with respect to the employment in a province if no such hourly rate has been fixed".

An amendment has been tabled calling for the deletion of section 178(3). If the government adopts this amendment the bill will receive our support, although with certain reservations. The amendment moved by the member for Edmonton Southwest, seconded by me, is:

That Bill C-35 in clause 1 be amended by deleting lines 1 to 8 on page 2.

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11:25 a.m.

Bloc

Osvaldo Nunez Bourassa, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in this House to debate Bill C-35 at report stage. This bill tabled on May 9, 1996, is to align the federal minimum wage rate with the general minimum wage rates established from time to time by the provinces and the territories. Let me say right off the bat that I support the amendment put forward by my colleague, the hon. member for Hochelaga-Maisonneuve.

This is a subject in which I have a great interest. As a previous speaker indicated, I was involved in the Quebec labour movement for a long time and, at every convention of the Fédération des travailleurs du Québec or of the Congrès du travail du Canada, resolutions were passed requesting that the federal and provincial governments raise the minimum wage, which is consistently too low.

I have often criticized the federal government, arguing that, in its capacity, it should be an example to the provinces in the area of labour law in Canada. As a member of the International Labour Organization, the federal government is the one that signs international conventions respecting minimum wage and other principles important to the workers.

Like the hon. member for Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, I think that the best way for low-wage workers to improve their conditions is to unionize. The unions can do something to improve the plight of these workers. Those who earn minimum wage are not even entitled to social benefits. I think that raising the minimum wage is a great way of fighting poverty.

Under Bill C-35, the rate paid to any particular employee is that of the employee's province or territory of employment. The Governor in Council retains the authority to establish a minimum wage rate that can apply to employees on a provincial or territorial basis and that differs from the rate set by a province or territory.

This bill is important to the official opposition, and it is in our best interest to support it. Of course, once this legislation is completed by the antiscab bill I tabled in this House last week and the other necessary amendments to the Canada Labour Code, we can then state loud and clear that the Canada Labour Code is in line with reality at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. Make no mistake about it, the Canada Labour Code still has some major flaws.

I support this bill, which-it is important to emphasize this-concerns more specifically the most vulnerable in our society. For example, workers who are not covered by a collective agreement or who hold precarious, often part time jobs, increasingly concentrated in industrial and economic sectors that are sensitive to fluctuations, the soft sectors in the economy.

Two thirds of minimum wage workers are women. Many are immigrants and young people. Of course, the harmonization of the minimum wage based on the rate in effect in the province or territory should be hailed. In fact, the Government of Canada has not raised its ridiculous $4 hourly rate since 1986. This rate is so out of step with today's cost of living, it seems like an anachronism. There was an urgent need to raise it as soon as possible.

It is interesting to compare this $4 hourly rate with the rate in effect in the Canadian provinces, which average around $5.60. In Ontario, the minimum wage rate is $6.85, while Quebec raised its rate to $6.70 on October 1. I must point out that this increase is due in part to the women who, in May 1995, participated in the "bread and roses march" from Montreal to Quebec City.

In the Prairies, the minimum wage rate hovers around $5 an hour: it is $5.35 in Saskatchewan, $5.40 in Manitoba, $5 in Alberta. I do not understand how a province as rich as Alberta can have such a low minimum rate. The minimum wage in British Columbia and the Northwest Territories is $7 an hour, compared to $6.86 in Yukon. It is $4.75 in Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island, $5.50 in New Brunswick, and $5.35 in Nova Scotia.

As I said before, it is quite clear that raising the minimum wage is an important tool in the fight against poverty. Such a policy makes the economy of a country or a province more dynamic, in that it helps reduce the underground economy, while stimulating the consumption of goods and services.

Also, in the case of a welfare recipient, working outside the family home becomes more interesting when the minimum salary is more decent and in line with the costs involved. It is important to remember that, over the years, the gap between minimum wage and the poverty line has decreased.

It would have been a good thing to table this bill and to announce at the same time the implementation of a true policy to fight poverty in Canada and in Quebec. One Canadian in six currently lives in poverty. The proportion is even greater in the case of women, children, immigrants and young people.

Canada's population is increasingly poor. I am not the only one to say so and to deplore this fact. The loss of jobs and the cuts in the federal public service payroll and in social programs are meant to help reduce the public debt, but they do little to put a stop to the impoverishment of our society.

Moreover, this situation does not only affect the poor, but also social classes which were thought to be immune from a deterioration of their quality of life.

This is why I can only support whatever attempt this government makes to help protect the interests of Canadian and Quebec workers. The federal government should show the way regarding minimum wage and everything that relates to labour law. Unfortunately, it is not the case.

Still, the proposed legislation is a step in the right direction. This is why I support Bill C-35.

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11:35 a.m.

The Deputy Speaker

The motion of the hon. member for Swift Current-Maple Creek-Assiniboia relates to the next motion, so we will postpone that until we deal with the second motion.

Is the House ready for the question?

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11:35 a.m.

Some hon. members

Question.

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11:35 a.m.

The Deputy Speaker

The question is on Motion No. 1. All those in favour of the motion will please say yea.

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11:35 a.m.

Some hon. members

Yea.

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11:35 a.m.

The Deputy Speaker

All those opposed will please say nay.

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11:35 a.m.

Some hon. members

Nay.

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11:35 a.m.

The Deputy Speaker

In my opinion the nays have it.

And more than five members having risen: