Thank you, Mr. Chair.
First, we would like to thank you for the invitation to take part in this consultation, which we consider very important.
Having apprised ourselves of the bill, we understand that it has several objectives, but that its main objective is to conduct a consultation for the development of a Canada-wide pregnant workers' preventive withdrawal program. We support such a consultation according to the parameters in clause 3 of the bill—we want to emphasize that—with the understanding that provincial jurisdictions will be respected. We think it is desirable that all Canadian women in the workplace have access to a preventive withdrawal program for pregnant workers.
As you know, Quebec already has such a program. In effect since 1981, the right to preventive withdrawal of pregnant or breastfeeding workers is contained in the Act Respecting Occupational Health and Safety, and it was a very important step forward for women. It put an end to the terrible dilemma of pregnant women who had to choose between earning a salary to support their families, or risk losing their baby or jeopardizing its health when their working conditions were dangerous.
This program is also a significant step forward for public health in Quebec, because in addition to protecting pregnant workers, it requires that women's working conditions be scientifically documented; this has contributed to dispelling the myth that women's work is less dangerous than that of men, and has meant improved prevention of work injuries for all women. This experience, which has been largely positive in Quebec, indicates that public interest would be better served if all Canadian workers had access to a program with the same objectives.
However, we must say that we are not favourable to the changes proposed in clauses 6 and 7 of the bill, which would create entitlement to employment insurance benefits during a pregnant worker's preventive withdrawal. There are several reasons for our position.
First, pregnant workers' right of preventive withdrawal is not maternity leave. Preventive withdrawal is triggered by working conditions that pose a risk to a woman's pregnancy or to her unborn child, and not by the pregnancy as such. The pregnancy is not the problem.
That is why the first step is always an attempt to change the working conditions or assign the worker to other duties, and not to grant leave. The issue relates to working conditions, and that is why the cost of the program in Quebec is entirely covered by employers, as they are the ones who control working conditions, and they also decide whether the worker will continue to work or not.
We feel that the employment insurance plan is not the proper vehicle for that program. That system is above all a common insurance fund to assist workers who lose their jobs. The more we broaden its scope, the more we risk perverting the foundations of the system. In fact, we feel that integrating a program that is related to labour relations and working conditions into a federal act would probably be a breach of provincial jurisdiction.
Moreover, the bill says nothing at all about the administration of the program. For instance, what happens if the medical certificate is challenged? There is no provision to address that. A specific process to deal with those issues is needed, as we have seen in Quebec with the preventive withdrawal program. Specific expertise is also required, which managers of the plan probably do not have.
Secondly, we do not think it very useful to institute preventive withdrawal for the last 15 weeks prior to childbirth. First, as we know, in the last budget the government announced its intention of extending the benefit period during pregnancy to 12 weeks before birth. Thus the preventive withdrawal in the bill would only cover three additional weeks.
In addition, this would create totally unacceptable distinctions between female workers occupying different job categories. For instance, a stock handler could receive preventive withdrawal benefits if she cannot lift certain loads at the end of her pregnancy, whereas a teacher who should not be in contact with children during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy because she is not immunized against parvovirus B19 would not have access to them. If the legislator's will is to institute a preventive withdrawal program for pregnant workers, it is absolutely necessary that workers have access to it when they are exposed to a risk, and not on the basis of a schedule. For example, in Quebec 94% of preventive withdrawals are granted before the 23rd week of pregnancy.
Consequently these changes do not seem very useful for the vast majority of pregnant workers who are exposed to dangerous conditions in their work environment.
Thirdly, and I will conclude with this, the adoption of the proposed changes to the Employment Insurance Act would mean that a pregnant worker receiving preventive withdrawal benefits would be seriously penalized financially, and we think that is unacceptable. Indeed, she would at first receive benefits amounting to only 55% of her salary; she would have no income during the two-week waiting period provided by law, and she would not be entitled to anything from the company benefits program, and consequently would receive nothing from that. In addition, the weeks of preventive withdrawal would be deducted from the weeks of standard or special benefits she might receive later.
In conclusion, our organization supports the Canada-wide consultation on the right to preventive withdrawal for pregnant workers, but we recommend that you not adopt sections 6 and 7 of the bill amending the Employment Insurance Act.