Evidence of meeting #51 for Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was welding.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Alicia Ibbitson  As an Individual
Dan Tadic  Executive Director, Canadian Welding Association
Roch Lafrance  Secretary General, Union des travailleuses et travailleurs accidentés ou malades
Nicola Cherry  Professor, Department of Medicine, University of Alberta

April 4th, 2017 / 11:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bryan May

Good morning, everybody. We have a full slate of witnesses to go through.

Pursuant to the order of reference of Wednesday, October 26, 2016, the committee is resuming consideration of Bill C-243, an act respecting the development of a national maternity assistance program strategy and amending the Employment Insurance Act regarding maternity benefits.

I'm very pleased to be joined, via video conference, by Alicia Ibbitson, as an individual. Here in Ottawa we have the Canadian Welding Association, represented by Dan Tadic, executive director. From Union des travailleuses et travailleurs accidentés ou malades, we have Roch Lafrance, secretary general.

Also by video conference, from the University of Alberta, is Dr. Nicola Cherry, professor, department of medicine. I understand you're joined there by Jean-Michel Galarneau. I'm glad we can see both of you.

We're going to start off today with Alicia Ibbitson, who is coming to us from Chilliwack, British Columbia.

The next seven minutes are yours.

11:05 a.m.

Alicia Ibbitson As an Individual

Thank you so much for taking the time today to hear me. I am a new mother, so I was asked to speak today about my experiences.

Four months ago my daughter was born. I began my maternity leave the day I went into labour, as I wanted to be able to spend as much time as possible taking care of my baby during the first year of her life. However, many women are not so fortunate as I was. There are women who simply cannot afford to live on 55% of their already meagre wage, so they are driven back into the workforce earlier than they would like after their baby is born.

My recommendations to this committee are put forth in order to assist these women in taking the time necessary to heal and to care for their newborn babies. While we have some excellent maternity benefit strategies in place in Canada, women who are earning below-average salaries may not be able to take advantage of the maternity benefits that are provided. They are slipping through the cracks.

According to Statistics Canada's most recent data, 1.5 million single women in Canada live on a low income. Many women who are working long hours to provide for their families would simply not be able to live on 55% of their wage. According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation's 2015 report, the average rental cost for a two-bedroom apartment in British Columbia is $1,136. For many women, that would be their entire maternity benefit, leaving nothing for groceries, transportation, and the many other expenses that come with raising a family.

Single mothers in my province, B.C., are provided with assistance in career training and child care during the first year after their maternity leave. This is absolutely a positive step in empowering these women to enter the workforce and thrive, but it does not address the issue of how these women can financially make ends meet while they are caring for their newborn babies at such a vulnerable time. Getting free tuition isn't the same as getting money to put food on the table.

Many women who meet the requirements for the number of hours worked to qualify for maternity leave cannot live on the EI benefits provided, so they return to the workforce earlier than they would like. For that reason, I would like to propose that the committee explore the possibility of providing a minimum level of maternity leave for mothers who have reached the required hours, and increase the amount they are allowed to earn while on maternity leave from 40% to a maximum dollar amount.

These women are working 600-plus hours, which can often prove to be difficult during a pregnancy. They are making efforts to be in the workforce and provide for their families, and they are contributing to the employment insurance program through their paycheques. These efforts often go unrewarded as they return to work early and don't get to collect maternity leave for the full time period allowed.

My second recommendation is to allow families to fill out the necessary paperwork for the child tax benefit earlier. Many women do not begin receiving maternity leave benefits until a few weeks after their child is born, and it is usually a couple of months before the child tax benefit is received. For these families, it is difficult or impossible to withstand a gap in financial inflow. It leads them to return to work, or to rack up high-interest credit card debt that will later be difficult to repay.

I propose that the necessary paperwork and applications can be filled out during a woman's final weeks of pregnancy so that she can receive the child tax benefit as soon as possible after her child is born. This small administrative change could make a world of difference for a family facing financial hardship.

It is a privilege to live in a country like Canada that provides income assistance so that mothers like me can recover from giving birth and stay home and take care of their infant children. The problem comes when a percentage of women are not able to take advantage of such benefits because they are of lower-income status.

When I became pregnant, I had a choice. I chose to keep my pregnancy, have a child, and stay home with her in her first year of life. I was supported financially by my husband's income and the EI maternity leave benefits I collected. Not all mothers feel they have the choice to keep their pregnancy due to financial limitations and hardships. In a country as blessed as Canada is, this is tragic. We cannot be content to know that some women may want to keep their child but don't because they feel they need to decide between their baby and the ability to have basic necessities for survival.

Women who choose motherhood should be cared for in such a way that they never feel they need to decide between keeping their baby and entering poverty. We need to ensure that they are given the freedom to take the time to recover from childbirth and the freedom to care for their newborn or infant child at home during those initial vital months of care and bonding.

Often, these financial hardships are limited in time, so the mother would be fine after a few years of help and support and would be able to raise her children independently thereafter.

Mr. Gerretsen has given us the opportunity with Bill C-243 to broaden the scope of the wonderful maternity benefits we have in this country so that they can reach the women who most need them. There are vulnerable women in difficult situations who have made the choice to keep their babies, to give birth and raise children. We should honour that choice and implement supports to aid them in the journey of taking care of themselves and their children.

Thank you for your time.

11:10 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bryan May

Thank you very much.

We're going to move on to Mr. Dan Tadic, from the Canadian Welding Association.

The seven minutes are yours, sir.

11:10 a.m.

Dan Tadic Executive Director, Canadian Welding Association

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

The Canadian Welding Association is very pleased to be here today. We thank the committee for inviting us to speak on this very important bill, but before I begin those remarks, I would like to provide some background information on our organization.

The Canadian Welding Association is a division of the Canadian Welding Bureau, which is a not-for-profit organization that is mandated to promote and support the welding and joining industry in Canada. The Canadian Welding Bureau upholds Canada's national welding standards and has kept Canadians safe through the certification of welding companies, products, and the qualifications of welders for nearly a century. The association is composed of over 65,000 members, with 25 chapters across Canada. We have international membership in 80 countries.

Our organizations support every facet of the welding industry, a critical industry in the success of the Canadian economy. Fabricated structural steel and bridges, shipbuilding, pipeline construction, and energy development are some of the industries that are using our innovative certification program—in total, over 7,000 companies.

Most people don't realize just how much of our modern world is welded together. The experienced hand of a welder is essential to creating everything from our cars, planes, and ships to pacemakers, hearing aids, and surgical tools. It is also critical for the success of many major infrastructure and development projects across the country, such as buildings, bridges, subways, pipelines, and several others. Welding contributes over $5 billion to the Canadian economy and employs over 300,000 individuals.

Through our work over the last several decades, we have realized that there is a need for greater outreach to attract more Canadians to work in this innovative industry. That's part of the reason why in 2013 we established the Canadian Welding Association Foundation. The CWA Foundation has a key mandate to improve welding education and student engagement across Canada. As a registered charity, the CWA Foundation has developed programs that reach under-represented groups in the industry, including women, indigenous peoples, new immigrants, and youth. The foundation has already contributed $5 million in support of welding education, scholarships, equipment purchases, and training for teachers. Our cumulative investment will be $15 million by 2019-20.

All levels of government are planning to invest in significant infrastructure projects over the next few decades. Coupled with investments in shipbuilding, mining, construction, transportation, and pipeline projects, the demand for welders and other tradespeople will only continue to grow. Skills Canada has estimated that one million skilled trades workers will be needed by the year 2020.

Recent research has also found that balancing the gender ratio between men and women in the skilled trades is important for creating a strong, diversified economy. Having a balanced gender ratio can even increase revenues by roughly 41%. Obvious ways to diversify the labour pool are by recruiting, retaining, and advancing women in skilled trades. These steps are important because of the increased retirements of baby boomers, along with Canada's aging population; high competition in the need for trades workers in Canada and internationally; and new occupations with trade skills demands.

Currently, only 5% of welders are women. We have noted that there is a growing interest among women to enter this field, but experiences like the one of the woman welder that led to the creation of Bill C-243 speak to a larger narrative of how certain policies can deter women from entering fields such as welding and other trades. Through our work with employers and that of our foundation, we have invested in programs that encourage and support women to consider careers in welding.

For example, the CWA Foundation recently partnered with the Irving shipyards in Halifax to cover the tuition and welding gear costs for 18 women who are currently participating in apprenticeships at the Irving shipyards. Also, this past January, we held a week-long welding camp here in Ottawa for single mothers, and we have initiated a series of summer camps for women and girls across the country in an effort to expose them to the industry. We have witnessed first-hand how our outreach is translating into more women enrolling in post-secondary welding programs.

Bill C-243 is critical for ensuring that future women welders, or anyone working in the trades, are not placed in a position of financial hardship when making a decision to have children.

We are proud of the work we do in communities across Canada. From providing scholarships to funding welding experience camps, we work to ensure that we meet the needs of the industry, now and in the future. Welds are literally everywhere, so it is important that we have a robust supply of well-trained welders, and that includes encouraging more women to enter the field.

To conclude, let me just reiterate that we are now seeing more women enrolled in trades programs across the country. Our organization is continuing to work collaboratively with the foundation to ensure that welding programs are available in secondary schools across the country, which is critical for attracting more women and under-represented groups to enter the field.

Bill C-243 realizes the value of supporting women who are unable to work due to pregnancy and whose employers are unable to accommodate them by providing reassignment. This bill allows for greater flexibility for pregnant women to be properly accommodated, so they are not forced into financial hardship. The enactment of Bill C-243 into law will protect pregnant women and help our goal of encouraging more women to consider a career in the trades.

Thank you.

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bryan May

Thank you very much, Mr. Tadic.

Now, from the Union des travailleurs et travailleuses accidentés ou malades, we have secretary general, Roch Lafrance.

The next seven minutes are yours, sir.

11:15 a.m.

Roch Lafrance Secretary General, Union des travailleuses et travailleurs accidentés ou malades

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.

Thank you.

11:25 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bryan May

Thank you very much.

We are now going to go to the University of Alberta via video conference.

For the next seven minutes, Professor Cherry, the floor is yours.

11:25 a.m.

Dr. Nicola Cherry Professor, Department of Medicine, University of Alberta

I'm going to start by just telling you a little bit about who I am and why I might have some information useful to the committee.

I am a physician and epidemiologist whose research is in the field of occupational health. I am currently tripartite chair of occupational health in the faculty of medicine at the University of Alberta.

Although my research covers a wide range of topics, two periods of research are particularly relevant to the work of this committee.

First is the research I carried out some 30 years ago as associate director of the program “femmes au travail” at the Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail. This program studied 56,000 women interviewed immediately after a live birth, still birth, or spontaneous abortion in 11 Montreal hospitals in 1982 to 1984. The evidence from that study has provided much of the data in which the operation of the retrait préventif, the protective withdrawal from work during pregnancy, has been based. Alison McDonald, who led the program, died some years ago, but I'd be happy to answer any of the committee's questions on that project, its conclusions, and its impacts.

The second period of research is the work I've done in Alberta on the employment of tradeswomen and tradesmen, particularly those in the welding and electrical trades. This research was undertaken because of concerns about the effects, on the unborn child, of work as a welder during pregnancy. In Alberta, where there was a shortage of skilled workers during the boom cycle of the oil and gas industry, women, who were still a small minority, were increasingly entering welding apprenticeships, so we believed we could recruit sufficient numbers to reach a clear conclusion about whether the unborn child was affected and, if so, the exposures responsible.

We recruited 446 female welders and 440 women in the electrical trades from across Canada. For comparison of the effects of work in these trades on the health of the workers rather than the child, we also recruited male welders and electricians from Alberta. This study is still ongoing. We follow the subjects up to five years, but it will be completed during the next nine months. We are aiming to collect 360 pregnancies while the women are in the study, and as of yesterday, we've been informed of 344—181 in welders and 163 in electricians. We will produce a report next May on the findings from these recent pregnancies.

Meanwhile, we have been looking at pregnancies completed before the women joined the study, and it appears that working in either trade, either as an electrician or as a welder, at the start of pregnancy is associated with an increased risk of miscarriage. It is also clear that few women in these trades continue in trades work to the end of the pregnancy; 80% had stopped work in the trade by 28 weeks, with welders stopping trade work much earlier than those in the electrical trades. Overall, 43% of the pregnant welders and 69% of the pregnant women in electrical work had been reassigned or found work outside the trade during their pregnancy.

From both these studies, I believe there's good evidence that physically demanding work in pregnancy may be harmful to the unborn child, and in some circumstances, to the health of the mother.

Therefore, I support the intent to consult on the development of a national maternity assistance program. I would give a caution that any measures put in place must not lead to discrimination against women in the trades. The aim of occupational health is to make the workplace safe for everyone—women, including pregnant women, as well as men.

Our current study on which I'd be most happy to answer questions was set up to identify modifiable workplace exposures, and in discussion with Dan Tadic and others, to make recommendations about changes that will make the workplace safe for women, men, and indeed, for pregnant women.

Thank you.

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bryan May

Thank you very much.

We're going to go right into questions. To start us off, we have MP Warawa.

11:30 a.m.

Conservative

Mark Warawa Conservative Langley—Aldergrove, BC

Thank you, Chair.

Thank you to the witnesses for being with us today. I listened intently. I appreciate what you had to share.

In our last meeting we had MP Gerretsen, who is the sponsor of Bill C-243, give testimony. He recommended that the committee amend Bill C-243 because there are two parts to the bill. One that a pregnant woman could move the 15 weeks to take them all prior to delivery. Right now a person can take up to eight weeks early. The recommendation was that they could take the full 15 weeks early. The government announced in the budget that it would be 12 weeks instead of 15. That half of his bill was redundant, and it was recommended it be removed. Quite a bit of the testimony we've heard from the witnesses today is addressing that aspect of the 15 weeks.

I appreciate the testimony, but I'm going to focus my questions, assuming that we'll respect Mr. Gerretsen's request that we focus on the second portion of his bill. If we do amend it, taking out that first portion, his second portion is asking for a study, a consultation to create a national maternity assistance program. That will be the focus of my questions.

In the remaining portion of his bill, assuming it's amended, the minister must “conduct consultations on the prospect of developing a national maternity assistance program to support women who are unable to work due to pregnancy and whose employer is unable to accommodate them by providing reassignment”. Those consultations would include:

(a) the current demand for a national maternity assistance program; (b) the adequacy of the current federal and provincial programs oriented to assisting women during pregnancy; (c) the financial and other costs of implementing a national maternity assistance program; (d) the potential social and economic benefits of a national maternity assistance program;

I'm quite interested in Alicia Ibbitson from Chilliwack, a new mom having just gone through a pregnancy. How old is your baby now?

11:35 a.m.

As an Individual

Alicia Ibbitson

She's four months.

11:35 a.m.

Conservative

Mark Warawa Conservative Langley—Aldergrove, BC

You alluded to your personal experience. You said that you recommended that women be allowed to fill out the tax benefit forms prior to the delivery. Right now, you have to fill out the forms after delivery; is that correct? What kind of waiting time did you experience? Is this waiting period creating a problem for women?

11:35 a.m.

As an Individual

Alicia Ibbitson

I filled out my paperwork. You have to apply for a social insurance number and health care number for your child. You apply for all of those things first, then you apply for the child tax benefit. I did it the day my daughter was born. There was no delay on our side, but it took two months before we received our benefits. From what I've heard from other mothers I know, it's between two and three months.

As I said, it wasn't an issue for us personally, but for some families, that gap could be. I think it could be a real help if there was no gap. Because there are a lot of initial expenses when you first have your child, when you're buying things you never bought before: diapers, all the different things. It's that initial period when you have to spend that money, but the money hasn't arrived yet.

11:35 a.m.

Conservative

Mark Warawa Conservative Langley—Aldergrove, BC

If there's a two- or three-month delay, in your case it was two, and I think you said up to three. If three months prior to delivery the forms were filled out, submitted, and then it's a matter of waiting for delivery and upon birth you would qualify, at least you're in the system and it's ready to be enacted.

Is that what you're recommending?

11:35 a.m.

As an Individual

Alicia Ibbitson

Yes, that's what I'm recommending. The only thing I could not fill out for the forms before was her date of birth. Really, I could have filled out everything else before that point and then, once I received the date of birth, I could have contacted them and had this added to my paperwork, so that I would have qualified for the benefit.

11:35 a.m.

Conservative

Mark Warawa Conservative Langley—Aldergrove, BC

I think those are good suggestions.

Would you support the request in Bill C-243 that the minister begin consultation, if the bill passes, to create a national maternity assistance program?

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bryan May

Make a very brief answer, please.

11:35 a.m.

As an Individual

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bryan May

That's brief. Thank you very much.

Moving on, we go to MP Long for the next six minutes, please.

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

Wayne Long Liberal Saint John—Rothesay, NB

Thank you, Chair, and thank you to our witnesses this morning for their very interesting testimonies.

Professor Cherry, I read some articles last night on the WHAT-ME site. A study was done in Brazil, and some of its conclusions, I believe, were about educating people who enter the trade.

Could you elaborate on the Brazil study and compare it with what you're seeing here in Canada?

11:35 a.m.

Professor, Department of Medicine, University of Alberta

Dr. Nicola Cherry

I'm afraid I can't. The Brazil study was fairly briefly reported, and I am not really in a position to make a comment on it.

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

Wayne Long Liberal Saint John—Rothesay, NB

Do you not have any comment at all on that study, which is on that site?

11:35 a.m.

Professor, Department of Medicine, University of Alberta

Dr. Nicola Cherry

It was put on the survey because it would be of interest to the women welders who are part of WHAT-ME. Putting it there doesn't in any sense say that we support or do not support the conclusions of the survey.

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

Wayne Long Liberal Saint John—Rothesay, NB

That's fair enough.

Obviously you have great credentials, and you talked about them, I know, in your testimony. With respect to your WHAT-ME site, what recommendations do you see us being able to make first and foremost to protect, in those stages of pregnancy, women who enter the trades?

11:35 a.m.

Professor, Department of Medicine, University of Alberta

Dr. Nicola Cherry

The really important thing is that the workplace be safe for male or female welders. I don't think we necessarily need to make recommendations about pregnant welders.