Good afternoon, Mr. Chair and committee members. Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today. It’s a pleasure to join you, even though it's remotely.
The Canadian Labour Congress is the largest central labour body in the country. It brings together more than 50 national and international unions in Canada, as well as 12 provincial and territorial federations of labour and 100 labour councils across the country. The CLC speaks on issues of national importance for three million unionized men and women. It also advocates on behalf of all working people in this country.
Committee members have received a copy of the CLC brief on labour priorities for the economic recovery.
The coronavirus pandemic and economic shutdown have been devastating for millions of working people. As you know, low-income workers, especially women and vulnerable workers, have disproportionately lost jobs and earnings in the crisis.
I will speak to some priority areas for the CLC and Canada’s unions.
On unemployment benefits, first, I want to commend the government and public service workers for quickly designing and implementing the Canada emergency response benefit, known as CERB. The employment insurance program was not equipped to handle the extraordinary spike in jobless claims. A simple unemployment benefit that allowed automated claims processing was needed. The CERB has generally worked well, but both unions and employers have urged the federal government to allow supplemental unemployment benefit payments on top of the CERB.
SUB plans were negotiated by unions and employers in anticipation of layoffs. We therefore urge the federal government to extend the CERB beyond the 16 weeks. Many low-paid, part-time and casual workers, as well as the self-employed receiving CERB benefits, are ineligible for EI under existing rules. At the same time, the EI regular sickness benefits should be simplified and streamlined so that the claims processing can be fully automated. The eligibility threshold should therefore be lowered and a higher replacement rate introduced.
Turning to long-term care, the Canadian Armed Forces’ reports on long-term care homes in Ontario and Quebec show what unions have been saying for years: Many long-term care homes are in crisis. The needless cost of lives and shameful treatment of residents at many long-term care homes are unacceptable.
This situation was created by years of provincial budget cuts, increased private for-profit ownership of long-term care homes, and health care staff shortages due to low wages, few benefits, excessive workloads, unsafe working conditions and a lack of full-time hours. Of course, the provinces and territories are responsible for delivering health care services. However, Canada desperately needs high, uniform national standards for long-term care.
The CLC urges the federal government to work with the provinces and territories to remove private for-profit business from the long-term care sector. Long-term care must be brought fully into the public health system and regulated under the Canada Health Act. Residents must be guaranteed high-quality care, with proper staffing and health and safety protections for workers. As well, essential work done by long-term care employees must be properly valued. If we are going to address the staffing problems and shortcomings in residential care, workers need permanent increases in wages and benefits, and improvements in working conditions.
I again commend the federal government for allocating up to $3 billion to assist the provinces and territories in boosting wages for low-income essential workers. These wage increases must be made permanent, and, in my view, they should also apply to low-paid migrant workers ensuring the security of Canada’s food supply.
Canada’s public transit systems are also in crisis. Efficient, accessible and reliable public transit systems are essential to the economic recovery of working people. However, a 90% drop in ridership in some cities has meant a drastic drop in fares and billions in lost revenues. As transit authorities reduce services, thousands of transit workers have been laid off, with thousands more anticipated to be laid off.
Transit employees who are still on the job face serious health risks. Most transit vehicles and maintenance facilities have not been adequately retrofitted, and many workers lack sufficient personal protective equipment, or PPE.
In our view, the federal government should collaborate with the provincial and territorial governments to develop a federal relief package for public transit systems and intercity bus service networks, and provide capital expenditures dedicated to retrofitting transit vehicles and purchasing PPE for transit workers.
Ensuring workplace health and safety is vital for returning to work. Paid sick leave for workers is essential in combatting COVID-19. I want to commend, of course, the government, and the NDP in particular, for putting this on the agenda.
It is important that employers consult with workers, their unions, and health and safety representatives about how to make sure these safety plans and COVID-19 controls will work. Workers must be engaged through their health and safety committees in assessing workplace hazards related to COVID-19 and developing a response. This is an important part of good health and safety practices and must be included in workplace COVID-19 safety planning. We also need to expand support for workers dealing with mental health challenges arising from health risks, loss of loved ones, isolation, financial stress, and depression and anxiety.
On pharmacare, before the pandemic, about 10% of Canadians, or 3.7 million, could not afford the medications they needed. Now more Canadians cannot afford their medications, and millions of workers have lost their jobs and no longer have workplace drug coverage. During the pandemic, seniors on fixed incomes are struggling to pay for their medications, as they can only get refills month by month, as opposed to every three months, as it was prior to the pandemic.
We therefore urge the government to accelerate the implementation of universal public pharmacare as outlined in the Hoskins report. In conjunction with the provinces, the government should of course move to immediately provide everyone in Canada with access to a list of essential medications, covering approximately half of all prescriptions. This is consistent with the recommendations of the Hoskins report but represents an acceleration of the proposed timelines.
Turning to pension and retirement security, layoffs and lost earnings will have a lasting impact on the retirement security of many working Canadians. In March, the government reduced the minimum amount that must be withdrawn from registered retirement income funds for 2020. In May, the government also announced one-time financial assistance for seniors eligible for old age security and the guaranteed income supplement. The government also suspended insolvency funding for federally regulated pension plans. We welcome these steps.
The CLC is also urging the government to work with provincial counterparts to amend the Canada pension plan. This will also be needed to safeguard the CPP retirement benefits of contributors whose earnings have been affected by the economic shutdown and unemployment crisis. In our view, this should take the form of amending the CPP’s drop-out and drop-in provisions, which partially protect the retirement benefit entitlement of contributors against a period of low or zero earnings.
In the absence of such extraordinary measures, the CPP retirement benefit of hundreds of thousands of Canadians will be permanently reduced, with potential lifetime losses to individuals in the thousands of dollars. Also, if insolvencies begin to rise, we would like to see, of course, the federal government protect pensions by taking over the administration of stranded pension plans.
Finally, on the green economy, just transition and infrastructure investments, in our view, this crisis presents a unique opportunity to kick-start economic growth and create thousands of good jobs for women and men by investing in social infrastructure like day cares, schools, libraries and hospitals, as well as green infrastructure and related projects, such as renewable energy, home and building retrofits, and public transit.
Governments can further ensure that projects benefit local communities, women, indigenous peoples and marginalized groups by mandating community benefit agreements on federally funded infrastructure projects. These investments would not only help us meet our climate targets, but also generate thousands of decent jobs across the country.
To assist in the process, the government should fully engage unions and working people in the government’s economic advisory committee providing guidance on recovery planning.
Committee members, that concludes my opening remarks. Thank you very kindly for your attention. I'll take any questions you may have.