moved that Bill C-237, An Act to amend the Bankruptcy Act (priority of claims), be read the second time now and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, the purpose of this bill is to change the priority of payment of claims in case of employer bankruptcy, in order that the wages, salaries and pension plan contributions of employees, up to a limit of $9,000, be paid in priority to any other class of claims.
The Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act passed in 1992 maintains preferred status for wage and entertainment expense claims in the event an employer goes bankrupt. The limit was increased from $500 to $2,000 with regard to wage claims, and from $300 to $1,000 in the case of entertainment expenses claims.
When an insolvent employer offers to restructure his company, unpaid wages up to a limit of $1,000 have to be paid to employees as soon as the restructuring plan had been approved by the court. The issue of wage claims in the event of an employer becoming bankrupt or insolvent was widely debated in Canada in the context of the legislative reform on bankruptcy.
In the last bill to amend the Bankruptcy Act, which was tabled in 1991, the government proposed to establish a compensation fund for unpaid employees. Because of the opposition to the tax intended to finance the program, however, this measure was withdrawn and replaced by a simple change in priority, which has been granted to wage claims for years in Canadian legislative enactments on bankruptcy.
When the Act to amend the Bankruptcy Act, since renamed the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act, received royal assent on June 23, 1992, the Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs stated his intention of striking a joint committee of the House of Commons and the Senate to examine the issue of salary protection in case of insolvency. This committee which was to table its report by June 1993 was never established.
Now, Mr. Speaker, let me provide the House with some background information to put the problem with this bill in full context. It all started in 1919, with the Bankruptcy Act giving wage claims priority over unsecured debts for a period of up to three months before the bankruptcy. Wage claims came third at the time, after professional, trustees and seizing creditors fees.
The Bankruptcy Act of 1949, maintained the priority given to wage claims for a period of three months before bankruptcy occurred, but also set a $500 limit per claim. Travelling salesmen were allowed to claim $300 more for unpaid expenses. Thereafter, wage claims ranked fourth in the order of priority of preferred claims.
Toward the end of the 1960s, a committee was appointed to review and report on the Bankruptcy Act. With this committee, known as the Tassé Committee, the government embarked upon a legislative reform on bankruptcy. In its report presented in 1970, the committee recommended that the period in question be limited to three months, but that the limit on preferred claims be raised to $1,000.
Five years after the Tassé Report was tabled, on May 5, 1975, Bill C-60 was introduced in first reading in the House of Commons by the then Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs who has since become Minister of Foreign Affairs.
The purpose of that bill was to give wage claims of up to $2,000 per employee top priority over any other secured or unsecured creditor. Fiercely criticized, this "top priority" proposal was rejected by the Senate Standing Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce in its report on the bill. The committee argued among other things that this top priority did not ensure employees would be compensated and could in fact disadvantage borrowers trying to obtain credit, especially in labour intensive sectors. As an alternative, the committee recommended establishing a government-operated employee compensation fund to which employers and employees would contribute and from which wage claims of up to $2,000 could be paid to employees. However, none of the three bankruptcy bills tabled in the Senate in 1978 and 1979 provided a compensation fund for employees or superpriority. Employees instead kept their status as preferred creditors and the amount of wage claims was increased to $2,000 plus $600 for business travel expenses and up to $500 for contributions to pension plans and fringe benefits.
In 1980, another bankruptcy bill, C-12, was tabled in the House of Commons by the same minister. It contained the same salary protection provisions as the previous Senate bills. After considering it, the Standing Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce again recommended creating an employee protection fund. The committee thought that the fund which would pay salary compensation of up to $2,500 should be financed from employer contributions and administered by the Superintendent of Bankruptcy. The fund would be subrogated to all employee claims against a bankrupt employer.
In this context, the Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs in 1980 asked a task force to look into the question of employee protection. Although the Landry Committee saw there was a problem with unpaid wages, it said in its 1981 report that it could not determine its scope. It thought that no permanent solution to the problem could be found until the extent of the problem was known and federal and provincial policies were co-ordinated. The committee favoured creating a salary protection fund and recommended a temporary solution for three years during which the treasury would pay salaries due, including benefits, up to $1,000.
Although tabled in 1980, Bill C-12 was only referred to a parliamentary committee in October 1983. The Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs then proposed amending it so as to give superpriority to unpaid wages, not counting severance and termination pay, of up to $4,000 if an employer went bankrupt. The amendments would have allowed a bankruptcy trustee to borrow to pay wage claims and to secure the loan. The recommendations of the Landry committee were rejected because of budget constraints and because of the lack of foolproof data on the wages lost as a result of bankruptcy and the problems that could arise if a wage protection fund were created. The minister was also concerned that if such a fund existed, employers would no longer feel compelled to pay their employees' salaries on time.
Bill C-12 which died on the Order Paper was reintroduced as Bill C-17 on January 31, 1984 by Mrs. Judy Erola who was the Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs at the time. However, it did not contain any amendments respecting first priority. That same year, however, the Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs brought in new amendments which would give first or superpriority to salary claims up to a limit of $4,000, including legal costs up to a limit of $600.
In late 1986, the Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs released a working paper on proposed amendments to the Bankruptcy Act. The proposals flowed from the report of the advisory committee and from consultations between the minister and concerned groups and provinces.
The working paper called for a salary compensation fund to be established to cover possible cases of bankruptcy or receivership. The fund would have paid up to $2,000 in unpaid wages, including statutory benefits and up to $1,000 for unpaid expenses incurred on the employer's behalf.
The fund would have been financed through employer and employee dues and would have been administered by the superintendent of bankruptcy. Pursuant to the bill's provisions, the federal fund would have priority over provincial laws, would be subrogated to the rights of employees and would constitute a preferred creditor.
The department estimated that the fund would pay out between $30 million and $50 million annually.
In 1989, another report recommended creating a national wage earner protection fund. The Advisory Council on Adjustments, which was asked to examine adjustment issues arising from the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, supported creating a national wage earner protection fund which would pay workers up to a maximum of $4,000 and would be financed by contributions from employers.
In June 1991, new bankruptcy legislation, Bill C-22, was tabled in the House of Commons. The new measures provided for a wage earner protection program similar to the one proposed in 1988. The program was included in a new act, the Wage Claim Payment Act.
The bill was referred to the Standing Committee on Consumer and Corporate Affairs and Government Operations for preliminary consideration. Most witnesses appearing before the committee favoured a wage protection program, but many objected to the program being financed by a tax on wages.
In its preliminary report, the committee rejected the concept that a wage protection fund was the only way to guarantee recovery, and it proposed a combination of superpriority and a wage protection fund. The committee also noted that the fund proposed in Bill C-22 would not protect employees who had not been paid because the employer had abandoned the business. It recommended that the government consider ways to reimburse wage arrears in such cases.
The government rejected the committee's recommendations. Procedural problems within the Standing Committee forced the government to reverse its position on wage protection, however, and in May 1992, the Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs announced the withdrawal of this part of the bill.
As a result, the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act passed in 1992 maintains the status of secured creditor with respect to claims for salaries and representation costs in the case of employer bankruptcy, but claim-limits were increased from $500 to $2,000 for salaries and from $300 to $1,000 for representation costs.
The Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act provides for a review of the provisions of the act by a parliamentary committee three years after coming into effect.
I would now like to address Bill C-237. The proposed legislation would amend the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act to give claims arising from salaries and unpaid contributions to pension plans priority over all other claims in the case of the bankruptcy of an employer, including claims of secured creditors, up to a limit of $9,000. This bill reflects the provisions of a previous bill that would have given wage earners superpriority over other creditors.
As we have seen, granting superpriority to unpaid wages raises a number of problems. First, superpriority does not guarantee that wages owed by a bankrupt employer will be paid. The available assets of the bankrupt are not necessarily adequate to cover the amounts claimed.
Second, superpriority of wage claims might reduce the amount of credit offered to labour-intensive businesses.
Third, it might be difficult to distribute the burden of superpriority among creditors.
Fourth, some lenders might be tempted to circumvent superpriority by demanding that the loan be in the name of an affiliated company that would own all the assets of the borrower.
Finally, since wage claims can only take precedence once bankruptcy proceedings have started, secured creditors might be tempted to exercise their right outside the bankruptcy process to preserve their priority.
I am sure you will agree that wage earners deserve special treatment when their employer becomes insolvent. For many wage earners, their job is their main if not sole source of income. One of the most common ways of ensuring that workers get their unpaid salaries in case of bankruptcy is to give priority status to their claims.
A preferred creditor is an unsecured creditor who has the right to be paid before other unsecured creditors. This means that salaries are paid, or could be paid, out of the assets of the bankrupt, but before payment of secured creditors.
Under the terms of the current Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act, salary claims and disbursements of travelling salesmen have priority in case of bankruptcy but, as we said, there is a limit of $2,000. As a result of inflation, this is a very small amount which does not give much protection to employees.
Several arguments can be used to justify a superpriority of claims. First, the present system which gives preferred status to salary claims is seriously lacking, and the same can be said for the claims of secured creditors and preferred creditors of higher rank that must be paid first.
Second, with a superpriority, employees would have a better chance of being paid quickly. Very often they would not have to wait until all the assets of their employer have been disposed of.
Third, a superpriority would enable employees to be paid at no cost to the government or taxpayers. Recently, some people proposed setting up a fund managed by the government. I remind you that this proposal was rejected. With a superpriority, it is up to the employer to pay salary claims, and they are paid out of his assets.
Fourth, the danger that such a superpriority would hinder a company's borrowing power is probably exaggerated. Some say that if salary claims had superpriority, companies would have trouble getting credit because wages would come before securities such as mortgages and bonds.
The bill contains provisions limiting the impact of wage claims on other creditors. Employee claims would not all be honoured in full. Priority would be limited to wages and pension plan contributions for the six months preceding the bankruptcy, up to a limit of $9,000.
Moreover, the present Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act now gives unpaid suppliers the right to reclaim their goods from bankrupt buyers, which in fact places them ahead of secured creditors.
I believe I have demonstrated how important Bill C-237 is. The historical background of this issue, which I just presented to the House, proves beyond any doubt, that wage protection in a bankruptcy context has been justifiably a main preoccupation of the House since 1919, and especially in the past few years.
I then clearly explained how Bill C-237 was in the same line as previous bills and how it avoided problems associated with a compensation fund and superpriority.
Today, I am asking the House to take a step forward towards wage protection in a bankruptcy or insolvency context, and when the time comes, to support Bill C-237, and send it for review to the Committee on Government Operations so that workers in this country can enjoy the wage protection they so rightly deserve.