Madam Speaker, it is certainly a pleasure for me to talk about this issue which stems from an awful disaster that happened in 1992 in Nova Scotia not too far from my riding. I remember it well. I was the member of parliament for Cumberland—Colchester at the time. I represent an area that has a large number of coal mines and we have seen our share of coal mine disasters in Springhill, River Hebert, Joggins and all those places that thrived on coal in the early years. This motion is very dear to my heart.
The father of the hon. member for Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough who initiated this motion was the member of parliament for that area. I remember going to the scene of the disaster and the Hon. Elmer MacKay was there virtually 24 hours a day until it was determined that there was no more hope for the 26 miners lost. He worked with the people hand in hand and was always present to help them.
I want to congratulate my colleague from Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough for working so hard to ensure that workplace safety is a top priority of the Government of Canada as well as the business community.
We will be voting on this motion. It will be interesting to see which members are in favour of amending the criminal code to protect workers in Canada from coast to coast. I am confident this motion will gain the support of the entire House or at least one would certainly hope so considering the ramifications.
This morning on the airplane coming to Ottawa I happened to open the Globe and Mail and there was a story that reminded me of the Westray incident. The article stated: “Ashen-faced relatives stood in silence watching rescuers coated in coal dust drag up the bodies of the people killed in the Ukrainian mine disaster”. That just happened hours ago and it sounds exactly like what happened in Westray. The draegermen were bringing up the bodies. It was such a sad thing and to think it could have been avoided.
I would like to take a moment this morning to read the motion. It is important that we remember what we are talking about. I will read the motion into the record so that everybody is clear about what we are dealing with. Motion No. 79 states:
That, in the opinion of this House, the Criminal Code or other appropriate federal statutes should be amended in accordance with Recommendation 73 of the Province of Nova Scotia's Public Inquiry into the Westray disaster, specifically with the goal of ensuring that corporate executives and directors are held properly accountable for workplace safety.
What could make more sense than that? The awful thing is that the study to which the hon. member refers was started in 1992 and was just tabled in 1997. His motion stems from that study.
The need for a rational standard of business behaviour goes without saying. However it is every bit as important that once the laws are established, provisions are created to ensure that bureaucrats do not tokenize the enforcement of those laws. There can be no double standards.
Enforcement administrators often give way to political influences that persuade them that enforcement of workplace legislation will sacrifice jobs and scare away industry. Enforcement apathy is often rationalized by the political suggestion that by giving a company the right amount of time the problem will be fixed. This is often proven blatantly untrue.
Those people who have been persuaded that jobs and votes are higher priorities than life enter into a clear conflict of interest and it must stop. Many well-intentioned business executives agree with this motion because it provides safety legislation in the workplace. However there are still some who do not. Sadly the benefits of their behaviours accrue only to those executives and those people involved, while the workers, their families and ultimately the Canadian taxpayer pay for their gain. In fact current tax credit laws favour non-compliant employers.
Collectively workers represent the wealthiest group of people and consumers in the country. It is from these workers that taxes are collected which in turn fund the infrastructure which stimulates an environment that creates additional wealth, so long as the workers and employees remain healthy.
When injured, taxpayers often pay the financial costs of rehabilitation, death benefits, retraining and lost productivity that exceeds $16 billion annually. Every day through their efforts Canadian workers earn the right to be protected with enforceable legislation.
As an investment it is good business and cost justified to protect Canadian employees. A small number of executives still escape liability because their lawyers show them how to hide behind jurisdictional boundaries. Even if convicted of violating the occupational health and safety statutes, existing provincial penalties are minimal compared to the rewards generated by their violation. This motion would require total accountability of executives with no loopholes.
Unfortunately we have seen many examples of occupational safety in the workplace taking second spot behind the bottom line, especially in the mining industry where the very nature of the work involves a great deal of risk. It is the duty of company officers to ensure the work is done in the safest possible conditions.
I again refer to the newspaper article about the Ukrainian explosion which so mirrors the Westray explosion. The article said “a preliminary investigation suggested that Saturday's accident was a methane explosion caused by a violation of safety standards”. That is exactly what happened at Westray.
Ukraine's energy minister also said that safety violations were likely at fault. The miners usually blame accidents on the unwillingness of officials to spend money on maintaining or upgrading safety equipment. History certainly has repeated itself there.
Often corporate executives sometimes seem less interested in the merits of workplace safety in pursuit of the bottom line. This is a very dangerous scenario. We must be mindful of it and do everything we can to prevent it.
In the case of the Westray tragedy, labour safety standards, in particular minimal safety standards, were not adhered to to the extent they should have been, much like we have read about regarding the Ukrainian explosion.
Looking at this issue in the larger context, there must also be recognition of the role of government to ensure proper standards are met, not only set but met. It stands to reason that when weighing business goals versus those of safety, sometimes businesses find themselves pulled in many ways. They have to meet production deadlines, outperform competitors, increase bottom lines, et cetera. That is where the human element and the safety issue must be exercised.
Far too often businesses and indeed heads of corporations are obsessed with financial gain leaving the safety of their workers neglected. That type of short term gain often results in long term pain, as was the case at Westray.
One thing that really struck me was the name of the study. The report that was done on the Westray mine disaster was entitled “A Predictable Path to Disaster”. That is a sad commentary on safety in the mining industry and the executives involved in that industry. A predictable path; they could have predicted that the disaster was going to happen, yet it still did.
Safety regulations, management and government all failed in their duties to those miners. Tough economic times which exist in the country put further pressure on workers. That is why this is so timely. The economic impact of having to shut down a corporation affects everyone in that company. The employees, management, board of directors and anyone associated with that business are going to feel a negative impact if there has to be an operational shutdown as a result of a potential breach of safety.
That is the cost of doing business and we have to do everything to ensure that those safety practices are followed. In the case of Westray they were almost trivial things which were overlooked: sensors shut down, alarms disconnected, comments from the miners disregarded, and things like that.
Companies must ensure the avoidance of hazardous or illegal practices such as those which cannot be condoned in any capacity. If companies have not already done so, they should do everything within their power to implement safe and ethical work practices. Ethics such as these should be studied and followed everywhere in places of employment, especially in upper management. If this is not the case, action must be taken to demonstrate the importance and seriousness of the issue. Business executives must promote and nurture safe work ethics and have an open and approachable attitude toward all employees.
As Nova Scotia experienced with the Westray disaster, senior bureaucrats within the provincial workplace and enforcement agencies became compromised by regional politics and vested interests. This practice is suspected to be occurring in other provinces even today, almost eight years after that explosion.
I want to wind up my comments by saying that I hope the whole House will look at this bill for what it is. It is a motion to protect workers in a very unsafe situation. It addresses a terrible safety record. It is time now that we in the House pull together and do something to address those issues.