Mr. Speaker, I too am pleased to take part in the debate on Bill C-340 on behalf of the NDP caucus. As the labour critic for our party I sat with the member for Laurentides for months as we reviewed part II of the Canada Labour Code. I can personally attest to the hard work that was done by the hon. member for Laurentides in trying to get this issue to the forefront of the national agenda or even onto the table of the national agenda. She demonstrated a great deal of compassion and was a very good advocate on behalf of working women everywhere in this country in the degree of passion she demonstrated for the issue.
The hon. member pointed out in her speech that this issue has been before the House of Commons for a decade or more. This is not new to today's debate nor was it new when we debated Bill C-12 or Bill C-19, the amendments to the Canada Labour Code that we have dealt with recently. She points out that as long ago as 1990 there was a motion before the House of Commons where like-minded people argued aggressively that the workplace was changing and that we had a duty to accommodate those changes and certainly to accommodate the growing number of women in the workforce.
We have finally reached equality, virtually, in terms of the labour market share. We have not reached equality in the labour market conditions for women. Women might make up 50% of the workforce, but they have not achieved equality in terms of compensation or the terms and conditions of their employment or the accommodation of the special circumstances facing women in the workforce, such as perhaps one of the most obvious, the issue of pregnant and nursing mothers.
When the bill was brought before the House I expected a higher degree of sensitivity for this issue from the other members of the House of Commons. I am appalled, frankly, at the lack of sensitivity demonstrated, especially by the spokesperson for the government side.
We believe, and the point was well made by the member for Laurentides, that we have a duty and an obligation to strive to achieve the highest common denominator in this country. If the federal legislation is to be considered a national standard, we then have an obligation to seek out the best conditions in the country, not to sink to the lowest conditions in any aspect of labour legislation. In the case of the province of Quebec, it has had the foresight, the political capital, I suppose, to achieve an element of fairness that goes beyond what we enjoy in the federal jurisdiction.
Therefore, it is only fair, and in the interests and the well-being of the people living in a jurisdiction where the terms of employment provincially exceed the terms of employment enjoyed in the federal jurisdiction, that a person should have the right to avail himself or herself of the terms that are more favourable for the worker, especially in the instance of a pregnant or nursing mother.
This should be one thing that we can all feel generous enough in our hearts to allow. Perhaps it could then serve as an example of how we might harmonize the jurisdictional differences in the workforce on other issues as well. However, we could start here. I argue it was a missed opportunity when we reviewed part II of the Canada Labour Code. We dropped the football in this case because we had a chance to introduce an element of fairness into the Canada Labour Code and we chose not to. It was not for lack of trying because the amendments were made at both stages where amendments are possible in the development of the bill. The hon. member worked very hard.
The only argument that was put forward by the Liberal side as to why it cannot support the bill was the weak and tired old warhorse that it is somehow a unity issue. Not only is that untrue in this case, but I believe it is 180° opposite from the truth.
Let us think of the example of a worker, a pregnant or nursing mother living in the province of Quebec who availed herself of the possibility of opting out of a certain workplace because she thought it was unsafe. If that happens we will have created two classes of worker in the province of Quebec. We might have two sisters who live in houses next door to each other, one who works for the province of Quebec under Quebec jurisdiction and the other who works for the federal government under federal jurisdiction. They live in the same city, in the same community. One will now be given full compensation for the period of time she has off and the other will be penalized by getting 55% of her income just because she works for the federal government instead of the province of Quebec. That would breed hostility. That would breed disunity. That would cause animosity among the working women in the province of Quebec.
If the only argument that can be raised here is the fact that it is somehow a unity issue or a constitutional or jurisdictional issue, let me say that in fact it is unnecessarily creating an environment of hostility and resentment among the working women of Quebec. We do a lot of things differently in our dealings with the province of Quebec. Even if for the time being the only advantage to this small amendment would be for the working women of Quebec, why is that a reason not to do it, if it introduces an element of fairness for those people?
It would also have the effect of pulling up the conditions in the other provinces, those provinces that are not fortunate enough to have such good terms and conditions. Were this in place, the best terms would have primacy, or in other words we would always gravitate to the highest common denominator and it would pull the other provinces along. We would then really be using federal legislation to its highest purpose, I believe, which is to elevate the standards right across the country from coast to coast.
Anyone who speaks against the motion is speaking for the status quo, which I believe is patently unfair. The status quo penalizes pregnant and nursing women when they opt for the right to refuse dangerous work, work that is dangerous either to themselves or to the fetus. We believe this is the only example in which when workers use their right to refuse unsafe work they suffer any kind of monetary setback. Why is it we have selected pregnant and nursing women to be the only group of workers who, when they exercise the right to refuse unsafe work, suffer a monetary penalty? That is unfair. I presume that is why the province of Quebec decided many years ago to change that situation: because it is patently unfair when these women are doing something that is best for their babies.
It borders on negligence to first open up the workforce so that more women are taking part and then not accommodate or take every step to accommodate women in the workplace. Out of ten provinces and three territories one province chose to rectify that and to remedy that unfairness. We believe that should stand as the highest common denominator and it should have primacy over any lesser piece of legislation as it affects working women.
Therefore I speak strongly in favour of Bill C-340 and I thank the member for Laurentides for giving us the opportunity to have the debate. I regret that it is only a debate. It should be a vote. It could have been an important first step to introduce an element of fairness into the working conditions in the Canadian workforce which we forgot to do, we neglected to do. No, we did not forget to do it: we chose not to be fair in this case and it is to our great shame.
We are given the opportunity to fix that today. Some members of the House are speaking against remedying that. I suppose they will have to defend their stance and be judged in some higher place than this.
In closing I would say that in other areas of legislation, in other contracts and in other legal documents, there are things called non-derogation clauses. In other words, nothing in the work we are doing today should erode what the person currently enjoys. Not having an amendment like that in Bill C-340 has the same effect as derogating the terms and conditions of employment that Quebec women currently enjoy. By going into the federal civil service or any federally regulated jurisdiction, they will diminish the rights that have already been created in their home province. We have an obligation to respect, acknowledge and allow people in Quebec to have those rights that they have earned.