Mr. Speaker, it is very appropriate that we are discussing this motion on replacement workers on May 1, a day that organized labour has traditionally used to celebrate the role and importance of workers in our society.
People who know me know that I am an advocate of fair treatment. I have devoted most of my life to making sure that all Canadians are treated fairly by our society.
I have brought that same commitment to my job as Minister of Labour. I think it is very important that the rights of workers are protected under the Canada Labour Code and I have worked very hard to ensure that they are. But I also understand the importance of bringing a balanced perspective to labour policy issues. That is why I cannot support the motion of the Bloc Quebecois
The motion is seeking a ban on the use of replacement workers. However, this motion represents only one side of a very complicated issue. Indeed, anyone who follows this issue knows how complicated and divisive it can be. This is because there are two clearly divided sets of opinions on the use of replacement workers during times of work stoppage.
Employers typically see the issue one way and employees and their unions typically see it from an opposite point of view. This lack of consensus became very clear in the period of consultation that the government engaged in prior to making amendments to part 1 of the Canada Labour Code a few years ago.
At that time a broad range of labour management issues was up for discussion as the government sought stakeholders views on how the Canada Labour Code could be made to work more effectively for both employers and employees. On almost every issue the stakeholders were able to arrive at some degree of consensus on how they wanted the law to be changed. However on the issue of replacement workers, consensus was not possible. I do not think a consensus would be possible today.
Even across the different labour jurisdictions within Canada there is no common position on the issue of banning replacement workers by law. Quebec has had a ban on the user replacement workers in organizations under provincial jurisdiction since 1977. British Columbia has a similar ban, although it was introduced more recently.
Ten years ago the government of the day in Ontario brought in legislation banning replacement workers but a subsequent government repealed the law a few years later in 1995. No other provinces have legislation banning the use of replacement workers.
When the opposition members propose a ban on the use of replacement workers, they are proposing a change that does not have a clear consensus of support throughout Canada. When it comes to both workers and employers, they would clearly not have the support of both the sides that would be directly affected.
I believe that the balanced approach we brought to the legislation concerning the use of replacement workers when we amended part 1 of the Canada Labour Code in 1999 is still the right approach to follow today.
When the code was amended in 1999, it struck a balance between protecting the interests of workers on the one hand and employers on the other. Thus the existing legislation does not prohibit the use of replacement workers outright, as this motion seeks to do, but it does put clear restraints on their use.
At the same time, the legislation allows employers some flexibility to use replacement workers to meet their operating responsibilities. And remember, in the case of some large national organizations falling within the application of the Canada Labour Code, such as utilities or transportation companies, for example, those operating responsibilities might be of critical importance to the well-being of individual people, not to mention the country
What would happen, for example, if a major telecommunications company was forbidden to maintain service by using substitute personnel during a work stoppage? How many homes would be without phone service? Or how many other jobs would be affected if the commercial telecommunications infrastructure was shut down?
In some cases, it is critical that organizations be able to continue to operate during times of work stoppages. But that does not mean that replacement workers should be used to interfere with the legitimate bargaining objectives of a union on behalf of its members.
So the existing law allows employers some flexibility to meet their operating responsibilities, but it specifically prevents them from using replacement workers to undermine a union's legitimate bargaining objectives.
In effect, the changes governing the use of replacement workers made to the Canada Labour Code in 1999 represented a compromise between the position of employees and unions on the one hand and the position of the employers on the other. It is a balanced approach that also reflects the majority recommendation of an expert task force that reviewed the issue, consulted with stakeholders and provided a comprehensive report that helped guide the legislation.
In practical terms, most of the parties who engage in collective bargaining under part I of the code have accepted this balanced approach as a reasonable compromise in the real world. Because, as a practical matter, the issue of replacement workers comes up in only a very small number of cases under the Canada Labour Code. Over 90% of labour disputes in the federal jurisdiction are settled without a work stoppage. In the vast majority of cases replacement workers are not an issue.
Nevertheless, there are still cases where the issue does come up and part I of the code provides for measures to deal with these cases. Section 94(2.1) of the code states the following:
No employer or person acting on behalf of an employer shall use, for the demonstrated purpose of undermining a trade union's representational capacity rather than the pursuit of legitimate bargaining objectives, the services of a person who was not an employee in the bargaining unit on the date on which notice to bargain collectively was given and was hired or assigned after that date to perform all or part of the duties of an employee in the bargaining unit on strike or locked out.
In other words, the federal law now prohibits the use of replacement workers to undermine legitimate bargaining activities. If a union believes an employer is using replacement workers in a manner contrary to the provisions of section 94(2.1), it can bring the case before the Canadian Industrial Relations Board under section 97(1) of the code.
Since the code was amended, only a handful of cases have been referred to the board under section 97(1). A few of these have attracted particular attention, but in the vast majority of situations under the Canada Labour Code the existing balanced approach to the difficult issue of replacement workers is working.
By proposing a prohibition on replacement workers today, the Bloc is trying to reopen the debate on this contentious issue, but the Bloc is advocating only one side of the argument. The government has to take a broader perspective: We have to look at the issue from both sides.
As minister responsible for the Canada Labour Code, I have to take into account the competing values and interests of both employers and employees and their unions, not just one side.
Based on the advice the government received during a broad process of consultation in the period leading up to the amendments to the Canada Labour Code in 1999, we made changes to the Canada Labour Code that took both sides into account. And I believe that is still the right approach today.
It is too soon to conclude that the replacement workers provision in part I of the code is not working in the broad public interest. It is too soon to disturb the practical balance that has been achieved and to say the law needs to be changed, and especially to be changed on an urgent basis, as the opposition motion suggests. But it is an issue that I, as Minister of Labour, will continue to monitor with great interest.
One thing is clear to me: This is not a simple issue. It is an issue that can elicit strong opposing views like those we are going to hear all day today. It is being strongly expressed on Parliament Hill, so we know that this issue can divide business and labour.
It can also divide experts within the labour relations community. When the Sims task force looked into this issue a few years ago, it was the only item in a broad range of labour management issues that evoked a minority written report.
As I have already mentioned, across Canada where the jurisdiction for labour law is a shared responsibility between the federal and provincial levels of government, there are different approaches to the use of replacement workers in these different jurisdictions.
So there is no clear consensus position on the use of replacement workers in this country. Clearly, each province can deal with the issue in the way it believes is best for the needs and interests of the workers and employers in its jurisdiction.
Those jurisdictions represent some 90% of workers in this country. But at the federal level we have to be concerned for the approximately 800,000 workers who come under the jurisdiction of the Canada Labour Code. We know that most federally regulated employers do not hire replacement workers in any case, although they might reassign management and other non-bargaining unit personnel to maintain operations.
So, on balance, I do not think it would be advisable at this time to change the provisions of the Canada Labour Code governing the use of replacement workers. Therefore, I am not in favour of the motion.