Mr. Speaker, it is estimated that some 10,000 to 15,000 employees each year in both federal and provincial jurisdictions receive no unpaid wages as a result of the bankruptcy or insolvency of the companies or organizations that they have worked for.
This is an issue where I think Canadians would agree that the security status of employees who have made a company work may not be able to survive very well without having received wages owing. We must consider that a company that is imminently coming into some difficulty and the period during which wages would be unpaid is not necessarily since the last regular paycheque. It may in fact be an extended period. There could be a substantial amount of money involved.
I also understand that for those who do receive moneys, the average payout is about 13¢ on the dollar. Having said that, there is no question that Bill C-55 is an important bill. I hope the bill will have the support of the House following the rigorous review and consultation by the standing committee.
Bill C-55 is entitled an act to establish the Wage Earner Protection Program Act, to amend the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act and the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts. Most people will know what we are talking about in terms wage protection. They will also probably have a general idea about bankruptcy and insolvency. Most Canadians have heard these terms.
One piece of legislation people may not be familiar with is the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act. It is a vehicle that has been around for a long time. As a matter of fact, before I became a member of Parliament I practised as a chartered accountant. I actually was involved with a company that went under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act. I thought I would very briefly explain what that means.
A company which gets into some difficulty and would otherwise be petitioned into bankruptcy by a creditor, such as a bank or a bondholder or whatever, has an opportunity under the CCAA to petition the courts to freeze the operations, as it were, in terms of its financial obligations. This provision gives them some time to come up with a plan to make a settlement with all of the outstanding creditors.
The courts would appoint a trustee to go in and takeover the operations and management of the company. In my experience, the most effective way in which trustees do that is they seize control of the bank account.
Following the appointment of the trustee, the interesting difference between bankruptcy and going under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act is that the company is allowed to continue to operate and that all persons and businesses who continue to be suppliers of goods and services to the company have preferred or first status in terms of payment. They will be paid. They are guaranteed to be paid, even though they may be owed other moneys leading up to the date under which they made the petition under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act.
That is an extremely popular and very important act because it does give companies an opportunity to survive once they can get some relief from the existing creditors which they may not otherwise be able to deal with. Very often a plan is put together which proposes certain details as to all the outstanding creditors and how much they will receive and be paid through the trustee. Then the business would carry on.
The whole proposal, though, is subject to the approval of all the creditors before the courts. As long as all of them agree to the proposal of the company, then the various creditors would take the settlements that they are entitled to and the company would carry on under the restructured basis. That may involve, as some refer to it, taking a haircut for the bondholders. There may be a moratorium on assets or forgiveness, or there may in fact simply be the same distribution of some percentage on the dollars. However, the livelihood of the business could in fact survive.
From what I have heard in the debate so far, I am please there is support here. I want to briefly remind the House of the elements. It is a very long bill but I think members will understand that it is important to establish a program like this and make the necessary amendments both to the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act and to the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act which takes a great deal of integration of the existing and proposed laws.
The enactment not only deals with those who are owed wages by employers who are bankrupt or subject to receivership, but it also sets out the conditions for the eligibility for payment. It is the process for the program and the administration arrangements for the implementation and enforcement mechanism. It also provides regulation making powers for carrying out the purposes of the act and provides for a review of the act within five years. I think this is very important.
From time to time I have seen legislation come before the House that does not provide for a periodic review to be done. I am hoping this becomes a regular feature of legislation. We need to ensure that it is kept up to date and that it happens on an automatic basis rather than at the discretion of the government of the day.
The bill also contains amendments to the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act. Those amendments include changes to the appointment and oversight functions of the Superintendent of Bankruptcy, as well as the obligations and amendments. They also expand the act to cover income trusts which is certainly a current topic of interest to many Canadians.
New corporate proposals have been created to address, among other things, the treatment of contracts and collective agreements which is important. It would provide the authority to amend the term of collective agreements. Other proposals are interim financing and governance arrangements and changes are made to the priority of charges, including with respect to wages and pension contributions, which are basic parts of the wage protection program.
The scope and application of consumer proposals is expanded. New provisions have been introduced to deal with bankruptcies, protecting retirement savings plans from seizure and to allow for the automatic discharge of second time bankrupts which is a matter that comes up from time to time.
The period of eligibility of discharge of student debt is reduced and members have addressed this area of concern. As I had indicated in my question to the member, part of the comment was that 95% of students pay their loans on time.
There are changes in the treatment of preferences, as well as other numerous technical changes.
As I indicated, there are amendments to the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act. This is slightly different. They are to the same effect as the changes to the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act. The amendments also expand the act to cover income trusts. I note again that the issue is being dealt with.
The scope and application of the initial stay is clarified, as I explained, and the nature of petition under this act. We have introduced new provisions regarding the treatment of contracts, collective agreements, interim financing and governance arrangements.
As members of the House can see, there are substantive issues and areas that are being dealt with to ensure that the bill is balanced and fair.
I had an opportunity to follow the debate earlier and I noted some of the points that were made by other members. I heard points that I did not know so I thought I could perhaps share them with members.
It is a matter of how these reforms will improve the protection to workers whose employers undergo restructuring or become bankrupt. As I indicated earlier, some 10,000 to 15,000 employees each year find that they receive nothing when something like this happens. That is not just with regard to their wages. It also may affect their pension benefits. In many cases there are horror stories where pensions have accumulated significant unfunded liabilities as a consequence of the failing business and its inability to meet its current obligations with regard to discharging an unfunded liability under pension plans.
Under our current system, three-quarters of unpaid workers in a bankruptcy receive nothing for their work. It is really interesting. The average payout was only $13 and the existing federal-provincial labour laws protect the workers who perform work but are not paid by their employers. However these labour laws cease to be in effect when bankruptcy or receivership occurs so they fall through the cracks, which is why it is important that this bill be here.
The program obviously has to operate efficiently and there will be a significant cost in doing that. It is estimated that it will cost about $30 million a year. In the event that we spike in terms of the total number of bankruptcies, that could increase to about $50 million. This is not an insignificant expenditure or contingency for the Government of Canada to protect these but it is important that the moneys be provided quickly to the employees so that they at least have some continuity while, hopefully, under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act, a deal would be struck with the existing creditors and their jobs may in fact be secure.
In the event of bankruptcy I do not think anybody wins but the lawyers and that is probably too bad. However it is a very substantial investment and it is important to protect the workers to the greatest extent possible.
There is an expectation that there will be a recovery of about half of those costs once arrangements are made with the creditors and payouts are made. Under the wage earner protection program, the government will assume the workers' claims against the bankrupt employer's estate so that the employee will somehow be represented in this process by the government being the spokesperson or the intermediary in this process.
The point was made that the limited superiority for unpaid wages balances the risk of bankruptcy between employers and other creditors of the bankrupt company. As I raised with the member from Coquihalla, there probably is a question that the committee should consider because there is a limit on the amounts that can be paid to employees of some $3,000. I am aware of the case that I was involved in where wages were unpaid for some time. It was not that we had a paycheque last week, two weeks ago or last month. It could be for an extended period where the employees are basically told that the company is trying to survive, that it cannot pay them now but that they should hang in there. However those are legitimate wages and I know there has to be some balance.
I am not sure what the current thinking would be and certainly the mark of the industry with regard to how much protection can be provided without impinging on the preferred or the fully secured status of bondholders who put the money up front and who in fact may very well be represented by someone's RRSP client or their investment in an organization that has provided funding. There are other parties that are directly or indirectly involved, so that if there is a loss, the money is neither created or destroyed, it just changes hands. In this regard there may have to be some offsets.
However if we were to have a serious impingement upon the security level that a first secured bondholder may have, if the laws indicated that they would be subrogated to unpaid wages for a much larger amount or something like this, the capital providers, those who provide the bonds to the company, may have built into their costs, the interests rates that they are charging to the company, a risk premium on the interest rate. We have to be careful about not disrupting the security level that they hold but at the same time try to balance the interest of the wage earners and those who provide the capital for the company.
I would like to mention one other thing. In most bills we usually see consequential amendments to other acts and in this one I believe there are three acts and the Canada Labour Code. There will be an amendment to the Canada Labour Code. The parties may agree to revise the term of a collective agreement without the approval of the board. That will be pretty important and it may be part of the arrangement.
One can understand when a company restructures to deal with all of its unsecured creditors, et cetera, it continues under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act and then all of a sudden it has union difficulties and decides it is time for a new contract which throws the company back into a situation. This is an important change which they may want to consider, for instance, extending the term of a collective agreement to ensure that there is some opportunity for the company to get on its feet and be able to deal with labour demands. I think that will be an interesting discussion as well in the committee.
There are some amendments to the Canada pension plan, particularly with regard to employer and employee contributions and the related interest during that period. Moneys held in trust by a company with regard to payroll deductions have secured status so they will have to be addressed. Similarly, the Employment Insurance Act will have a similar amendment to deal with that.
Finally, there is also a change to the Income Tax Act in a case where the minister has knowledge or suspects that a particular person is or will become, within one year, liable to make payments. There are some complications but it is interesting that they pick these things up. I find it to be a very difficult bill to read. One does need to have some of the other legislation and I think one also has to be close to the labour realities out there and some of the conditions.
I think the witnesses that will be heard by the committee will be providing an excellent education to members about the realities of what happens when employees lose wages to the extent that 75% would get nothing and those who receive something only get 13¢ on the dollar compounded with the likely impairment of their pension benefits.
This is an extremely important bill. I gather from the debate so far that the parties are very supportive of ensuring we have an appropriate bill to deal with the interests of not only wage earners but also with existing creditors to ensure there is a balanced approach to this and that we make sure wage earners are not put in an untenable situation.