Mr. Speaker, as I began my debate yesterday with regard to Bill C-55, the wage earner protection program, I indicated that I think this is a fundamental new bill that speaks to the aspirations of working men and women who get up each and every day to work and expect to be paid for the work and the time they have put in.
Bill C-55, a combined effort with my colleague, the Minister of Industry, is about helping working men and women, about the protection of workers whose employers are undergoing restructuring or become bankrupt. Under the current system, as I said yesterday, too many workers are vulnerable when employers enter into a restructuring or file for bankruptcy. Canadian workers suffer lost wages, reduced pension benefits and an uncertainty that the collective agreements in place may be unilaterally challenged by a court. That is unacceptable to this government and, I am sure, unacceptable to most members in the House.
Let me explain again what this program will mean for those unpaid workers. Under the current system in a bankruptcy, three-quarters of the workers receive nothing for their work even though they had gone to work for their employers. At the end of the day, three-quarters of them get absolutely nothing. Overall, the average payout is only about 13¢ on the dollar. That is why I believe this bill is important for working men and women.
The situation facing unpaid workers in Canada exposes a real gap in our system. Clearly, changes are needed. That is why this government is taking action to protect workers' wages. For example, we are now proposing new measures in this bill that will provide workers guaranteed payment for unpaid wages of up to $3,000. An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 workers in all sectors, in all provinces, in both jurisdictions, are left with unpaid wages or reduced pensions due to employer bankruptcies in Canada. We intend to rectify that situation.
The reforms will also amend the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act to establish a limited superpriority for unpaid wage claims of up to $2,000. Under the new limited superpriority, a unpaid worker will be one of the first to be paid from the current assets of the bankrupt employer.
The limited superpriority for unpaid wages better balances the risk of bankruptcy between employees and other creditors of the bankrupt company. We believe that right now the burden weighs too heavily on the employees and that workers' wages, their time, their effort and their covenant to go to work each and every day must be respected. I believe this will also assist the government in recouping its costs in the wage earner protection program because it will be the government which will try to recoup this from the estate of the bankrupt company and the workers will not necessarily have to do that.
The payment of up to $3,000 will immediately be paid to those workers who are waiting for their wages to be paid for work they have already done. To provide a better balancing of risks, secured creditors whose security was comprised by the limited superpriority will be granted a preferred claim to the extent that their security was compromised. This will reduce the effects of the reforms on secured creditors.
The issue of pensions also concerns many Canadian workers. Currently when a company goes bankrupt, contributions taken from employees' paycheques may not be paid to the pension plan for them, and the contributions that employers should have made are only paid after almost every other creditor gets paid. I am sure we would all agree that this is unacceptable. People go to work each and every day, each and every week, each and every year, and surely at the end of their working career, through a choice of their own, perhaps, their pensions ought to be there. The proposed reforms would improve this situation.
In a bankruptcy, a receivership, a proposal or a CCAA filing, contributions that an employer should have made or that were deducted from an employee's paycheque would be required to be paid into the pension plan for the benefit of workers because most other creditors get paid.
When employers are trying to restructure under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act to avoid bankruptcy, this reform would provide a mechanism whereby employers and unions could try to renegotiate the collective agreements under the relevant labour legislation, and that is because this government believes in collective bargaining. It believes that the arrangements that have been made between an employer and its employees should be respected and not be allowed to be taken away, that contract that has been entered into should not be frivolously taken away from the parties. If there is no arrangement that can be made, then existing collective agreements remain in force. I believe that is an important principle to which we want to adhere.
If changes were agreed to, the union representing the employees would have a right to claim in the bankruptcy an equal amount to the concessions that they granted as damages and this amount would be as an unsecured creditor. Again, that speaks to a great principle. Above all it would guarantee workers' rights again under existing collective agreements.
The reforms would also clarify that the regulatory procedures available under any labour legislation would be allowed to continue when an employer is trying to restructure under the insolvency regime. This would ensure that the rights and the obligations of the employers, unions and employees in the areas of industrial relations, occupational health and safety and labour standards would continue to be enforced by the regulators. However regulators would continue to be stayed if they were acting as a creditor to the employer.
We have listened to the stakeholders and to our partners. We have listened to Mr. Georgetti at the CLC; to Mr. Hassan Yussuff, the secretary-treasurer; to Mr. Buzz Hargrove from the CAW; and to Mr. Ken Neumann from the United Steelworkers Union. We have consulted widely with the small business community to ensure that this is a balanced act that speaks to not only the needs and the requirements of small business but, more important, to the working men and women who in fact make businesses successful and make this economy so successful.
Therefore we have put forward an ambitious legislative agenda. I believe there is consensus in the House to support the bill. I would hope that the other parties support the bill. The day has come that we stand up for working men and women in this country, protect their wages, protect their pensions, protect their collective bargaining and the negotiations that have taken place. We believe this is a forward looking plan that speaks to our constituents, to the men and women who, each and every day, get up and go to work. All they expect is to be paid their wages, that their pensions are in place and that their collective agreements will stand.
We look forward to the support of all parties. This is too important of an issue for us to play politics with. We would hope that the committee would deal with it as quickly as possible so we can become law in the next number of weeks.