moved that Bill C-307, An Act to amend the Canada Labour Code (pregnant or nursing employees), be read the second time and referred to committee.
—Mr. Speaker, I am extremely proud to rise today in this House to speak to a bill that is so important to many women throughout Canada. It is important to women's groups and also to the union movement, the people who represent working women and are concerned with health and safety issues.
The purpose of this bill is to allow pregnant or nursing women who work in businesses that are under federal jurisdiction to avail themselves of existing provincial occupational health and safety legislation governing preventive withdrawal. This is a very reasonable and necessary bill.
In the last election campaign, the NDP had the slogan “Travaillons ensemble”, meaning working together. We had a positive campaign, a campaign about ideas and people's real problems. In this regard, we said, and we still say, that parliamentarians have to work in the interests of the public, and so they have to work together. We also said that we had to help families. We said that in the NDP, but other parties were saying the same kind of thing. We said we had to listen to the needs of families. That is why I am proud today to speak to this bill again.
In Quebec, we often boast about how we are more progressive, but that is not always true and has not always been the case. Women won the right to vote only in 1940. And I would just note in passing that aboriginal people won the right to vote federally in 1960, and that is truly unbelievable. Since then, women have fought to have all their rights fully recognized. After many battles, they have achieved concrete recognition of their equality. In Quebec, it was not until 1979 that a maternity leave program for working women was implemented. In 2000, there was the Women's March, to send a loud and clear signal that the struggle for fairness and equality for women continued. That struggle still has to continue.
Perhaps members are unaware, but at present, when some working women in this country are pregnant and have to leave their workplace for their own safety or the safety of their fetus, their baby to be, they receive no compensation. They have to do it on their own dime, as they say. That is inconceivable. One might even say it is somewhat shocking.
We call ourselves an egalitarian society, we say that we recognize that women play an important role in the labour market, but at the same time, we penalize them when they are pregnant. We tell them that it is all very well for them to protect their health and the health of their fetus, but they will have to pick up the bill. Forgive me, but in our view, that seems a bit cheap.
In Canada, we have collectively provided ourselves with a social safety net of which we are rightly proud. It is in fragile shape today, but for many long years it has served our society, Canadian men and women, men and women in Quebec, well. It is a social safety net we must work to preserve today. In fact, it is this social safety net that protected us against the recent global economic crisis, because, as the IMF reminded us, a better distribution of wealth and lower levels of inequality allow for longer and more stable periods of economic growth.
So, we created a safety net for workers, because we recognized that, in certain situations, employees and wage earners in our country need to be protected. We recognize that, and occupational health and safety laws exist because dangerous situations are sometimes a reality. We also have an employment insurance program because sometimes—and these days it is more frequent than that, with 91,000 in two months—people lose their job.
However, when it comes to pregnant women, the government seems to be a little more stingy. Pregnant or nursing women have to do tasks or put up with working conditions that can be dangerous. The NDP does not accept that situation, and I am convinced that the majority of members in this House do not accept it either.
I am going to summarize the relevant Canada Labour Code provisions for those who are not familiar with them.
First, there are two levels of labour codes in Canada. We have the provincial codes and then the Canada Labour Code. The latter covers workers in several sectors, including the financial, air transportation, aerospace, telecommunications and transportation sectors.
In Quebec, 4.45% of women are covered by the Canada Labour Code, which means close to 75,000 women.
Under the bill that I am humbly submitting today, these 75,000 women would be potentially better protected if they experienced the joy of expecting a child.
In Quebec, we are very proud of the program that was put in place in 1981. It allows pregnant women who provide a medical certificate confirming that their work poses risks and dangers for their unborn child or for themselves to be reassigned to tasks that do not present these dangers.
Under this program, women receive 90% of their salary. The program recognizes that it is not right and that it is unfair to put on the victims the burden of occupational health and safety problems.
Unfortunately, the Canada Labour Code currently does not do that. With regard to preventive withdrawal, section 132 of the Canada Labour Code, which deals with pregnant or nursing employees, provides that when dangerous conditions exist, the employer may try to find an alternative. I insist on the term “may”. The employer is under no obligation to do so. If no alternative is found, these women must take a leave without pay. That is where the big difference lies. In these situations, the financial and economic burden rests on the shoulders of pregnant and nursing employees whose working conditions endanger their health, or that of their unborn child.
The question is, is this just? I wonder if it is an egalitarian policy and social vision. I wonder if it is consistent with our values, with the Quebec and Canadian values of equality between men and women, equality between workers, and of protection for people with health or safety problems.
Is forcing pregnant employees to work in dangerous conditions for both themselves and their fetuses the right way to treat them? The members of the NDP and I, the member for Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, do not believe so. I do not think that these women should be penalized. We in the NDP believe that the health of pregnant workers is important. I would go so far as to say that it is a priority.
If we want to encourage people to have children, and if we are serious about this, women must be provided with the best living and working conditions possible. They must have appropriate and safe conditions in which to work at all times.
I imagine that my colleagues from the Liberal and Conservative parties, and the other members who sit in this House share this opinion. At least, I hope so.
I am the father of a blended family with four beautiful children. I am lucky. I enjoyed good working conditions before having the honour of being elected to represent the constituents of Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie in this House. My wife also enjoyed good working conditions. We both had a collective agreement that enabled us to take extended parental leave.
Today's topic is not parental leave. It is even more elementary than that. The subject is the health of thousands of workers and their right to be protected without paying for it. It is about pregnant women working in a standing position for over seven hours. It is about pregnant women lifting loads of over seven kilograms. It is about working environments that are too noisy. It is about ergonomics that put these women's pregnancy or the health of their fetus at risk. It is about being exposed to hazardous products. I could continue, as the list is long.
A study conducted in 2004 by Health Canada as part of the National Health Research and Development Program demonstrated the effectiveness of the provincial program in Quebec. The study showed that if exposure to ergonomic problems is eliminated early enough in pregnancy, the rate of premature delivery is the same as for women with no exposure. These and other such hazards have been eliminated. This is evidence that prevention works. For prevention to be successful, there should be no financial penalty. That is the current problem with the Canada Labour Code. It is the problem that this private members' bill seeks to address.
In the NDP, we believe that these women should not be penalized when their working conditions put their health or that of their babies at risk.
If we really want to help Canadian families, we must put our money where our mouth is. We must take concrete action. My bill does that and it is a good thing for Canadian and Quebec families. Its objective is to stop penalizing pregnant employees. It is a simple measure that will improve living conditions for these families and, therefore, for thousands of people.
The bill humbly does that. All we are saying is that pregnant women who work in a job that comes under the Canada Labour Code can avail themselves of the existing provincial occupational health and safety legislation if, of course, the latter is better.
That is not much to ask under the circumstances. My bill does that is six small subsections.
Subsection (1) provides that an employee may avail herself of “the legislation of the province where she works that relates to the applicable measures, including preventive withdrawal, transfer to another position and financial compensation to which she would be entitled under that legislation”. Subsection (2) defines the terms of the application, while subsection (3) refers to its processing. It provides that: “The agency referred to in subsection (2) shall process the application according to the legislation of the province applicable to pregnant or nursing employees in that province.”
Subsection (4) points out that employees may avail themselves of the remedies provided for in the provincial legislation. Subsection (5) gives to the federal government a mandate to enter into an administrative agreement with the provinces concerned. Incidentally, similar agreements already exist regarding health and safety. Employees who come under the Canada Labour Code are protected by the CSST in Quebec for workplace accidents, but not always for preventive withdrawal.
Finally, subsection (6) of my bill provides that the exercise by an employee of this right is without prejudice. The fact that an employee exercises a right must not result in retribution or penalties of any kind. This is a reasonable, modern, appropriate and necessary legislation. I hope there is unanimity for once in this House regarding the private members' bill that I am introducing today for second reading.
This is why I am asking all hon. members to support it, regardless of their political colours. I am asking that we recognize the contribution of women in the workplace, and that we recognize that they should never be penalized because they are pregnant or because they are nursing their child. I am asking for the support of my fellow parliamentarians to pass this bill, which will correct a major deficiency in the existing legislation.