This bill proposes adding another section to part II of the Canada Labour Code. This would bring the federal code in line with provincial legislation regarding the health and safety of pregnant or nursing employees.
In Quebec there is a program called “Pour une maternité sans danger”, the safe maternity program, which many pregnant workers use. A pregnant nurse, for example, whose job poses a risk to her health or that of her baby can be reassigned to another task or be allowed to take preventative withdrawal leave on the advice of her physician. If she must take leave, this pregnant nurse will receive an income or replacement benefit equivalent to 90% of her net insurable income.
It is clear that even if this is not spelled out explicitly, the intent of Bill C-307 is to give employees working in Quebec, but under federal jurisdiction, the possibility of getting the same access to the safe maternity program as employees under provincial jurisdiction.
I must admit that the issue raised by the bill is important to me, both as a woman and as a pediatric surgeon who spends most of the time taking care of children. I would be the first to say that pregnant and nursing women have the right to work in a safe environment. This is something that every Canadian would agree with.
Wherever we sit in the House, I am sure that we all want to protect those who give life, the infants they carry, and those who have been brought into the world. In fact, the Canada Labour Code formally recognizes this right. It includes several provisions, including maternity related reassignment or leave. These provisions give considerable protection to pregnant and nursing employees. I am not going to go into the details of these provisions, but generally speaking this is what they allow.
If there is a risk to the health of the employee, her fetus or her child, the employee can get a modification of her duties to be reassigned to another job without any loss of salary or benefits. If these measures are impractical, she can go on leave for as long as the danger persists.
Other provisions allow an employee to take leave during the period from the beginning of the pregnancy up to 24 weeks after childbirth if she is unable to work because of her pregnancy or nursing. This is in addition to regular maternity, parental or sick leave provisions under the code.
It is not my place to give an opinion on Quebec's safe maternity program, which, in principle, is very commendable. But one thing is sure: the program is very expensive.
To note, in a Canadian Press article that appeared at the beginning of November, it was reported that the cost of financing the program is 19 times higher than it was when it was first created. It now costs over $200 million per year, all of it financed by employees through a payroll tax. In Quebec, the same contribution rate, which is 19¢ on every $100 of employees' insurable earnings, is applied to all employees targeted by Quebec's preventative withdrawal program. This is regardless of the amount of benefits their employees receive.
If we assume that the same contribution rate would be applied to their current total salary envelope, employees under federal jurisdiction operating in Quebec, including the federal government, would be obliged to pay almost $20 million a year in contributions. However, given the relatively lower health and safety risks presented by most jobs under federal jurisdiction, it can be estimated the amount of benefits provided to employees would be approximately $5.4 million. In such a scenario, federally regulated employers would on average pay almost four times more into the program than their employees would take out. If only from a financial perspective, this would make no sense.
The financial aspect is one we cannot ignore, especially in these difficult economic times. That is perhaps why a report earlier this year, commissioned by Quebec's workers compensation board, recommended that the admissibility criteria for its program be tightened and that more effort was needed to encourage employers to accommodate pregnant and nursing employees. That is what our priority should be, to focus on allowing women to maintain their attachment to the labour force by ensuring that they work in a safe environment.
We have to consider the potential unintended consequences of the bill on workers that it is meant to help. Increasing business payroll taxes would hinder job growth and could lead some employers to reduce or eliminate benefits altogether for their employees. If Bill C-307 brought significant new benefits and protections for employees, this might also be a price worth considering, but it does not.
From a legislative point of view, Bill C-307 would also be difficult to implement. If Bill C-307 were adopted, many employers under federal jurisdiction would then be subject to most provincial and federal provisions on preventative withdrawal. This could create confusion in regard to the respective rights and obligations of employers and employees. Employees could try to take advantage of either their federal or provincial rights or remedies, choosing whichever system seemed to be the most advantageous under the circumstances. This would lead to problems in application of labour laws.
In addition, Bill C-307 would create disparities in the treatment of employees working in different provinces for the same employer. Given certain rights and benefits only in federal jurisdictions, employees located in one province and having such inequity enshrined in law would be unfair for employees working in other regions of the country. This sort of situation could lead to a complicated patchwork of disparities and legal obligations for employers under federal jurisdiction. Those operating in several provinces, including small companies which cannot afford professional legal or HR assistance, would face significant administrative difficulties.
Bill C-307 would also have the effect of blurring the lines of demarcation between jurisdictions of labour matters. The provinces could adopt laws that would apply to workplaces under federal jurisdiction. Such a development could have broad legal and policy ramifications.
It is clear that pregnant and nursing women have the right to work in an environment that is safe and healthy. If there is a risk to their health, that right is protected under the Canada Labour Code.
I would also point out that the vast majority of employees under federal jurisdiction are entitled to benefits under a disability insurance or sick leave program provided by their employer. Employees are also entitled to employment insurance benefits if they meet the eligibility criteria.
When we propose to make changes or additions to the Canada Labour Code, as is proposed in Bill C-307, we must ensure that we are carefully considering their implications, and weigh the pros and cons. That is what we have done as a responsible government.
After spending a great deal of time examining this bill and for all the reasons I just mentioned, we have decided to oppose Bill C-307 and we ask all members to do the same.