Mr. Speaker, let me start by thanking the member for Rivière-des-Mille-Îles for bringing forward Bill C-636. I think everyone can agree that the goals of the bill are important and well-intentioned. It is not a partisan issue. It should be something that we want to get right. All legislators should want to get this particular issue right, so I am happy to stand to speak to it today.
The bill highlights a legitimate issue that up to now has not been considered through the normal tripartite process to amend the Canada Labour Code.
We are confronted with a situation where we know that unpaid interns have been exploited and we know that the protections under the Canada Labour Code are ambiguous at best. We also know that the number of unpaid interns appears to be on the rise, with no real regulations, especially in the federal sector, to ensure that interns are truly being provided with a valuable learning experience to improve their employable skills and that they are not just a way for employers to replace paid employees to improve their bottom line.
After having consulted with many stakeholders in the federal jurisdiction, I believe there is a consensus about the goals of the bill, but I have some concerns as to the best means to achieve those goals in a fair and balanced way that would minimize the unintended consequences.
Given that the stakeholders agree on the intent of the bill, I feel it deserves to go to committee where we can hear from all stakeholders on how best to realize the goals that the bill sets to achieve.
When we talk about internships, it means many things to many people. Depending upon the jurisdiction one is in, an unpaid intern may or may not have basic labour standards protections. I think everyone would agree that an unpaid intern should be protected from an unsafe work environment or be afforded rights to rest and hours of work rules, to be covered under the employer's sexual harassment policy that is required under the Canada Labour Code.
These are common labour standards that are clear for paid employees, but for unpaid interns are very unclear. When we have weak or unclear laws that are the only protection for vulnerable groups of people, we have fertile ground for exploitation.
We know that the number of unpaid internships appears to have increased over the last decade, and especially since the recession. I say “appears” because we do not have that hard data.
My colleague, the member for Kings—Hants, has done a great job on this file. He was one of the first people to talk about unpaid interns and the need for accurate statistics, and the establishment of clear standards that would safeguard legitimate opportunities while protecting unpaid interns against exploitation.
Timely, accurate, and relevant labour market information is fundamental to good public policy, and people have been calling upon the government to track unpaid internships for several years now. During the finance committee's study on youth employment, a number of groups advocated exactly for this.
As Claire Seaborn, president of the Canadian Intern Association, and a strong advocate for better internship laws, said, “You can't fix a problem if you don't know what the problem is”.
However, we all know the current government's aversion to collecting data for evidence-based policy, preferring instead to use policy-based evidence. This perhaps explains why it has done nothing to improve data collection or strengthen intern protections.
We know that today's job market for youth is very weak. In fact, we have lost 150,000 youth jobs since before the recession, and the youth unemployment rate is almost double the national average. This has led to more youth becoming desperate for work and feeling pressured to accept unpaid internships to get work experience.
As the number of unpaid internships has grown, with no rules in place and unclear protections, so too has the anecdotal evidence of exploitation by employers. That is why Bill C-636 is needed to ensure basic workplace protections in the Canada Labour Code, with those protections being clearly extended to unpaid interns. In addition, rules on what information the employer must provide to the intern on the internship would help to clarify the relationship for both parties.
Although I agree with the intent of the bill, I do have concerns regarding the process we are using to propose an amendment to the Canada Labour Code. Labour laws are complex, and ones that work well are based on a delicate balance between the interests of the employees and the employers. They are developed through an informed, fair, and thorough consultative tripartite process that seeks, in part, to minimize any unintended consequences. The Liberals believe in the established tripartite process between labour, management, and government, which has served our federal sector well for amending the Canada Labour Code.
The private members' bill process is a poor means to make laws concerning such a complex system. That being said, the need to ensure basic labour standard protections for vulnerable youth participating in unpaid internships is something that everyone I have consulted with appears to agree on; for example, protections against unsafe work environments, unreasonable work hours, or sexual harassment.
I have consulted with many stakeholders, including employer and labour groups, respected labour law experts, and intern and student representatives. The problem is not that they do not believe unpaid interns should have Labour Code protections, but rather how best to provide these protections to ensure there are no unintended consequences in other aspects of the Labour Code that apply to the workplace.
Labour laws are complex, and when parliamentarians seek to amend them, it should be done with great care and through an established process that allows thorough review and consultation. I have concerns about amending the Canada Labour Code through this private member's bill which is outside of the established tripartite process. That being said, we are confronted as parliamentarians with the fact that we have ambiguous laws concerning unpaid interns and evidence that exploitation is taking place. It is incumbent that we move, as legislators.
We also have a government that has not yet taken any appropriate action. My colleague has said that legislation is coming forward and that the parliamentary secretary undertook an ambitious study across the country. When the government undertakes its own studies with witnesses that the government wants to hear from, obviously it is not going to get the quality of work that should be done in the committees of this House. That is where the work should be getting done. However, under the current government, we have seen that committees have been neutered. An issue as important as unpaid interns, giving opportunities to the young people in this country to gain valuable work experience, is work that this House should be seized with. Instead, we are seeing the Conservatives once again skirting this issue.
To summarize, we believe that any change in the Canada Labour Code should be done through a tripartite process. We have seen the government undertake private members' legislation, Bill C-377 and Bill C-525, to amend the Labour Code. We did not agree with them or support them.
With the Conservatives' lack of action on unpaid interns, at least we should be looking at the situation. That is why we will be encouraging our members in the House to support Bill C-636, to get to the root of it and hopefully help young Canadians who are looking for very valuable job experience.