Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak in support of Bill C-243, introduced by the member for Kingston and the Islands.
This bill is an important first step in addressing the needs of pregnant women who work in potentially hazardous environments. By allowing women working in dangerous jobs to begin using their maternity benefits earlier and by implementing a national maternity assistance program strategy, this bill will provide women with greater flexibility in the decision-making, and hopefully lead to implementation of an effective pan-Canadian strategy.
First, I would like to acknowledge the member opposite and his predecessor for listening to and being inspired to introduce this bill by their constituents. I know there will be important amendments made at the committee level, and I look forward to seeing them come to fruition.
Ms. Ballard, a resident of Kingston, Ontario, was forced to stop working early into her pregnancy because, as a welder, her work environment exposed her to potentially dangerous conditions. It is disappointing, but sadly not uncommon, to hear cases of expectant moms who are forced to take leave from their jobs without benefits because their workplaces are unable or unwilling to accommodate them.
Far too often women lose out on salary or benefits as a result of becoming pregnant, even after dedicating much of their time and hard work to their jobs. In most cases, it makes sense for an employer to accommodate a pregnant woman in this situation because doing so would allow her to work longer. An employer who is motivated to make accommodations and work together will likely have a positive impact on an employee's productivity.
Pregnancy is a special time in a woman's life. It is a time for planning, dreaming, and looking to the future, but it can be a time of worry and concern for the future: how to balance paying the bills while being on maternity or parental leave, or how she will take care of herself and her child during the pregnancy. It is no secret that some activities can indeed pose health and safety risks to pregnant women.
As outlined by Health Canada, activities that include standing for prolonged periods of time, lifting heavy loads, being exposed to certain chemicals, and being subject to loud noises or vibrations, to name a few, can negatively influence the health of a pregnant women. However, it is important to remember that pregnancy does not make women unsuitable for the types of jobs where they will be exposed to these activities. In fact, the opposite is true.
There is a real shortage of women in many workplaces, especially in STEM careers, science, technology, engineering, and math-related occupations. More work needs to be done to ensure that these workplaces encourage greater gender diversity and equality. As the OECD explains, when women participate in the workforce, individual industries and the economy as a whole benefit. This is why groups such as Canada's Building Trades Unions and the National Council of Women of Canada are supporting this bill.
The bill is also supported by many other groups that recognize that pregnancy should never be a barrier for women in the workplace. In my riding of Essex, as in all ridings, this equality is especially important. The Conference Board of Canada, in its “Winter 2016 Metropolitan Outlook”, highlighted the manufacturing and construction sectors as key sources of growth for the Windsor-Essex region. Manufacturing employment is expected to grow by about 3.1% annually for the next two years. Construction output is also expected to increase by 8.3%, as a result of the planned Gordie Howe international bridge. While there is plenty of new opportunity coming to my region in these two sectors, I hope that both men and women will benefit.
I know well how women feel. As a mother of two boys, now 13 and 15, I worked while pregnant in an auto assembly plant in Windsor, where I worked for 20 years. I remember working while pregnant with my first son, and another woman in the workplace was expecting too. We were working on an assembly line, and finding an accommodation when we needed to rest for a moment after hours of standing or go to the washroom at a moment's notice, not to mention the chemicals that we sometimes had to be around, was not always easy.
We advocated for each other and worked with management to find solutions. After all, we were not going to be pregnant forever. These solutions worked for us all.
It is important to understand that employers have an obligation to accommodate women when they are pregnant in the workplace. Unfortunately, I was not as lucky with my second pregnancy in only needing minimal accommodation. I had a riskier pregnancy that was landing me in the hospital weekly, and I was anxious and uncertain, not only about the health of my baby and myself, but also about my ability to work. I needed time off, and had a hard time finding accommodations that included being able to sit intermittently.
After another difficult hospital stay, I attempted to return to work again, only to find that my previous accommodations were not available to me. I was even more uncertain than ever about what to do. There were many anxious conversations at home and work about my health and ability to work in this environment with chemicals and a physically demanding job. I would go to work every day, uncertain about what job I could do, and would often push myself to try jobs I knew I could not perform, trying to be part of the solution, trying to stay working and balancing my health. It was exhausting and stressful.
Thankfully, my co-workers were kind and understanding, and fortunately I was a member of a union that had negotiated a sick and accident benefit for all of us. My supervisor, union rep, and I met about this issue, and it was offered to me to spend the rest of my pregnancy on this benefit. How lucky I was. I accepted, and remember going home and crying with relief as my husband, young son, and I had the ability to focus on my health and not worry about how we would pay the bills or how I would do my job. For my particular situation, this was a resolution. Employers, however, have a fundamental obligation to provide accommodation that should always be the first remedy.
I spent the remaining months visiting the hospital many times, but ultimately we were very fortunate to welcome our second completely perfect son, Maliq. I began my maternity leave and still had my full year of maternity benefits.
All women should have this provision available to them. I cannot help but think how unfair it is for other working women who struggle, finding themselves in similar situations without the ability to rest and take care of themselves. No family should have to go through that stress let alone when one is expecting.
For women to be encouraged to enter male-dominated jobs, such as STEM jobs, they need to be confident that they will not be left without income in the case their pregnancy is no longer compatible with their work environment or job responsibilities. They need greater flexibility as they make decisions balancing their work and family needs.
Quebec understands this well, as evidenced by its safe maternity experience program, which the NDP wants to see expanded to Quebec women in federally regulated workplaces. My colleague from Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie has long been an advocate for this and put forward a private member's bill, which unfortunately was voted down in the previous Parliament.
The safe maternity experience program allows women the ability to request a temporary reassignment should their regular duties become a health risk due to a pregnancy. If reassignment is not possible, the women are able to preventively withdraw from work and receive 90% of the income they would have received. The Quebec program is an exceptional aid for women.
By removing the threat of losing income due to pregnancy, it helps break down barriers that women face when trying to become fully active members of the workforce. This program is more in line with how Canada should be addressing this issue. These maternity supports should be offered throughout workplace health and safety programs, and not through a parental leave program that compensates women through employment insurance benefits.
Bill C-243 would do little to address the gap between Canada's national program and what global leaders like France and Germany are doing. While extending the beginning eligibility date from which women working in a dangerous environment can begin maternity leave, the bill would leave the total amount of maternity leave unchanged. Both the percentage of income received and the total weeks that can be collected would remain the same. This simply changes the choices available to women about when to begin their leave. If a pregnant woman begins her leave early, it means she will have to go back to work early, and that could lead to costs and challenges of finding child care, especially for young infants where space is extremely limited.
In conclusion, I would like to restate my support for Bill C-243 with the amendments that will be welcomed at the committee level.
I encourage my colleagues on all sides of the House to support the immediate development and implementation of a national maternity assistance program that would better support women who are unable to work during their pregnancies.