moved that Bill C-345, An Act to amend the Canada Labour Code (pregnant and nursing employees) be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to present an amended version of the bill that my colleague from Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie introduced in the previous Parliament because I think this bill is very important for women's rights at work.
Many people do not understand the difference between preventive withdrawal for pregnant and nursing employees and parental leave programs. People may turn to employment insurance benefits when they are in a work situation that puts their pregnancy at risk, but preventive withdrawal is something completely different. Quebec legislation makes preventive withdrawal easier to understand.
Let me explain how it works for a Quebec worker under provincial jurisdiction to make sure everyone really understands.
When a worker feels that her work may put her pregnancy at risk, she requests a medical evaluation. If the evaluation indicates there is a risk, the worker must be reassigned to a less risky position or withdrawn from the workplace.
The priority really is to try to reassign the worker, because the employer must pay a certain amount of money if it decides to send the worker home. For instance, the employer has to pay for the first five days. When the worker can be reassigned somewhere with no risks involved, it is definitely better for the employer. This also means the worker can stay in the workplace and still remain safe.
Preventive withdrawal becomes necessary when the employer cannot adapt the workplace or the job. The woman stays home, because of the risk, and receives benefits that, in Quebec, are paid by the CSST, Quebec's workplace health and safety commission. Those benefits are paid as soon as the workplace poses a risk. For instance, if the employer cannot reassign a worker who is five weeks pregnant and whose job poses a risk to her pregnancy, she is given preventive withdrawal benefits. She can receive those benefits from the beginning of her pregnancy, thereby avoiding any harm to her fetus. I think it is important to understand this.
One important aspect of preventive withdrawal is that women are eligible from the very beginning of their pregnancy, as soon as there is a risk, unlike parental insurance programs, which only apply once the woman has reached a certain point in the pregnancy. It is important to understand that.
Under the existing legislation, if a woman with a high-risk pregnancy works in an area under federal jurisdiction or if she works in a province that does not offer benefits like the ones offered in Quebec, she is entitled to preventive withdrawal, but at her own expense. In that case, she will have no income for 20 weeks or several months. She does not have the right to benefits because her job falls under federal jurisdiction and she is not far enough along in her pregnancy to be eligible for employment insurance parental benefits.
As a result, these women end up in a situation where they have no income at all and they have to make very difficult choices regarding their pregnancy. They either have to choose to continue working, even though doing so will jeopardize their health and their pregnancy, exposing them to the risk of a miscarriage or birth defects, for example, or they can take leave and end up in a precarious financial situation where they do not have any income until they can claim EI parental benefits.
Quebeckers are very lucky when it comes to parental benefits. To be eligible, women must have earned $2,000 over the past 52 weeks. That means that most women have access to these benefits. In order to be eligible for the federal program, a woman has to have accumulated 600 hours. There is no guarantee that she will have accumulated the necessary hours, particularly if she chooses to stop working because it is too risky and she is not receiving any benefits or income during that time.
Many women are placed in a very difficult position, and there is a very simple way to fix that. The federal government could make an agreement with the provinces that have a better preventive withdrawal program for pregnant and nursing woman than it does. For example, the federal government could make an agreement with the Government of Quebec so that women in Quebec who fall under federal jurisdiction are entitled to the same benefits as every other woman in Quebec.
What benefits would these agreements provide? If every woman in a given province followed the same rules of preventive withdrawal it would make things much simpler. It would be much easier to communicate information, putting women in the same province on equal footing. That equality is especially important. It is outrageous that in a system like ours there are two classes of women depending on whether their employer falls under provincial or federal jurisdiction. That situation could be resolved through these agreements.
Under the bill, provincial legislation must to be better than Canada Labour Code provisions for federal employees. That is not so hard to achieve considering that currently under the Canada Labour Code an employee is entitled to preventive withdrawal, but at her own expense. Other provinces might choose to introduce preventive withdrawal programs and the government could enter into an agreement with those provinces.
Alberta currently has an NDP government, a progressive government, and it is in a position to choose to act on this situation. British Columbia is going to have a coalition government between the NDP and the Green Party. Again, it can choose to act on this situation. If so, the federal government could enter into an agreement to provide measures that would help all the women in those provinces.
Preventive withdrawal is about the work and not the worker. Take for example the woman who has three part-time jobs and wants preventive withdrawal. If she can continue working at two of her jobs, she will get benefits only for the job she is no longer able to do, and she can withdraw only from that job if she cannot be reassigned.
This also has an advantage when we are dealing with preventive withdrawal. In the case of parental insurance programs, when we choose to take the weeks we are entitled to earlier, while continuing to hold both jobs we are able to do, those amounts are deducted from our benefits. It is therefore not very advantageous to do that, because there will be cuts to the amounts of money, and since those weeks have been used, they cannot be recovered. It is more advantageous to take that time to rest. Where there is no preventive withdrawal associated with the work, this requires that the worker leave all her jobs, even if only one of them is problematic.
Because this is associated with the work, it is not the employee’s health that counts, it is the work, regardless of the conditions. What is done is really an analysis based on the work. The question is whether any pregnant woman would run a risk if she did that work. If the answer is yes, then an effort is made to find a solution, whether by relocating her or by paying her benefits.
This is a fairly simple bill. A few minor corrections have been made to it. There is also the addition of a report, because I think it is important that the federal government be accountable to the House, that it say what the status of the agreements is, and that it show what it has done, in concrete terms, and how things have progressed.
Because this is a bill that could help women who are under federal jurisdiction, it is important to act quickly. The choice these women have to make is entirely impossible to live with: they can go back home, with no income and no consequence for their employment, and have access to parental insurance, but only after a few months. They therefore go back home with no income. The other option is to continue working, with the risks that entails for their pregnancy and for the fetus, in order to continue to earn a living.
Obviously, when there is another person in the couple to help, the decision may be a little easier to make, but we must not forget women who are on their own to deal with their pregnancy. In those cases, we can say that they have no source of income during a crucial time, precisely when they need money to start buying things to prepare for the baby's arrival, to eat well, and to stay healthy. What we have, in both cases, is a situation where the woman’s health is in jeopardy, whether because she has no income and her status is precarious, or because her work presents a risk. This is a situation that would be impossible to live with, particularly if we consider cases where, for example, a woman might have worked for ten years before becoming pregnant.
Mr. Speaker, I know that you cannot become pregnant, but try to put yourself in the shoes of these women. Imagine that a woman has tried for 10 years to have a baby; she finally becomes pregnant, and she discovers that she is not entitled to any benefits, when she was sure she was entitled and all her friends were entitled. In Quebec, for example, there is the CSST, the occupational health and safety commission, so the woman in question was certain she was covered, and that if there was a risk to her pregnancy, she would be eligible for benefits. Suddenly, she learns that she is not, because she under federal jurisdiction, and that if she wants preventive withdrawal, she will have to pay for it. These situations really are impossible to live with.
It would be easy for the federal government to take action. All it has to do is enter into an agreement with the provinces so that women in those provinces working under federal jurisdiction are eligible for provincial benefits. We can sort out the paperwork afterwards. Relatively few women would be affected, but the issue is important enough that action should be taken on this. About 5% of employees in a province are under federal jurisdiction. Of that 5%, about half are women. Obviously, not everyone is pregnant at the same time. The number is further reduced based on the number of women working high-risk jobs. For example, office employees who are under federal jurisdiction will not be affected, because their jobs do not involve risk. They do not need benefits for preventive withdrawal.
I will conclude by saying that I believe this is an important subject. It is time to give every woman, in every province, the same rights in matters of preventive withdrawal. It is entirely reasonable for the federal government to take action. The Prime Minister has said several times that he identifies as a feminist.
I believe this is a good bill that will initiate concrete action to help women who might find themselves in very precarious situations. I hope that we will back up our words with action and that we will try to advance the rights of women, and in particular of women in Quebec.