Madam Speaker, as the critic for families, children, and social development and for employment and workforce development, I recommend that my NDP colleagues vote in favour of this bill. However, there are still several aspects of this bill that concern us, as New Democrats.
Clearly, we appreciate the spirit of the bill. However, what ultimately happens with this bill will depend on the consultations conducted by the government.
Even if the government passes this bill, it will be too early to determine whether the government will implement an adequate and serious strategy, especially considering that at second reading, it voted against this bill. Furthermore, it was essentially gutted when clauses 6 and 7 were removed in committee. All that is left is consultation.
We are also concerned by another amendment brought forward by the Liberals in the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, HUMA. The report calls for the consultation findings to be provided to the House not in two years, as was originally stated, but in three years, after the bill takes effect, that is, after the next election. If the Liberals seem to be in no rush to hear the findings of these consultations, there is cause for concern about what comes next.
If the Liberals want a real maternity assistance strategy and want to make it a priority, why are they extending the consultations?
Canada has no global strategy that allows women to continue to support themselves during pregnancy. Federally regulated employees are of particular concern to us. We need to think about how we can create a real social safety net for them.
Quebec's safe maternity experience program was introduced in 1981 following a Supreme Court ruling that unequivocally found that the work environment was at issue in the case of a preventive withdrawal, and not the pregnancy itself. That is why Quebec's program is funded entirely by employers. They cover the cost, because they are the ones who control the working conditions.
I will give a concrete example. I was the executive director of a community organization for troubled youth for quite some time. We had a lot of young female staff members, and there were a lot of pregnancies. It was considered a high-risk occupation because of the contact staff had with troubled youth, so pregnant workers usually took preventive withdrawal at around week 14 or 16 of their pregnancy.
We have to understand what that actually means in Quebec. For the first five business days after she stopped working the employer paid the worker her regular salary. For the next 14 days, the employer paid 90% of her salary, which was ultimately reimbursed by the Commission des normes, de l'équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail. Accordingly, there was continuity in the employee's pay. Then the commission paid the employee 90% of her net income until the risk subsided.
In some workplaces the workers return to work when the risk period is over. As soon as the worker gives birth, she receives maternity benefits that are not affected by the preventive withdrawal.
At the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, Roch Lafrance from Union des travailleuses et travailleurs accidentés ou malades delivered very informative testimony.
In my riding, Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot, there are two organizations that help workers on preventive withdrawal, namely Mouvement action chômage de Saint-Hyacinthe and Regroupement des accidentés de la Montérégie, which is part of the organization that testified before the HUMA committee. That organization has a solid 36 years of experience, since the safe maternity experience program has been available in Quebec since 1981.
They have seen different situations over 36 years. This program is quite popular in Quebec, both with employers and with employees who have benefited from preventive withdrawal.
Based on this experience, they presented us with three recommendations, which I would like to share with the House.
First, they stressed that the pregnant worker’s right to preventive withdrawal is not a right to maternity leave. When preventive withdrawal is included in employment insurance, it displaces maternity leave. This is an issue because preventive withdrawal is not maternity leave. The reason for preventive withdrawal is the working conditions that pose a danger to the pregnancy or the unborn child, rather than the pregnancy itself. This is an important point. This is why the matter pertains to working conditions. As I was saying earlier, the costs of such a system in Quebec are fully covered by employers, because they are the ones who set working conditions and decide whether the worker can or cannot keep working.
The employment insurance program is not the right vehicle for such a program that truly helps pregnant workers. The employment insurance program is a communal fund that employers and employees pay into. The government has not contributed a penny to it since the 1990s. It is an insurance program that protects against job loss. The more the scope of the employment insurance program is expanded, the more the program’s very foundations are distorted.
Furthermore, the bill is completely silent about the process for administering such a program. In Quebec, when an employer makes a preventive withdrawal request because the pregnant worker is deemed to be at risk, the CLSC physicians are the ones who study the request. It is truly a medical issue, and the risks have to be assessed from a medical perspective. What will happen when a medical certificate is challenged, for example? Will employment insurance officials analyze the challenge to the medical certificate?
Regarding preventive withdrawal, it is really important to have a specific process that falls within the medical field. This requires special expertise that the employment insurance program administrators do not really have.
What is more, there is really not much point in granting preventive withdrawal just 12 or 15 weeks before the woman gives birth. From Quebec's 36 years of experience in this regard, 94% of preventive withdrawals are granted before the 23rd week of pregnancy. In many occupations, preventive withdrawal is granted at the beginning of the pregnancy because the pregnant woman is vulnerable to certain viruses at that point.
I talked earlier about the advantages of Quebec's preventive withdrawal program, where workers receive 90% of their salary. Obviously, if preventive withdrawal benefits are allocated under the EI program, pregnant workers will be financially penalized because they will receive only 55% of their salary. What is more, since they are starting their EI maternity benefits earlier, they will have to return to work sooner.
In closing, it is important not to give women the impression that they will be off work longer under such a program. If we want to help women, we really need to support the provinces in implementing a real preventive withdrawal program. These consultations need to be done as quickly as possible.
Since Quebec has a program that has been working for 36 years, there will be no need for extensive consultation. The government just needs to look at it to see that it is working. Why should these women have to wait three years?
The NDP is concerned about that fact that the government is addressing a health and safety issue under the EI program.