Mr. Speaker, I am happy to rise today to speak to Bill C-62, which addresses a key issue for all those who believe in democracy.
The NDP has always defended workers’ rights and the rights of all Canadians in order to ensure that no one is left behind. That is why we believe it is important to continue playing an active role in this debate. Unions are the machinery that make democracy work. They took part in every struggle and are constantly coming up with innovative ideas. They have given workers a voice and a measure of power. I applaud their work and their unwavering dedication, and I want Canada to remain an egalitarian society.
Unfortunately, in the past decade, we have neglected our public servants, violated their rights, and subjected them to dramatic cutbacks and restrictive legislative measures. Today, thousands of employees are still not being paid properly because of Phoenix. Once again, as always, the NDP stood by Canada’s public servants and their unions throughout the process. The NDP would like to see public servants and the government enjoy a relationship based on responsibility, trust, and respect, today and in the future. That is why we are proposing concrete measures to reinstate a healthy working climate and a relationship of trust in the public service.
Among other things, we propose protecting whistle-blowers; granting powers to the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada; adopting a code of conduct for departmental staff; and restricting the growing use of temporary employment agencies to the detriment of permanent employees.
We are as determined as ever to pursue these important goals. It is not a question of modifying a few policies here and there. We need a real change in attitude. The NDP will continue to demand that the government re-establish a free and fair collective bargaining process in the public service, and that it safeguard acquired protections and rights.
On October 17, 2016, the government introduced Bill C-62, which we are discussing today. Yes, I said 2016. The bill is more than welcome. It is aimed at re-establishing fair framework legislation for labour relations in the public service, and it is raising a lot of expectations. In December 2013, the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations Act was amended to eliminate the procedures for the choice of process of dispute resolution, including those involving essential services. The NDP vigorously opposed these amendments, which the Liberals are now looking at.
In our 2015 platform, we promised Canadians that we would defend the interests of public sector workers.
It is because of this promise, which we intend to keep, that we are supporting Bill C-62 today. The bill repeals various sections of the two profoundly anti-union legislative measures adopted by the former government, namely Bill C-59 and Bill C-4. The Harper government’s first legislative measure attacked by Bill C-62is the former Bill C-59, in particular section 20. The bill unilaterally imposed an inferior system for the management of disability and sick leave on public servants, which was an unjustified and major attack on the rights of public service workers.
That bill also abolished employees' right to good faith bargaining, taking sick leave out of federal public sector collective agreements so that the employer could unilaterally modify that leave outside the bargaining process.
One of the key provisions of current public sector collective agreements relates to sick leave. It gives full-time employees 15 days of leave per year to be used in case of accident or illness.
The Conservatives' Bill C-59 also took away accumulated unused sick leave days and imposed a short-term disability plan on public service employees. To make matters worse, the Conservatives introduced a seven-day unpaid waiting period before employees would receive their short-term disability benefits.
This is unacceptable. The previous government had the nerve to claim that these measures would save $900 million, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
According to a 2014 report by the parliamentary budget officer:
...the incremental cost of paid sick leave was not fiscally material and did not represent material costs for departments in the CPA.
The quotation speaks for itself. It means that most employees who are on sick leave are not replaced, resulting in no incremental cost to departments.
The parliamentary budget officer confirmed that public service employees use sick days at about the same rate as private sector employees. An average of 11.52 days were used in the public sector, compared to 11.3 in the private sector. A difference of 0.2 days is pretty minor.
Division 20 of part 3 of Bill C-59 also authorized the Treasury Board of Canada to nullify terms and conditions in existing collective agreements. It gave the employer the authority to override many provisions of the Public Service Labour Relations Act, including the statutory freeze provisions that maintain the status quo during the collective bargaining process.
Members may be surprised by what I am about to say. Under the provisions of Bill C-59, employees would be forced to choose between reporting for work even if they are sick and losing a percentage of the salary they need to survive.
Robyn Benson, the national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, denounced these measures. According to PSAC, the sick leave plan for federal public servants is essential, and it must ensure that employees do not have to work when they are sick. That seems obvious to me, and I agree with PSAC.
I worked as a manager in various government and community organizations for 25 years. I managed a number of teams and a hundred or so employees. As a manager and as a member of Parliament, I believe that it is totally ineffective to make employees report for work when they are sick. It is even worse to cut employees’ sick days by more than half.
The second legislative measure of the Harper government addressed by Bill C-62 is former Bill C-4, in particular section 17, which radically changes the collective bargaining rules in the public service by giving the government full control over union rights, such as the right to strike and the right to arbitration. Bill C-4 takes away bargaining agents’ right to choose arbitration as a means of resolving collective bargaining disputes, making conciliation the default process. However, arbitration is a valid solution in situations where members want to avoid a strike, and the right to arbitration should therefore be maintained.
Section 17 of Bill C-4 also undermines the right to strike by making it illegal to strike if at least 80% of the positions in a bargaining unit provide essential services, as defined by the employer. Under Bill C-4, it is up to the government to designate which positions are essential, rather than working with the bargaining agent to negotiate an agreement on essential services.
This same section 17 infringed on workers rights in cases where the employer consents to arbitration by requiring adjudicators to give priority to Canada's financial situation in relation to its budgetary policies.
Discrimination complaints filed by public servants to the Canadian Human Rights Commission were simply erased. These measures are unacceptable.
That is why it is time to take action. This sets aside or amends changes that were made to four statutes during the last lost decade when the Conservative government violated union rights. I am referring to the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations Act, the Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act, the Canadian Human Rights Act, and the Public Service Employment Act.
The NDP always made a point of opposing the former Conservative government's attempts to limit union rights, mainly the public sector workers' right to strike.
We are therefore happy to support the government's efforts to undo the Conservative Party's damage and make Canada's public sector labour code equitable once more. The NDP is also happy to support Bill C-62.
We do not support it blindly, however. My job as an opposition MP is to scrutinize the bill and identify elements of it that need fixing. By expressing opposing views, sharing knowledge, and engaging in dialogue, we will come up with ideas to refine this bill and make sure it does everything it is supposed to, and it certainly needs help on that front. That is why I will now take a critical look at the bill's weaknesses.
After all the back and forth on this, Canada's workers deserve an ironclad law that will level the playing field for everyone involved and restore the balance of power. Although Bill C-62 is progress, it is just the first step toward instituting all the measures we want to see.
We should never legislate easy solutions to the problems we face. We have to avoid that. The NDP fought very hard to have the government abolish the previous government's initiative that attacked provisions governing public servants' sick leave. Bill C-62 can do that by repealing Division 20 of former Bill C-59 on sick leave.
Why is the government concurrently working on a new health regime that has short-term disability provisions similar to those proposed by the Conservatives in the past? That is the first reason why Bill C-62 does not allay all of our concerns.
Other points have me wondering. The greatest weakness of Bill C-62 is that it does not reverse all the negative changes made by the former government to our labour legislation. While this bill seeks to restore the rights C-62 stripped from public sector unions under Stephen Harper's tenure, Bill C-62 falls short of addressing some elements of Bills C-4 and C-59. I am referring to Division 5 of Part 3 of Bill C-4.
The Liberal government seems to be taking half-measures in an area where expectations are monumental. If we are to truly do away with the Harper government’s anti-labour legacy, Bill C-62 must do better, first by re-establishing the provisions of the Canada Labour Code respecting Canadians’ right to refuse dangerous work, such as changing the definition of “danger”, now limited in scope to situations of imminent threat.
We are also concerned about another point that Bill C-62 ignores: the removal of health and safety officers from the process of refusing dangerous work. As it stands now, the employer assesses the safety of the work, and the worker must appeal directly to the Minister of Labour. The minister can simply refuse to investigate if he or she deems that the matter is trivial or vexatious, or that the employee’s refusal is in bad faith. This measure implemented by the Harper government should be permanently struck down by Bill C-62.
Lastly, we believe that we should take this opportunity to re-establish a federal minimum wage and to reinstate the Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act repealed by the Conservatives in 2013.
We also need to advance gender equality in the federal public service. That is why Bill C-62 should include a proactive federal legislative measure on pay equity in order to counter the effect of labour market forces on women’s wages.
The government claims that Bill C-62 demonstrates its commitment to fair collective bargaining for public servants. However, the exclusions to collective bargaining in Bill C-7 show that the Liberals have not always defended fair collective bargaining.
The government must commit to eliminating the exclusions in Bill C-7 in order to respect the right of members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to meet and bargain collectively, just as public servants do.
That is why, in light of all the previous explanations, we deplore Bill C-62's lack of ambition. This lack of ambition restricts the scope of a bill that deserves more than what the Liberals are proposing.
Our disappointment appears to be shared by the national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. She recently called on the government to do more than simply introduce a bill to correct the Conservative bills aimed at restricting public servants’ bargaining rights.
It is imperative that we continue to work on this bill. We must go much further and take advantage of its full potential. I explained which measures should be retained, which measures need to be taken much further, and which measures should be eliminated. The Liberal government really needs to repeal all of the Conservative measures.
This morning, I heard the President of the Treasury Board mention some lofty principles. If the Liberals wish to follow these principles, they must repeal all of the anti-labour measures the Conservatives introduced. We must take advantage of this opportunity.
We know that this bill was introduced in the fall of 2016, which was quite some time ago. People have very high expectations. The federal public service is dedicated to serving Canadians. We just marked the second anniversary of the problems with the Phoenix pay system. We need to take Bill C-62 as far as we can in order to resolve these problems that we have been grappling with for far too long.
We have amendments to propose. I outlined the measures that we want to implement. I hope that we will all be able to work together so that, when Bill C-62 passes, we can all proudly say that we accomplished our mission and that we implemented proper working conditions for federal public servants, working conditions in which they can feel secure. I hope that we can allay the concerns related to the Phoenix pay system and that public servants will have working conditions that will allow them to do their jobs properly.
We know that front-line work is demanding. That is what everyday life is like in some departments. Those employees listen to Canadians who are in difficult situations and who come to them for help or to get the their file sorted out. We are therefore asking federal public servants to do very demanding work.
Here, we pass bills. The next step is to implement them. We need to make sure that public servants feel that we parliamentarians here in the House are collaborating to provide them with the working conditions they need to do their job properly.
Budgetary considerations have been mentioned. All elected officials, at all levels of government, always need to ensure their decisions stay within budget. As I explained, a number of measures cost nothing. As we know, employees who are off sick are not even replaced, so their sick leave does not cost us anything.
For this reason, we are eager to collaborate in perfecting and completing this bill, which will officially reverse the anti-union measures of the past.
Bills C-5 and C-34 have been languishing on the Order Paper since they were tabled by this government. We hope that merging them with Bill C-62 is a sign that the government is finally ready to move forward.
That is why I want to make an appeal, an appeal to set partisanship aside and implement an infallible law that genuinely protects the rights of all workers, an appeal for teamwork and collaboration to make sure the proposed amendments I have presented here can be considered and approved.