Madam Speaker, I am pleased to take part in this important debate, in light of the situation facing Canadians and Quebeckers.
We have weathered all sorts of financial and economic crises, but now, because of a major pension plan crisis, pensioners are faced with major reductions in their pensions. I am talking about people like the employees of Nortel, Atlas Stainless Steels and the Jeffrey mine. We have to look at all the possible solutions to these problems.
Bill C-501 amends the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act and the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act to ensure that unfunded pension plan liabilities are accorded the status of secure debts in the event of bankruptcy proceedings. It also amends the Canada Business Corporations Act to provide a new procedure by which former employees of a bankrupt corporation who are owed amounts by the corporation can proceed with claims against its directors.
In times of economic crisis, pension funds lose value when security prices drop. If a company goes bankrupt at that point, its pension fund will not be able to cover retirees' pensions.
I would now like to talk about the protections that pension plans currently provide. Under the new provisions in the legislation, regular contributions that have not been paid when a company goes bankrupt or into receivership take priority over all the debtor's assets. But the same does not hold true for unfunded pension plan liabilities.
Regular contributions that have not been paid at the time of bankruptcy include the amounts deducted from employees' paycheques to be paid into the pension plan and all unpaid employer's contributions. This priority does not apply to special payments ordered by the pension regulator to liquidate an unfunded liability or claims related to such unfunded liability.
The limited super-priority ranks below the rights of unpaid suppliers to repossess goods under section 81.1 of the BIA; the claims of farmers, fishermen and aquaculturalists in respect of unpaid products supplied to the bankrupt or insolvent employer, under section 81.2 of the BIA; unremitted income tax deductions, which are deemed to be held in trust; and priority wage claims.
Bill C-501 contains three measures. First, it would give priority status to pensions plans with unfunded liabilities. This way, in case of bankruptcy, retirees will be among the first to be paid and will have precedence over the banks.
Second, the bill ensures that the assets guarantee the termination or severance pay of any clerk, servant, travelling salesperson, labourer or worker.
Third, it offers retirees who were wronged by their employer a procedure that is supposedly more effective for making claims against directors—members of the board of directors. In fact, subsection 119(1) of the Canada Business Corporations Act states:
Directors of a corporation are jointly and severally, or solidarily, liable to employees of the corporation for all debts not exceeding six months wages payable to each such employee for services performed for the corporation while they are such directors respectively.
The Bloc Québécois supports workers and retired workers. We have always promoted social justice.
We can understand the frustrations and the concerns of people who have lost their retirement income because their retirement fund was inadequate at the time the company they worked for ceased operations. They are unfairly deprived of a source of income they were counting on.
For a long time, we have been wanting to look at giving pensions plans with unfunded liabilities preferred creditor status, as well as making directors accountable.
We feel these measures are fair as long as they do not compromise business development or competitiveness or unduly affect the labour market.
The Bloc Québécois would like to hear from witnesses in committee in order to understand these effects. For example, an increase in unemployment and social assistance recipients would be too high a price to pay to protect pension funds against stock exchange fluctuations. Other measures could then be considered.
We must remember that despite the urgent need to help pensioners who were hard hit by the economic crisis, the Conservatives prorogued Parliament, thus slowing down the process of studying bills.
The Bloc Québécois' interest in protecting pensioners and workers is not a recent phenomenon. Not only have we waged a lengthy battle to stop the looting of the employment insurance fund and increase benefits for recipients, but we have spoken in favour of many other initiatives, including wage protection in the event of bankruptcy and the creation of a tax credit to protect pensions, which are measures that we ourselves proposed.
During the summer of 2009, we defended Nortel pensioners and we continue to do so. At that time, we should have given them the opportunity to appear before the committee that was studying the impact of the sale of, among other things, Nortel's wireless division to Ericsson in order to allow them to share their fears and questions with elected members. Unfortunately, the Conservatives and Liberals preferred to shut down the debate.
This fall, to deal with the pension situation, the Bloc Québécois proposed a series of measures, one of which was that the federal government follow Quebec's lead and take trusteeship over the pension plans of federally regulated bankrupt businesses. This would prevent these pension funds from being liquidated while the markets are at their lowest.
Another proposal was to get rid of the six-month delay for the wage earner protection program. Victims of massive layoffs followed by delayed bankruptcy, which is something we have seen, would then be eligible for the severance they are due.
We also proposed raising the contribution limits for pension funds to 125% of the break-even point, which would encourage a pension reserve. The government went back to this after trying to pass the buck to the provinces.
Another measure is Bill C-290, which would provide a refundable tax credit equal to 22% of the loss sustained by beneficiaries of a pension running a deficit. Despite Conservative opposition to the bill, it will soon be studied in committee.
We are also talking about changing the threshold for automatic review of foreign acquisitions from $1 billion to $300 million. Such a measure would ensure that companies like Nortel would not be sold off at a discount or piece by piece.
We are also discussing bringing in preferred creditor status for disabled employees who lose their benefits following an employer's bankruptcy. These people are desperate and destitute because, in Nortel's case, they will lose over 70% of their benefits even though they still have to cover significant medical costs. None of these people were negligent. They had every reason to believe that they were properly insured by an insurance company.
The Bloc Québécois supports pension supervision to help avoid high-risk investments, such as numerous investments in a single company. We have to consider all of our options.
Lastly, workers expect to benefit from the pensions funds that they spend their lives contributing to. Parliament cannot ignore the needs of these workers and those who have already retired.
That is why the Bloc Québécois supports Bill C-501 in principle.