Bill C-4 will return Canada to a harsher, more primitive era

Leave it to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives to try to pile in as much bad legislation as they can in the two years they have left in office.

The Conservatives’ 300+ page omnibus budget – Bill C-4 – carries on Stephen Harper’s tradition of sneaking through drastic legislative changes, many of them unrelated to the budget. And this time, it’s putting workers’ lives at risk.

Forced to risk life and limb

The federal government has the responsibility to protect the health and safety of over one million workers.   Currently, the Labour Code’s definition of ‘danger’ requires that workers be protected from hazards that have already been shown to cause injury as well as from any “potential hazard or condition.” Danger is also defined to include exposure to hazardous substances likely to lead to chronic illness or disease, and potential hazards or conditions “likely to result in damage to the reproductive system.”

These protections were the result of widespread consultation with experts, employers, unions and government and have been in place since the year 2000.

Bill C-4 – which involved no consultation – deletes all references to potential hazards and exposure to hazardous substances.  Workers would no longer have explicit protection from potentially dangerous conditions. It would make federal workplaces, including industries like railways, marine shipping, airports, pipelines, uranium mining and broadcasting, more dangerous. Eliminating protections for reproductive health puts future generations at risk and is breathtaking in its level of mean-spiritedness and irresponsibility.Shrinking the definition will endanger workers’ lives, and possibly members of the public they serve as well.

To add insult to injury, the bill transfers all the authority and powers of Health and Safety Officers to the Minister.  A neutral, trained, independent inspectorate of professionals will be sidelined and responsibility for this formidable job will be given to political appointees.

The tragic reality is this: on average four workers die on the job every day in Canada.  This doesn’t include the hundreds of workers who die annually of occupational diseases.   According to the Canadian Labour Congress, Canada is one of the only developed countries in the world where the number of workers killed on the job has been increasing, rather than going down. 

Now, instead of bringing in stronger health and safety provisions, like much needed protections against psychological abuse and harassment, protections for employees who are working alone, and better reporting of the impact of infectious diseases on workplaces, the federal government is preparing to weaken standards even more.  We don’t need a crystal ball to predict the outcome.  More workers will die on the job, or incur serious and long-lasting injuries and medical conditions.

Weakening the power of collective bargaining

Bill C-4 also rolls back years of progress in labour relations in this country.  It puts heavy restrictions on public workers’ right to strike, allowing the employer to designate any worker it fancies as ‘essential’ – from statisticians to librarians and archivists.  Of course, nobody likes a strike.   But the right of workers to withdraw their labour during contract disputes helps ensure a level playing field between workers and employers when it comes to negotiating fair contracts.

Bill C-4 carries all the hallmarks of the Conservative attack on knowledge and impartiality.  It removes arbitrators’ access to research data they need to make fair judgements. It removes the independence and objectivity of arbitration boards by restricting what they are required to consider when making their decisions, and by giving the politically appointed chairperson of the Labour Board the right to direct arbitration boards to review their awards.   It creates additional, time-consuming and expensive red tape by restricting the scope of broad policy grievances and requiring, in many cases, the submission of multiple individual grievances instead.  

The bill even restricts the rights of public service employees to file discrimination complaints with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. True to Harper style, it’s irrational, inefficient, and will cost this country – both economically and in the lives and health of public workers.

Bill C-4 is symbolic of the double standard of Harper’s government.  While government has said many times that it wants a closer alignment between public and private sector workers, what this bill actually does is deprive federal public workers of many basic democratic labour rights that private sector workers enjoy.

There’s nothing trivial about workers’ rights. There was a time, in the last century, where workers – including children – toiled and died in dangerous factories, when oppressive working conditions led to slowdowns and stoppages and that ground our economy to a halt. Labour rights have evolved over the years not just to protect workers and create gainful employment, but to build a strong economy and to reflect our proud values as Canadians. Stephen Harper and his cronies would roll us back to an earlier, uglier era that we should only have to read about in history books.

Undermining health and safety.  Risking lives.   Erasing hard-won democratic rights.

These aren’t the sorts of things most of us would expect from a Canadian government.  But Bill C-4 will do all of this, and more. 

Jeannie Baldwin
Regional Executive Vice-President
Public Service Alliance of Canada

Printed November 26, 2013, The Guardian, Charlottetown