Bill C-4 and some strange changes to health and safety regulation

While I usually write on the economy and social policy, tucked into the recently announced budget bill are a series of changes to health and safety regulations that don’t smell right.

If you’re new to my writing, note that I am not a member of a labour union, nor associated in any way with one. I focus my professional and academic work on the economy and innovation, and address the subsequent issue from, I believe, an objective point of view.

Bill C-4, the current Canadian government’s omnibus budget legislation, contains significant amendments to the Canada Labour Code that have raised the ire of labour groups and worker rights organizations. For example, read this.  These changes, however, should concern all of us given their impact on safety in the workplace.

You can see the proposed bill here:  http://www.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?DocId=6263082&Language=E&Mode=1&File=128

Notably, changes in the definition of the term “danger” as it relates to workplace hazards raise significant concerns related to the ability of workers to refuse work and seek outside review of work conditions perceived as unsafe. Here I borrow from a labour lawyer speaking on this bill who happens to be a friend and neighbour. I sought his advice earlier this week upon learning of the proposed changes. 

He notes:

The current definition of “danger” is as follows:

“danger” means any existing or potential hazard or condition or any current or future activity that could reasonably be expected to cause injury or illness to a person exposed to it before the hazard or condition can be corrected, or the activity altered, whether or not the injury or illness occurs immediately after the exposure to the hazard, condition or activity, and includes any exposure to a hazardous substance that is likely to result in a chronic illness, in disease or in damage to the reproductive system

The proposed amended definition is as follows:

“danger” means any hazard, condition or activity that could reasonably be expected to be an imminent or serious threat to the life or health of a person exposed to it before the hazard or condition can be corrected or the activity altered

He goes on to note that “by requiring the danger to be “imminent” , and expressly deleting the reference to “hazardous substances”, the government seems to be suggesting that exposure to such substances doesn’t merit a refusal to work.”

The implications are evidently significant and require clarification.  If his, and my, judgement are correct, they should be repealed.

Second, under the proposed amendments, the use of health and safety officers as the first line of investigation into allegations of unsafe conditions is to be phased out in favour of “Ministry approval”.

This is of significant concern given the ambiguity of this amendment and the potential removal of objective, non-partisan analysis of workplace concerns.

On both issues, something just doesn’t smell right. Canadians require immediate clarification as to the procedural impacts of these changes. For as currently drafted, these amendments leave the distinct impression that Canadian law will leave workers less safe, and less able to draw attention to issues that may lead to future injury and/or impairment.

I fully acknowledge that my reading of these changes may be incomplete, and have sought professional legal input in order to better understand these changes. To be sure, the inclusion of such changes in omnibus legislation does little to quell apprehension that such changes are being “snuck in.” Moreover, while it’s clear that several labour unions have raised the aforementioned issues, I do so not in support of their efforts, but rather in support of every Canadian who deserves a safe work environment and the right to question and object, within reason, work they deem unsafe.

These caveats noted, if I am incorrect in my understanding of these amendments, I would certainly appreciate insight as to why and how my reading of the changes is incorrect. If you know something I don’t, please let me know.

Ultimately, while the rhetoric of waste and competitiveness is popular, we can’t forsake the health and safety of workers to save a few dollars. Rather we need to work to find a middle ground that protects workers while ensuring this regulatory framework promotes the competitiveness of industry. It might take longer but it’s certainly not impossible.

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On balance, Canada-EU trade deal a move in the right direction

(Published in the Waterloo Record on November 2, 2013:  http://www.therecord.com/opinion-story/4187196-on-balance-canada-eu-trade-deal-a-move-in-the-right-direction/ )

At first glance, pulling off what Stephen Harper’s government has called the Wayne Gretzky of international trade deals is certainly to be applauded.

Based on the limited documents so far released by the government of Canada on the “agreement-in-principle” reached with the European Union on a comprehensive economic and trade agreement, the agreement offers significant improvements for Canadian exporters, and the promise of decreased costs for a variety of imports.

Whether they’re of the Gretzky variety is debatable given that prior to this agreement, three-quarters of tariff lines for trade between the two parties was already duty-free, and the average tariff on Canadian exports was a paltry two per cent. However, what’s clear is that the trade agreement helps solidify the diversification of the Canadian economy away from its gravity-induced dependence on the United States.

In so doing, Harper completes a process of economic diplomacy that began in the early 1970s when then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau proposed Europe as a “third option” and the key to lessening Canada’s economic dependence on the U.S.

The agreement will certainly have its critics. Some sectors of the economy, notably those previously protected by closed government procurement processes, will now face increased competition and potentially pressure on margins.

However, complaints about increased imports, for example from the Canadian dairy industry, are likely unfounded given the still-tiny share of European cheese in our consumer baskets and the unlikely event that French blue cheese will replace cheddar in many of our grilled cheeses.

Important questions remain, however, regarding the effects of increased patent protection on medicines and the subsequent impact on provincial health care budgets, as well as the impact of changes on labour mobility for contract workers.

Moreover, the gains from the trade agreement are likely to be nowhere near those advertised by the Canadian government. The government’s oft-quoted $12 billion and 80,000 jobs increase is based on a series of assumptions related to market share and productivity increases that most serious commentators have noted are unrealistic.

Perhaps most disappointing about the comprehensive economic and trade agreement process has been the lack of public engagement.

In the 1980s, a joint Senate-Commons committee held thousands of public hearings on the topic of U.S.-Canadian trade, and on the then-proposed U.S.-Canada free trade agreement.

On the comprehensive economic and trade agreement, however, there has been no such public participation.

The government has done little to engage Canadians on the topic, with only leaked versions of negotiating texts available via European sources prior to the announcement of an “agreement-in-principle” in October. Our understanding of whether this is truly a Gretzky-type deal is thus limited by a lack of detail and fine print.

This, however, should not obscure from the trade deal’s importance. Not so much for its immediate economic impact but rather that as a small, trading nation we need to keep a step ahead of our competitors.

The launch of U.S.-EU talks on a transatlantic trade agreement between the world’s two largest economic blocs placed significant pressure on Canadian negotiators. Had Canada failed in its talks with the EU, the Europeans could have turned to the U.S. and offered privileged access to U.S., rather than Canadian exporters.

Given the similar basket of non-resource goods and services originating in both Canada and the U.S., allowing four years of negotiation to lead to failure would have meant significant disadvantages for Canadian producers and consumers.

Let’s just hope that the final negotiating text, if we ever get to see it, doesn’t include any unforeseen surprises.