Letter to the Minister of Labour

The Honourable Filomena Tassi, P.C., M.P.
Minister of Labour
House of Commons
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6

Dear Minister:

Let me begin by offering my congratulations on your appointment as Canada’s federal Minister of Labour. I look forward to working closely with you to ensure that your priorities and those of the Government are translated into reality.

My role as Deputy Minister of Labour is to serve as your primary source of public service advice and expertise on labour issues, as well as your principal point of contact for the purposes of securing information and support from officials of the Labour Program, the part of Employment and Social Development Canada that supports you as Minister of Labour. The Labour Program is a strong team of close to 825 dedicated and highly professional public servants whose expert knowledge and extensive practical experience represent valuable resources on which you can rely.

Over the coming days and weeks, my officials and I will be briefing you on a wide range of topics. Before we launch into these detailed discussions, I thought that it would be helpful to give you a sense of your key responsibilities; to alert you to a few distinct features of your role; to draw your attention to some early decisions you will be asked to make; and to set out how I will assist you in implementing your electoral commitments and tackling the other policy issues with which you will be faced. To assist you in the many new responsibilities you will have as a Minister, I have attached a letter from a former Clerk of the Privy Council that offers insightful and timeless advice.

Your role

As the Minister of Labour, you have a number of responsibilities, which fall under seven main areas: labour relations, occupational health and safety, labour standards, employment equity and pay equity, the Wage Earner Protection Program, workers’ compensation for government employees, and, finally, intergovernmental and international labour affairs.

For most of these areas, you are responsible for developing and applying the rules (set out in legislation and regulations) that apply to employers and employees who, under Canada’s Constitution, fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government—railways, airlines, ports, interprovincial bridges and ferries, interprovincial trucking and bus transport, banks, telecommunications, most Crown corporations, and some employees on First Nations reserves engaged in administration and governance activities.

Your key labour relations responsibility is in the area of dispute prevention and resolution, including both the provision of preventive mediation services to employers and unions as well as conciliation and mediation during collective bargaining. The vast majority of collective agreements in the federal jurisdiction are negotiated without a work stoppage, either directly by the parties themselves or with the assistance of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. However, over the course of your mandate, you are likely to become personally involved in a few potential strikes or lockouts of national significance. If and when these arise, I will provide you with advice and options regarding the most effective way you can engage with the parties. In the area of labour relations, a number of issues requiring adjudication—such as overseeing the process of union certification, the consideration of unfair labour practices complaints, hearing complaints from union members about their unions, and so on—are dealt with by an independent tribunal, the Canada Industrial Relations Board. As such, these do not involve the Minister directly.

Your second key responsibility is to ensure that employees in the federal jurisdiction work in safe and healthy environments. A key feature of occupational health and safety is the joint responsibility system in which employers and employees are expected to work together collaboratively to create safe and healthy working conditions. The Labour Program’s approximately 90 health and safety inspectors, who work out of offices across the country, provide vital services such as educating the parties and resolving disputes between them, for example when an employee invokes their right to refuse to work if they believe they are facing an imminent danger. In addition to acting generally as an advocate for safe and healthy workplaces, you can expect to be faced with decisions about whether to prosecute employers in cases of flagrant breaches of the law. Finally, as I describe more fully later in this letter, recent legislation has made workplace harassment an occupational health and safety matter, and the implementation of this path-breaking approach would benefit from your personal engagement.

A third area of responsibility that falls to federal Labour Ministers is minimum labour standards. These standards set a floor of rights for all federally regulated employees with respect to minimum wages and the payment of wages, hours of work and scheduling, termination of employment, eligibility for a variety of paid and unpaid leaves, and vacations and holidays. The day-to-day work of educating employers and workers about these rights and receiving and dealing with complaints is handled by the approximately 85 labour standards officers working in our network of regional offices. Your involvement in the field of labour standards will be focused on making decisions related to group termination waiver requests (14 requests received per year on average), as well as on providing direction on the implementation of a host of recent changes to labour standards that will require operational regulations that balance the needs of employers and employees.

Fourth, you are responsible for two separate but related programs aimed at promoting more equitable workplaces. One of these is Employment Equity, a long-standing program that seeks to encourage employers to ensure that their workforces are as diverse as the Canadian population so that women, visible minorities, persons with disabilities and Indigenous persons are given the same opportunities and treated equally with others. The second is the recently adopted Pay Equity Act, which is targeted at eliminating pay differences that are rooted in the systematic undervaluing of jobs that have traditionally been seen as “women’s work.” In both of these areas, we are ready to move ahead to full implementation of recent enhancements if you are in agreement with past direction.

The fifth area of your responsibility as Minister of Labour is a unique federal program known as the Wage Earner Protection Program (WEPP). This program provides a quick payment (up to a certain amount) to workers whose employer has gone bankrupt but has not paid the wages, vacation time, severance or termination pay those workers were owed. This allows them to avoid “standing in line” in bankruptcy proceedings that can take years and that treat workers’ claims as secondary to those of other creditors. The program is administered by Service Canada and applies to all Canadian workers, whether they work in federally or provincially regulated workplaces. Regulations in support of recent legislative changes will require your approval but overall, you will probably not have to deal directly with the operation of this program, unless you wish to reconsider any of the program’s parameters.

The sixth responsibility you have as Minister of Labour is workers’ compensation. There is no federal workers’ compensation board. Instead, when one of their employees is injured or becomes ill on the job, federally regulated private-sector firms are required to provide compensation that is comparable to the provincial benefits provided in the province where the employee works. For public-sector federal workers—such as the federal public service and Crown corporations—we have arrangements with the provincial workers’ compensation boards whereby they handle all cases for our employees and we reimburse all of their costs along with an administrative fee.

The seventh and last general area of responsibility is international and intergovernmental labour affairs. As the federal Minister of Labour, your international responsibilities fall into two categories: managing Canada’s participation in multilateral bodies, such as the International Labour Organization, that focus primarily on labour issues; and leading the negotiation of labour protections in free trade agreements. In both of these areas, Canada has long had a very active agenda and you will be involved in decisions about whether to ratify international conventions and the stance of Canada in free trade negotiations. On the intergovernmental side, the relationship between the federal government and the provinces and territories has traditionally been highly collaborative. As there are no fiscal transfer programs or significant questions about jurisdiction in the area of labour, Ministers of Labour focus on building consensus on issues of common concern and fostering cooperation across jurisdictions. As the federal Minister of Labour, your active participation in the annual meeting of Ministers is key to ensuring vibrant and forward-looking discussions.

Electoral commitments and policy challenges

During the election campaign, your party made a number of commitments that we are ready to help you implement. Before turning to these, it may be useful to provide you with some context by summarizing recent legislative developments in federal labour policy and describing where we are on the path to full implementation of these.

Over the last four years, more changes have been made to federal labour policy than during any comparable period in recent memory. The previous Government’s commitments have either been accomplished or are underway.

All of these recent changes are entrenched in legislation, but in some cases implementation is not complete because operational regulations need to be put in place before the legislation can be brought into force. I will be briefing you on the current direction for implementing regulations on labour standards, pay equity, pay transparency, harassment and violence and the WEPP. [One sentence was redacted]

There are also a number of issues on which consultations with the public and stakeholders were undertaken during the previous mandate, but that have not yet reached the decision stage. I will brief you on each of these and provide you with options should you wish to move forward. For example, a first round of consultations has been completed on the following issues: extending wage protection provisions to all federally regulated service workers in the air transportation sector in the event of contract retendering; the introduction of a modern “fair wages” policy; possible supply chain transparency legislation that would motivate businesses to eliminate the use of any forms of child labour or forced labour in their global supply chains; the possibility of providing free menstrual products in federally regulated workplaces; and job protected leave related to the new Canada Training Benefit.

In addition, an Expert Panel on Modern Federal Labour Standards submitted its final report to the previous Minister of Labour in 2019 and provided a number of recommendations. I will brief you on options for releasing the report, as well as on how to move forward with any of the recommendations, should you wish to do so.

Let me now turn to the commitments your party made during the recent election campaign. Many of these platform commitments build on the work that was completed in the last mandate and were grouped under the theme “Better Working Conditions.”

Your party has proposed a new federal Family Day holiday. This holiday would apply to employees in the federally regulated private sector, federal Crown corporation employees as well as the federal public service. Implementing this proposal would require minor amendments to the Canada Labour Code.

Your party’s platform also includes a commitment to a federal minimum wage of $15 per hour, starting in 2020 and rising with inflation, with provisions to ensure that where provincial or territorial minimum wages are higher, that wage would prevail. This change would apply to all employees in the federally regulated private sector and federal Crown corporation employees and would result in minimum wage increases in all provinces and territories, except for Alberta where the minimum wage is already $15 per hour. I will brief you on the options for implementing this commitment.

Better support for the mental health of workers, greater labour protections for people who work through digital platforms, and new provisions, to be developed with employers and labour groups, that would give workers the “right to disconnect” were also promised. There are a range of tools that could be used to move forward with these commitments, as well as an opportunity to work with key stakeholders and provinces and territories to develop potential approaches for implementation.

Your party’s platform included other commitments related to labour, but in a more indirect way, such as extending Employment Insurance (EI) benefits in times of sickness, when adopting a child and in the case of a natural disaster. For those who do not qualify for paid parental leave through EI benefits, a new Guaranteed Paid Family Leave has been promised as well as moving forward with the Canada Training Benefit. For these latter commitments, the lead rests with the Honourable Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion. However, you will also be involved as they would require changes to leave provisions in legislation under your purview.

Early decisions

As you will realize from the summary above, you will have a very busy policy agenda in the coming months. In the short term, there are a number of time-sensitive decisions that will be put before you in the coming days and weeks. Among the most important are the following:

On each of these decisions, we will provide you with background information, options and a verbal briefing.

Suggested outreach

One of the hallmarks of federal labour policy has been a strong commitment to seeking to build a balanced consensus among stakeholders on significant legislative and policy initiatives. This tradition of consultation and consensus-building has the advantage of improving legislative and regulatory changes, facilitating their adoption and making the subsequent implementation and administration of such changes smoother. More broadly, bringing stakeholders together for joint discussions, in both formal and informal settings, fosters a climate of stability and cooperation in labour relations that is appreciated by both employer and employee organizations in the federal jurisdiction.

For these reasons, I would suggest that in the coming days you make contact, either through face-to-face meetings or by telephone, with the leaders of the key stakeholder groups with whom you will be interacting during your mandate, including the Federally Regulated Employers – Transportation and Communication, the Canadian Bankers’ Association, the Canadian Labour Congress and Unifor. I would also suggest that you have introductory telephone calls with your provincial and territorial counterparts. If you agree, we will provide supporting materials for these meetings and calls.

In closing, let me reiterate that you can count on my full support, as well as that of the entire staff of the Labour Program, in navigating the complexities of labour affairs, meeting the challenges of your mandate and implementing your priorities. We look forward to working with you.

Yours sincerely,

[Original signed by Deputy Minister of Labour Chantal Maheu]

Enclosure: 1[Letter from The Honourable Gordon Osbaldeston]

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