Employers Seeking Waivers in Ottawa's Pending Ban on Replacement Workers: Federal Report

Employers Seeking Waivers in Ottawa's Pending Ban on Replacement Workers: Federal Report
Gantry cranes sit idle as a container ship is docked at port during a work stoppage, in Vancouver, on July 19, 2023. (The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck)
Isaac Teo

Some of Canada’s largest corporations have sought waivers from a pending federal ban on replacement workers when their employees go on strikes or are locked out, records show.

“Employers in rail, maritime, airlines, agriculture, telecommunications, and broadcasting asked for exemptions for their specific sectors. These stakeholders consider all or at least part of their work as essential,” said a report by Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC).

Released on Sept. 19, the report says many of these companies have expressed concerns over the negative impact the replacement worker ban will bring to the Canadian supply chain.

“Employers in rail and maritime indicated that using replacement workers allows them to transport essential and/or hazardous goods safely, which protects public health and safety,” said the report, which was first covered by Blacklock’s Reporter.

“Employers in the agriculture industry cautioned the significant impact of railway strikes or lockouts on the agricultural products deliveries.”

The ESDC said the findings were based on consultations with 41 employers and employer associations, and 28 unions and labour organizations, among several stakeholders and the public, from last October to January of this year.

The intent was to hear their views on Ottawa’s committed plan to amend the Canada Labour Code, which will prohibit the use of replacement workers in federally regulated sectors.

‘Strongly Disagree’

In 2022, when the federal government signed a Supply and Confidence Agreement with the NDP, it promised to introduce a similar bill nationwide by the end of 2023 in order to bring “a better deal for workers.”

The amendment to the Canada Labour Code will cover 985,000 employees in federally regulated businesses including airports, banks, grain mills, interprovincial truckers, marine shippers, railways, and TV stations.

According to the ESDC report, 34 percent or 311,900 of these employees are unionized and covered by a collective agreement.

The report noted employers and unions “disagree strongly” on the issue.

“Union stakeholders all supported a ban on replacement workers. Many of them urged the Government to introduce legislation as soon as possible,” the labour department said.

“On the other hand, employer stakeholders strongly opposed the idea and argued the Government should not proceed.”

The report appears to lean more toward the employees’ side though the department said that “we will carefully consider what we heard during these consultations.”

“When unionized workers exercise their right to strike, they sacrifice their pay and benefits. They try to improve their working conditions by putting pressure on their employer,” the report said.

“However, the Government has heard that it undermines this right when an employer brings in replacement workers to keep the business going while workers are on strike or locked out.”

It added that union stakeholders disagree that a ban on replacement workers will create a negative impact on the Canadian economy. Those stakeholders believe a ban will resolve disputes earlier, “which would eventually benefit the economy,” said the ESDC, citing what they heard.

‘A Solution Looking for a Problem’

In a memo dated Feb. 3, the labour department said that replacement workers have been used in 40 percent of strikes and lockouts in federally regulated sectors since 2011.

“Between June 2011 and October 2022, there were 75 work stoppages in federally regulated sectors,” the memo said.

“Labour Program research suggests that replacement workers or managers were used in 40% of these work stoppages (that is, 30 of the 75 work stoppages) to perform some or all of the work of bargaining unit members who were on strike or locked out.”

Corporations argued that replacement workers are “necessary sometimes for keeping a business economically viable,” the ESDC report said. “They stated that prohibiting the use of replacement workers would be a solution looking for a problem.”

In a statement on Sept. 19, Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan said the Liberal government will introduce legislation by December 2023.

“The use of replacement workers can distract from negotiations, it can prolong disputes, and it can poison labour relations for years after,” he said, adding his government “believe[s] in collective bargaining.”

“Our economy depends on employers and workers staying at the table and reaching a deal.”

At present, only Quebec and B.C. have legislation that prohibits employers from using replacement workers during work stoppages.