Gov’t Shouldn’t Have Been Surprised by Bell Layoffs, Former Conservative Minister Says

Gov’t Shouldn’t Have Been Surprised by Bell Layoffs, Former Conservative Minister Says
Lisa Raitt speaks during a television broadcast to provide an update on the announcement for the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, in Ottawa on Aug. 23, 2020. (The Canadian Press/Justin Tang)
Jennifer Cowan

A former Tory cabinet minister says the Liberal government “chose to make it easier” for Bell to lay off 9 percent of its workforce, and shouldn’t be surprised by the company’s announcement.

Former Labour Minister Lisa Raitt said on social media that no one in the federal government “should be surprised [or] angered” by the news that Bell was planning to reduce its workforce and sell nearly half of its regional radio stations across the country.

“The Ministry of Labour would have received a request at least 16 [weeks] ago from Bell to waive the statutory process when laying off so many people,” Ms. Raitt said in a Feb. 10 post on X, formerly Twitter.

Bell’s Feb. 8 announcement that 4,800 jobs “at all levels of the company” would be cut as part of a company restructuring effort elicited strong words from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a press conference the following day.

He told reporters he was “furious,” saying that the layoff  was a “garbage decision” that would impact “local, quality journalism,” referencing Bell’s plans to scale back its news stations including CTV and BNN Bloomberg.

Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan denied Ms. Raitt’s assertion, saying that the Department of Labour learned about the layoffs on Feb. 8, “the same day Canadians did.”

“I respect Lisa as a former Labour Minister and MP,” Mr. O'Regan said in a Feb. 10 social media post. “But this is wrong and the affected workers should hear the truth.”

He said companies are not required to notify the government about layoffs.

Ms. Raitt posted a portion of the Labour Code in response.

“Just to be clear… it’s the law to give 16 weeks notice to employees in a group termination,” she replied. “The Minister can waive that requirement.”

The legislation states that an employer “may request that the Minister of Labour waive certain requirements.”

Three types of waivers may be granted, including the requirement to give 16 weeks’ notice and the requirement to provide employees with a written statement of benefits.

A waiver can also be granted from establishing a joint planning committee if it can be shown that it would be unduly prejudicial to the employers interests or of the affected employees or if it “would be seriously detrimental to the operation of the industrial establishment.”

Government Promises to ‘Protect’ Journalism

Bell’s news operations have been losing $40 million each year, CEO Mirko Bibic has said, necessitating the closure of 45 of its 103 radio stations and cutting back on newscasts. Noon newscasts at all CTV stations except Toronto will be scrapped, as will 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts on weekends at all CTV and CTV2 stations except in Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa.

The company has not said how many of the job cuts would be at Bell Media specifically, but a company executive told The Canadian Press the size of Bell’s executive team has been reduced in recent years and executive salaries remain frozen.

Last week’s announcement marks the second major layoff at the media and telecommunications firm since last spring, when six percent of Bell Media jobs were eliminated and nine radio stations were either shuttered or sold.

Mr. O'Regan promised that the government would ensure Bell “follows its obligations under the Labour Code and that the workers receive everything they’re entitled to.”

“As a government, we’ll consciously protect and invest in journalism,” he said on social media. “There’s no democracy without it.”

The Liberal government introduced tax credits and financial incentives totalling nearly $600 million in 2018 to assist Canadian media organizations over five years. Bell Media was one of the recipients.

Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge said Bell has received more than $40 million in annual regulatory relief—the same amount the company said its news division is losing annually.

“They are not going bankrupt,” Ms. St-Onge said Feb. 8 on Parliament Hill. “They’re still making billions of dollars. They’re still a very profitable company. And they still have the capacity and the means to hold their end of the bargain, which is to deliver news reports.”

The Liberals’ update to broadcasting law, the Online Streaming Act, came into effect last April. It abolished certain licensing fees, which Ms. St-Onge said it will save the company some $40 million a year.

Bell Media is also expected to receive an additional $30 million annually thanks to Ottawa’s deal with Google last year, which will see the tech giant pay $100 million annually to Canadian media companies through the Online News Act.

Bell, however, is blaming its cuts on Ottawa, saying that the government has undermined investment in Bell networks while failing to “level the playing field with global tech giants.”

“Of particular concern is a recent decision by the CRTC forcing Bell to provide third party resellers access to our high-speed fibre network before we have even had an opportunity to recoup our multi-billion dollar investment,” Mr. Bibic wrote in an open letter announcing the layoffs. “As I’ve shared before, at Bell Canada every year we can expect to lose over $250 million in legacy phone revenues.”

Bell said it could also further scale back network investments on its telecom side because it remains at odds with the CRTC over what the company calls “predetermined” regulatory direction.

The Canadian Press contributed to this report.