Quebec small businesses worried about changes to French language laws

Bill 101 would require employers to complete ‘francization’ program
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/05/2012

Alex Kovalenko, director of operations at IT recruitment firm Kovasys in Montreal, has a rather peculiar concern for a business owner — he’s worried about growing his business any further.

While he currently has about 10 employees (the staff level varies based on workload), if Kovalenko were to have 11 employees or more, he could be subject to new language laws that the recently elected Parti Québécois is promising to implement in Quebec.

Translating all documents into French, purchasing French software and completing a “francization” program would be just some of the new requirements.

“I don’t see how we benefit. For us, every dollar we invest we want to get some money back on it,” said Kovalenko, whose company does about 65 per cent of its business with English-speaking clients. “I don’t think it matters what language we do business in, as long as we contribute to the economy.”

The requirements are outlined in one chapter of the Charter of the French Language which is currently only applicable to companies with 50 or more employees. Pauline Marois, Quebec’s new premier, has promised to extend this chapter to firms with 11 to 49 employees, as outlined in Bill 101, within the first 100 days of her governance.

“Over 54,000 companies with 11 to 49 employees are not subject to the same requirements as larger companies, which means that a large number of workers have no protection to require them to work in French in Quebec,” she said. “This measure will permit a significant step forward in the French language in the workplace, especially in Montreal.”

The charter was introduced in 1977 and its goal is to make French the normal and everyday language of work, communication, business and education in Quebec. Eighty-one per cent of the Quebec population is francophone and ensuring people can speak their native language at work is beneficial for workers and employers alike, said Martin Bergeron, spokesperson for the Office québécois de la langue française, Quebec’s language office, in Montreal.

“A worker that works in his own language will be more happy, more at ease and more efficient, that’s for sure, which makes customers more satisfied, which means better business,” he said.

There are three chapters in the charter that apply to businesses. All employers, regardless of size, are required to comply with the first two chapters.

The first concerns the language of work and states all written communication between an employer and employee must be available in French and an employer cannot refuse to hire a unilingual French employee unless it can demonstrate a second language is required for the job, said Bergeron.

“You cannot just say, ‘I want to have everybody bilingual so I receive less resumés,’” he said. “But if a job asks (for a second language) because you serve customers in the United States, of course that person needs to know English and the charter doesn’t prevent that.”

The second chapter that applies to all employers is around the language of commerce and business. It requires all websites, promotional materials, labelling on products, flyers, invoices and everything related to commerce to be available in French, said Bergeron.

“That doesn’t mean you cannot do it in English. You can do it in English, of course, but French must be available,” he said. “If you want to do it bilingual or trilingual, there’s no problem there.”

Only firms with 50 or more employees in Quebec — including full-time, part-time and contract workers who have been employed for six consecutive months — must comply with the third chapter. This includes companies with headquarters outside of the province but with more than 50 employees in Quebec, said Bergeron.

These employers must complete a francization program that requires companies to generalize the use of French through all their activities. Meetings must be held in French and all documentation must be available in French (using proper technical terms) along with all computer software (when possible).

Employers with 50-plus employees receive advice from the language office on how to comply with the francization program. When an employer is new to the province or has experienced growth, it registers with the office and a consultant goes to the workplace to conduct an analysis of its linguistic situation.

Once a consultant has identified any areas that need improvement to be compliant with the charter, he helps the company through that process, said Bergeron.

“There are not many laws where you will get the help of an advisor to get you through the law, so I think that’s why we get great success — 85 per cent of companies have achieved the goals of the charter and have received their French certificate,” he said.

A consultant visits the company every three years and issues a francization certificate if the company is in compliance.

Smaller businesses would be required to comply with the requirements in the third chapter of the charter if Bill 101 passes, and they are concerned about the additional administrative burden it would cause, said Martine Hébert, vice-president, Quebec, at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business in Montreal.

“The reality of small and medium businesses is very different from the bigger businesses,” she said.

“They don’t have the same resources, they don’t have an HR department most of the time, they don’t have an accounting department — all these functions are assumed by the owner or by one employee.”

The financial burden of putting all the components of the francization program in place is also a concern. Kovalenko estimates it would take him about 10 hours per week to keep up with the requirements — and when he could be making $40 or $50 per hour during that time, that adds up to quite a bit of money, he said.

Penalties for non-compliance range from a fine of $1,500 to $20,000 for businesses — and fines are doubled for a subsequent offence. Penalties are always a big concern for small businesses, said Hébert.

“How well does it need to be translated? Would we get fined for not translating internal memos correctly? How perfect does the French need to be?” said Kovalenko. “I don’t want to get fined $3,000 because we forgot an accent on a letter.”

The language office does everything it can to make compliance feasible for companies, said Bergeron. For example, when a company needs to implement French software, it is able to wait until its next planned software upgrade and can simply buy the licence in French at that time, so “it doesn’t cost one penny more,” he said.

While more regulation may be the most common knee-jerk reaction of government, it’s not necessarily the best solution, said Hébert. The language office currently offers subsidies to smaller businesses to help them improve the use of French at their business, and more incentives like this would produce great results, she said.

Adding more regulation may deter growth for some businesses. While many technology companies are based in Quebec, due to government subsidies, those with 40 or 45 employees are already thinking twice before growing their business and hitting 50 employees, said Kovalenko.

And if the regulation is extended to even smaller businesses of 11 to 49 employees, more companies may be thinking twice about growing.

“I hear business owners telling me, ‘I don’t want to grow my business because the more I grow, the most problems I get, the more reports I have to produce for the government, the more things I have to do. And, in the end, I will be working only to fill in papers,’” said Hébert.

If the bill passes, Kovalenko would likely expand the business at his Toronto branch instead of growing the team in Montreal, he said.

And some companies with mainly English clients may consider moving their business outside of the province, he said.

“When you add all this together, it’s a big burden; it’s heavy on the small business owners’ shoulders,” said Hébert. “Which regulation or bill will be the last drop for that business owner that makes his glass too full and he has to move?”

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