Controversial reforms to Quebec's Labour Code in limbo

A bill aimed at reforming Quebec’s Labour Code has been put on hold after Premier Bernard Landry shuffled his cabinet.

Introduced in late December, Bill 182 and in particular section 45, drew heated criticism from business and labour for its proposed changes to regulations around outsourcing and subcontracting labour. Now with its staunchest supporter, former Labour Minister Diane Lemieux, sent to another portfolio, it is unclear how or when the Labour Code will be revised.

Section 45 stipulates that a change of employer does not invalidate union certification or a collective agreement, but it does open the door to subcontracting if the employer can negotiate terms with the union.

The Quebec Federation of Labour asserts that the outsourcing proposal is unacceptable, particularly since contracting out is already widespread in Quebec. Henri Masse, president of the QFL, the province’s largest union, says about 20 per cent of the QFL membership work in jobs that are contracted out.

While unions say the proposed legislation doesn’t do enough to block outsourcing, businesses say it goes too far.

“Several companies would definitely have to resort to exporting their activities to profit from the flexibility and adaptive approach they would gain in less hostile legislative environments,” said Gilles Taillon, president of the business group Conseil du Patronat du Quebec. (He notes that in 1999 Quebec attracted $3 billion in private investments compared with $18 billion in Ontario.) Taillon proposes that Quebec follow Nova Scotia’s lead and compel an employer to prove that contracting out jobs is not a union-busting ploy.

The bill would also establish a Labour Relations Commission, which would replace the existing Labour Tribunal and the Bureau of the Labour General Commissioner. The agency would have the authority to launch investigations as well as mediate.

“We want to send a clear signal. We want parties to settle their problems themselves and use the tribunals as least as possible,” Lemieux earlier remarked.

The commission would also be able to order a vote to accelerate union recognition when companies merge. Bill 182 eases the process of union accreditation. Independent operators working for a single employer would be deemed to be dependent employees under the reform, and therefore be allowed to unionize.

The highly contested section 45 spells out conditions under which a transfer of union certification and the collective agreement to the new employer would be prohibited. It stipulates what constitutes a transfer or sale of a business; the simple sale of equipment would not constitute a sale. Outsourcing would be prohibited if a firm sold its business in whole or in part to a company in the same or with a similar line of business. As well, “if there is a link between two employers, it has to be determined if the second employer really does carry on the activities of their former employer’s company,” according to law firm Heenan Blaikie.

With the recent cabinet shuffle, the government appears to have put the long-awaited reform on hold. The delay gives employers’ groups and unions another opportunity to lobby the government, each of which strongly voiced its displeasure with the reforms. “We hope, however, we won’t have to begin from zero,” said Masse.

Lemieux endlessly crisscrossed the province in a bid to reach a consensus with business and labour and even going so far as to square off with then finance minister Landry.

Since Jean Rochon took over the ministry, “we are in the dark,” says Stephanie Aubin, with the Quebec Order of Chartered Human Resource and Industrial Relations Counsellors. “Everything seems to have been put on ice,” including a parliamentary committee examining the bill, which has been suspended. The overhaul may take quite some time since Rochon has a reputation for being a controversial, hands-on minister.

Luis Millan is a Montreal-based freelance reporter.

To read the full story, login below.

Not a subscriber?

Start your subscription today!