Canada: Developing Policy for Pregnant Workers in Dangerous Jobs

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By Peter Menyasz

The Canadian government is moving to develop a national maternity assistance program for pregnant women unable to work because their jobs pose a risk to the unborn child.

The National Maternity Assistance Program Strategy Act (Bill C-243), passed by the House of Commons June 14, calls for the federal government to work with Canada's provinces and territories to develop a program to help women whose ability to work while pregnant is at risk due to potentially hazardous jobs and a national maternity assistance program for situations where employers can't accommodate pregnant workers involved in potentially dangerous work with appropriate reassignment.

Amendments to the unemployment insurance program that would allow pregnancy leave to begin 12 weeks before the due date is currently before parliament.

Discussions of job equality for women generally focus on getting women involved as business leaders and in professions like the law and medicine, according to Mark Gerretsen, the bill's sponsor and a member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's governing Liberal Party, ignoring “the fact that women want to get into trades and other nontraditional work.”

Gerretsen, who represents the Ontario constituency of Kingston and the Islands, introduced the bill in response to the plight of Melodie Ballard, a welder who didn't quality for unemployment insurance benefits, which can be received no sooner than eight weeks before the expected due date, when her doctor told her that her job posed a risk to her unborn child. Ballard's only option was to apply for significantly less generous sickness benefits under the program.

“She really, really wanted to be a welder, and she became homeless because she followed her passion,” Gerretsen said.

Labor, Industry Support Initiative

Cases like Ballard's are infrequent but happen often enough to constitute a significant barrier to women seeking construction careers, Bob Blakely, operating officer for Canada's Building Trades Unions, said June 15.

“Something needs to be done about it,” Blakely told Bloomberg BNA.

The 12 weeks of maternity leave now proposed by the federal government are a step in the right direction but fall short of fully addressing the problem, said Blakely, who argues that the duration of maternity leave should at least equal the 16 weeks provided in cases of illness.

“Why shouldn't [pregnant women] get treated the same as everyone else who has a health condition,” Blakely said.

Because the construction sector faces serious shortages in some skilled trades, “if we can't get bright young women, we're never going to make it,” Blakely said.

Two-thirds of British Columbia's construction workforce is aged 45 or older and approaching retirement, Chris Atchison, president of the British Columbia Construction Association, said June 15. Together with growing infrastructure investment, this means an anticipated shortage of 15,000 skilled workers in that province alone in the next eight to 10 years, Atchison told Bloomberg BNA in an email. Other forecasts project a nationwide need to replace as many as 250,000 workers as baby boomers retire.

“Today, only about 4 percent of our workforce is women, so we've got to find ways to make trades opportunities more appealing to them,” Atchison said. “Construction offers lucrative, rewarding careers. This bill and the creation of a national strategy is good for our industry.”

Bill Seeks National Consultations

Bill C-243 calls for consultations between government, industry, and labor to determine the demand for assistance to support pregnant women doing potentially dangerous work; the adequacy of existing federal, provincial, and territorial programs; financial and other costs of implementing a new program; potential social and economic benefits; and any legal, constitutional, or jurisdictional implications. The consultations are to be completed within three years of the bill becoming law.

“Canada, unlike many other advanced democracies, does not have a long-term, comprehensive national strategy to allow pregnant and nursing women to continue working and to financially support them in cases where they are unable to work during their pregnancy,” the legislation's preamble states. “A woman's pregnancy should not act as a barrier to full participation in the workforce, adversely affect her employment, inflict financial hardship, or compromise the pursuit of her chosen career.”

Bill C-243 passed the House of Commons May 7 and requires only the approval of Canada's Senate and the rubber stamp of royal assent to become law. No specific date has been set for these steps to be completed.

To contact the reporter on this story: Peter Menyasz in Ottawa at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rick Vollmar at rvollmar@bna.com

For More Information

Full text of Bill C-243 is available here.

For more information on Canadian HR law and regulation, see the Canada primer.

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