OTTAWA — Canada’s largest federal public sector union says changes included in the government’s new sweeping budget bill would erode workers’ right to strike by effectively ripping up agreements over what is considered an essential service.
The changes in the budget implementation bill go to the heart of a court challenge filed this week by the Public Service Alliance of Canada over the government’s move to block strikes by federal workers deemed to be offering “essential” services. The union says in its court challenge that major reforms to the Public Service Labour Relations Act that were introduced in last fall’s budget legislation (Bill C-4) violate federal workers’ freedom to strike and freedom of association as guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
On Friday, the government tabled its latest budget bill, containing proposed changes that PSAC says would nullify existing agreements identifying which jobs and services are “essential.” The budget bill arrived just as PSAC and the government are in the middle of negotiations over new collective bargaining agreements.
“It’s changing the rules while the game is being played,” PSAC president Robyn Benson said.
The changes are among a wide range of measures in the omnibus legislation, which now faces a political battle to become law. Over the past two years, the opposition parties have used procedural tricks to hold up passage of budget bills once it became clear the government wasn’t willing to amend them.
The 375-page budget bill contains changes that would affect cellphone users, Bitcoin and digital currency transactions, online casinos, Americans living in Canada, three suspended senators — Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau — and even the names of two branches of the Canadian Armed Forces.
Budget bill changes would make it more difficult for some immigrants coming to Canada to qualify for the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) provided to low-income seniors, a move the Conservatives say will save $700 million annually. The government wants to double the amount of time needed to live in Canada to qualify for the GIS, to 20 years from 10.
There will also be a crackdown on Canadian companies that abuse the temporary foreign worker program: they will soon face heavy fines from the federal government.
Details of the fines will be contained in regulations the government has to enact once the budget bill becomes law. A spokeswoman for Employment Minister Jason Kenney said penalties will severe.
There are also changes to safety rules, including harmonizing vehicle safety standards with the United States — though to a level too low for the Opposition New Democrats. And, if passed in its current form, the budget bill would reverse the government’s previous decision to tax parking at hospitals.
“Our past experience has taught us that the devil lies in the details. It’s buried on page 216, the worst aspect of this bill, or buried on page 181. One doesn’t know until one starts to cast through all the different aspects,” said NDP finance critic Nathan Cullen, shortly after the bill was tabled.
Liberal critic John McCallum said the bill was crammed with items “that have nothing to do with the budget.”
“This is inappropriate because in some cases, like food safety or rail safety, these are important issues that should be properly debated and being part of the budget implementation bill, it will tend to get rammed through Parliament.”
The Conservative government’s budget bill includes measures to officially implement a controversial tax-information sharing agreement with the United States that has sparked a number of concerns it could violate Canadian privacy laws.
The agreement will see Canada begin regularly sharing large amounts of financial information with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in the U.S. on the estimated one million Americans and dual citizens living here. The agreement is part of an effort by the United States to crack down on offshore tax evasion.
Canadian banks and other financial institutions will be forced to report, through the Canadian government, financial information on accounts held by U.S. citizens.
However, a number of groups expressed concerns that having Canadian banks or the federal government share with the IRS the personal information of Americans living in Canada (either residents or dual citizens) could potentially violate Canadian privacy laws.
Opposition parties said Friday they would like to see the changes pulled out of the bill so they can be individually debated.
“This is a distressing aspect of the (budget) legislation, simply because the sovereignty of Canadians is at stake,” said the NDP’s Cullen.
(By Jason Fekete and Jordan Press)