By Alex Binkley

A furious mid-summer protest by transport companies and shippers has won them a one-year exemption from several Canada Labour Code hours of work changes that could have created chaos in the federally-regulated air, marine, rail, and interprovincial trucking industries. They were scheduled to come into effect on September 1. The Labour Code changes were intended to provide better work-life balance and strengthen workplace standards in federally-regulated industries. They were buried in the 2018 Budget Implementation Bill passed last December.

In a letter to Labour Minister Patty Hajdu in mid-August, Bob Ballantyne, President of Freight Management Association of Canada (FMA), said the hours of work provisions were impractical for transportation and would disrupt daily business operations. Employees in this sector are protected under collective agreements. The proposed changes could also have resulted in transportation companies and their operating employees unintentionally violating the existing federal Hours-of-Service regulations, he said. That issue was apparently not discussed with Transport Canada. “Now we want to make sure the exemption is made permanent,” he said in an interview in early September. Industry organizations are “having discussions about what we can do. We’ll see what the election brings.” Of equal interest is how the government “got industry into this fix,” he said. There should have more fulsome consultations with employers. Burying the announcement of the changes in the budget bill, and then launching consultations on them with little notice months before the federal election was not a good move.

The proposed regulations would have required the companies to provide workers with 96-hour notice of schedule changes, 24-hour notice for shift changes and paid absences for personal and medical leave, without requirement for verification.

In addition to FMA, a coalition of national transportation groups led by the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA), the Coalition of Rail Shippers, Federally Regulated Employers – Transportation and Communications (FETCO), the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and Western Grain Elevators Association (WGEA) all filed arguments with the minister opposing the amendments.

In a letter to its customers, CP Rail said the amendments “could threaten the efficiency and affordability of rail operations and cause significant disruption to the continuous rail supply chain. Unfortunately, these impacts will unavoidably affect your own supply chains. “If Canada is able to compete in this global marketplace, then Canada as a whole must be cost competitive and able to deliver on all levels on time, or another country will,” CP said. The railway urged its customers to contact key federal cabinet ministers with details of the economic damage the proposed changes would cause them. It said the 24-hour shift notice would hold up trains if the assigned engineer falls sick. The result would be disrupted “shipments of commodities or goods, which will cascade throughout the interconnected supply chain. Similarly, employees working in rail terminals building the trains to carry your goods cannot simply stop working to avoid overtime negotiated in their collective agreements.”

Wade Sobkowich, Executive Director of the WGEA, said his sector has worked for years to find long-term solutions to chronic capacity and supply chain performance deficiencies. The proposed hours of work changes would hamper the ability of grain companies and railways to properly staff their grain handling and transportation activities and disrupt their ability to handle and move grain.

“The export terminals and railways must be available to provide continuous service 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, in order to provide the necessary capacity to move the crop to our international customers when they require it,” he said. “If Canada is able to compete in this global marketplace, then Canada as a whole must be cost competitive and able to deliver on all levels on time, or another country will.

“Canadian grain farmers and exporters are already facing unprecedent trade issues with the likes of China, Italy, Peru, India, and Vietnam, among others. The timing couldn’t be worse for introducing additional roadblocks in the way of supplying our international customers. The changes to the Canada Labour Code threaten to erode our competitive position in international markets.”

CTA President Stephen Laskowski said there is a concern that Labour Canada will still require transportation and other companies to provide justification for exemptions from the work rule changes on a case by case basis. “CTA supports modern labour standards. However, the Alliance has always held the positions that new standards that come into place must make sense for the industry and the customers we serve.”

FETCO President Derrick Hynes said his members, which are mainly 24/7, just- in-time operations, have negotiated with their more than 500,000 employees “alternate work rules to ensure continuous operations that avoid disruption for customers. There are business imperatives. And these negotiated work rules come at a price for employers—they are entered carefully.”