The Honourable Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Canada's Minister of Labour and Minister of the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec, speaks to the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia


Good afternoon, I am so pleased to be here in Vancouver to speak with you at the Sauder School of Business. Thank you for the warm welcome. As federal Minister of Labour I believe it is very important that I discuss with businesses and stakeholders what I can do within my mandate to make Canada a better country in which to live, work and do business.

Canada’s role on the world stage is growing. One visible manifestation of this is the important work of our troops in Afghanistan. We believe in individual rights, freedom, and democracy. Our Canadian Forces are making a positive difference in the lives of people in Afghanistan, who have lived for too long in conditions of tyranny and poverty. As important as this is, it is just one of many ways that we are spreading Canadian values and advancing Canadian interests in the global arena. At home we are also taking steps to ensure that Canadians are provided with principled, focused and effective leadership.

  • Building upon the economic commitments of the Speech from the Throne, the Honourable Jim Flaherty, Minister of Finance, recently released the Government of Canada’s Fiscal Update.
  • As a result, Canadian individuals, families and businesses will receive over $60 billion in broad-based tax relief over this and the next five years.
  • These tax reductions will strengthen our economy, stimulate investment and create more and better jobs.

Today, I would like to discuss with you how Canada is addressing labour issues at the international level. This is a sphere of activity which is not always well-known, but which is of central importance to Canada’s economic well-being. It is easy to see how Canada’s domestic labour legislation contributes to a productive workforce and a strong Canadian economy.

The Canada Labour Code lays out rights and obligations related to occupational safety and health, minimum employment standards and industrial relations – all of which ensure that Canadians benefit from a safe, healthy, fair and productive working environment. What is sometimes less evident, however, is how Canadian workers and businesses are also able to benefit from Canada’s international labour activities.

In the context of globalization and increasing trade, strong labour rights and standards are intrinsic to economic performance and productivity. Trade and investment flows between Canada and its partner countries can be distorted by a lack of protection of fundamental rights or the lack of effective enforcement of labour laws.

Through our membership in international organizations and in our bilateral relations with key partner countries, Canada actively works to ensure respect for internationally-recognized labour principles. It is for this reason that Canada plays a leadership role in the International Labour Organization –the ILO—the UN specialized agency that advances internationally recognized labour rights. The ILO sets international labour standards and promotes decent work globally. It has a structure that is unique in multilateral organizations in that it brings together representatives of government, workers and employers to shape joint policies and programmes. Canadian governments, employer and worker representatives have long played important roles at the ILO.

Fostering commitment to human rights, freedom, democracy and the rule of law are not only important ends in themselves, but crucial elements in creating security, stability and prosperity. The establishment of labour standards through the ILO and their effective enforcement are key to achieving this goal. Canada is a trade dependent nation. International trade represents more than 70% of our gross domestic product (GDP). Our economy and quality of life depend heavily on us doing business with the world. Several months ago, our government began negotiating free trade agreements with Colombia and Peru and announced that it would negotiate agreements with the Dominican Republic and the Caribbean Community.

These will complement already existing agreements with the United States and Mexico, Chile and Costa Rica, and ongoing negotiations with four other Central American countries as well as with South Korea. Our close proximity and the economic growth potential of the Americas make countries such as Colombia and Peru, the Dominican Republicand those of the Caribbean Community logical partners for a free trade agreement with Canada. These free trade agreements have the potential to benefit Canadian exporters, service providers and investors in several sectors including, but not limited to, agri-food, financial services, mining, and environmental and engineering services.

Free trade agreements will stimulate the growth of our commercial relationship and help level the playing field for Canadian businesses vis-à-vis their competitors who may be benefiting from preferential market access terms. Trade however, is not without its challenges. Most notably, trade has the very real potential to impact directly on working conditions and respect for workers’ rights. Here in Canada, we have very advantageous working conditions. Leave provisions, as well as the many other benefits that our workers are entitled to – are conditions not normally found in developing countries, countries which are our partners but also our competitors in international markets.

We do not want the consensus achieved within this country between employers, workers and government on the standards and conditions of work to become a competitive disadvantage. Above and beyond the commercial argument, it is also a matter of principle. That is why Canada negotiates agreements on labour cooperation alongside each of its free trade agreements. We do so in order to ensure a level playing field for economic competition, and we do so for reasons of principle.

Canadian values must be reflected in our approach to the rest of the world, particularly when it comes to respect for core labour standards concerning child labour, forced labour, freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively, and all forms of workplace discrimination. In signing labour cooperation agreements, Canada’s trading partners commit themselves to apply their domestic labour laws which must in turn reflect internationally-recognized core labour standards.

This ensures that Canadian businesses and workers will not be disadvantaged by trading partners who may choose to disregard labour standards. It also promotes respect for fundamental labour principles in partner countries and ensures that all workers benefit from safe, healthy and fair workplaces. Labour cooperation agreements are not one-size fits all.

These agreements are adapted to the economic and social realities of the countries with which we are negotiating. Stronger provisions will be negotiated with a developing country where the application of labour law is weaker than with a country that is economically and socially more advanced and where the application of labour laws is generally not problematic. Our labour cooperation agreements will evolve to meet the particular circumstances and needs of each trading partner. One of our government’s key foreign policy priorities is the Americas. We are committed to reengaging with the Americas and labour issues are integral to this initiative.

We are preparing for a major expansion of Canada’s labour activities in the Americas through two main avenues: more robust labour cooperation agreements and a significant increase in technical cooperation programs to ensure the successful implementation of these agreements. Some of our negotiating partners do not have adequate capacity to enforce labour standards. Providing these countries with technical assistance will not only help them to effectively apply their domestic labour laws, but it will also enable them to better meet the obligations of our labour cooperation agreements.

Within the next year, the Government will increase the size of our technical cooperation programs and the number of countries with which we have labour agreements. We are also increasing our support to the Inter-American Conference of Ministers of Labour, the most important forum for exchanging best practices on labour issues in the Americas.

In November, I announced funding of $8.5 million for labour-related technical assistance projects in the Americas, $1 million of which will go to the Inter-American Conference of Ministers of Labour. We have all heard criticisms about the labour situations in many countries of the Americas. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that we should not negotiate free trade agreements with countries that have been criticized for not respecting labour rights, such as Colombia. But when countries are making a concerted effort to address their problems and move forward, we should support them. This is our approach with Colombia.

The Prime Minister has said in response to such criticisms about Colombia, that when a country has made a decision to address difficult issues such as these, you cannot turn your back on them. Rather, you actively engage them through cooperation and trade and help them in resolving their issues. This is the message that I personally delivered to my counterparts during my recent tour of the region—including the President and Vice President of Colombia—in November. It is a message about the seriousness of our intent.

My visit to the region allowed me to: support the government’s policy of reengagement with the Americas; support the negotiation of robust labour cooperation agreements with Colombia and Peru; discuss and announce technical cooperation programs with these two countries; and sign labour-related Memoranda of Understanding with Argentina and Brazil.

I also met at every opportunity with representatives of unions and employer associations. Our labour cooperation agenda is twofold. On the one hand, we will insist on negotiating more robust labour cooperation agreements where governments can be the subject of formal complaints and ultimately pay a price if we don’t respect our obligations under these agreements. On the other hand, we will also be saying to our trade partners that, if they have the will but lack the means to fully implement internationally- recognized core labour standards in their countries, we will be there to help.

I can tell you that our technical cooperation activities in the Americas do make a difference for workers of the region. Some time ago one of my officials asked a former

Deputy Minister of Labour in Nicaragua if it was important for Nicaragua that we continue a project in that country on occupational health and safety. The Deputy replied: "Since the beginning of your project we have seen a clear drop in the number of workplace deaths and serious injuries in our country. Your project has saved the lives of many Nicaraguan workers. So yes it is important to us and please continue your support".

Well, I am happy to report that not only did we decide to continue with this project on health and safety in Central America, but we are also now looking at ways to extend it to the Andean and Caribbean regions. Canada is a country of the Americas. It is time to recognize that our interests in the Americas are real and significant and that deepening our engagement in the hemisphere will contribute, in a substantive and sustainable way, to our fundamental interest in promoting Canadian prosperity, security and democratic values. In our own neighbourhood, the Americas, Canada is back playing an active role.

The Canadian model of constitutional democracy and economic openness has much to offer those countries struggling to build a better future. My message to you today is this: Our government is committed to playing a leadership role on labour issues at the international level. Globalization has both a social and economic dimension and we are addressing this through our participation in international forums, by negotiating robust labour cooperation agreements and rolling-out programs of targeted labour-related technical assistance.

Our message to Canadians is clear: through international engagement we will strengthen and promote Canada’s fundamental values of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, while building strong, sustainable economies through increased trade and investment linkages. Merci, Thank you.