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Quebec's largest nurses' union submits complaint with UN agency over 'forced labour'

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2022-02-14 CBC/Radio-Canada
A nurse works at Jean-Talon hospital in Montreal on Oct. 14, 2021. The Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé (FIQ) says the forced overtime nurses have endured throughout the pandemic is counter to conventions that Canada has signed with the UN agency. © Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada A nurse works at Jean-Talon hospital in Montreal on Oct. 14, 2021. The Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé (FIQ) says the forced overtime nurses have endured throughout the pandemic is counter to conventions that Canada has signed with the UN agency.

After trying to challenge mandatory overtime faced by nurses in the province without success, Quebec's largest nurses' union has ramped up action by filing a complaint with the International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency.

The Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé (FIQ), which represents 76,000 workers, including nurses and nursing assistants, says the forced overtime nurses have endured throughout the pandemic is counter to conventions that Canada has signed with the UN agency. 

It pointed to conventions 29 and 105, which state that countries signing onto the convention must take action to "suppress the use of forced or compulsory labour in all its forms."

Convention 29 defines forced labour as "all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily."

The union said the forced overtime could also be considered a form of sex-based discrimination, since the profession is overwhelmingly made up of women, which would contravene other conventions Canada has signed with the agency.

Forced work 

In its complaint to the UN, the union said employers are routinely using mandatory overtime as a way to deal with predictable shortages that could be addressed by hiring more nurses. 

"When we force someone, regardless of whether the reasons are valid or not according to the employer, that is still forcing them to work," said union president Julie Bouchard in an interview with La Presse Canadienne. 

"We are imprisoning them at work, either for a few hours or for a full shift, regardless of the family or personal obligations that person may have."

While legislation in Quebec permits mandatory overtime, it does so only in exceptional circumstances. However, its use in the health-care system is systemic. 

Mandatory overtime is detrimental to nurses' health, families and personal lives, the union said. 


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The care provided to the public is progressively deteriorating, it said. Burnout and depression among nurses is common, and many are leaving the profession or going into the private sector to find a more sustainable work-life balance.

This creates a vicious cycle, and those who remain are forced to take on more overtime as a result. 

The union has written to federal ministers to alert them to the complaint. 

"We have asked the federal government to intervene in this," said Bouchard. "They need to put a stop to this because the province has shown it isn't capable."  

In a statement, Marie-Louise Harvey, a spokesperson for the Health Ministry, said while the ministry won't comment on the FIQ's complaint, the priority is to maintain care and services for users, and their safety must not be jeopardized in any way.

"Everyone agrees that mandatory overtime is not desirable in the health and social services network, and the establishments use all the means at their disposal to avoid having to resort to it."

25,000 grievances 

Mandatory overtime has generated at least 25,000 grievances filed by nurses against their employers, the complaint notes. 

In a statement included in the complaint, FIQ vice-president Nathalie Lévesque said she has witnessed "blackmail, intimidation and threats used by certain managers to impose work," which she says undeniably constitutes forced labour. 

The union says it brought forward complaints to successive Quebec governments, the province's labour tribunal, and to professional orders without success before it decided to go ahead with a complaint to the UN. 

Nurses represented by the union have also taken part in days of collective action in 2019 and 2021, when they refused mandatory overtime, the union said. 

The federal government is required to submit a response to the complaint. Afterward, the agency will be at liberty to submit recommendations to address the complaint. 

The process is likely to be lengthy, lasting up to a year or more, and any recommendations made will ultimately be non-binding. 

Bouchard said the process is worthwhile regardless. 

"They will have to answer for how they have dealt with this," she said. 

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