Quebec employers are bracing for higher costs and the prospect of government overreach in the wake of Bill 96’s imminent adoption.
While many business owners and managers agree with the need to strengthen the use of French in the workplace, concerns are mounting over added workloads, shorter deadlines and the possibility of frivolous complaints that might arise from the new law. Paperwork could also become an issue — as Bill 96 will require company documents, such as employment contracts and training materials, to be made available in French.
Bill 96 “is a preoccupation for several of our members,” Denis Hamel, vice-president of workforce development policies at the Conseil du patronat du Québec, the province’s biggest business lobby group, said in an interview. “We’re all committed to working in French in Quebec, and we all agree that the law had to be updated. However, some elements of the law are concerning.”
A key irritant of Bill 96 is the requirement that employers take “all reasonable means” before demanding that their employees master a language other than French. The obligation is particularly problematic for manufacturers, who account for about 85 per cent of the province’s exports.
“When you work in international trade, it’s a bit absurd to have to justify this need,” said Véronique Proulx, CEO of Manufacturiers and Exportateurs du Québec. “If you’re an exporter or an importer, it goes without saying that you need multilingual employees. Frankly, this makes no sense.”
Given that the Coalition Avenir Québec government has been pushing companies to boost exports, “it’s contradictory,” said Proulx, whose group represents about 1,100 exporters and manufacturers. “You’re putting up new hurdles for exporters.”
Compelling companies to justify the need to hire people who speak languages other than French is “the perfect symbol of bureaucratic red tape,” said Conseil du patronat’s Hamel.
The language requirement for employers is “perhaps the most complex element of the law to apply,” said Antoine Aylwin, co-head of the privacy and cybersecurity group at the Fasken law firm in Montreal. “It could be a source of headaches if the Office québécois de la langue française is too dogmatic.”
Some observers worry about the new powers given to the OQLF. These include granting language inspectors access to any computer or company equipment to examine, copy and print data as part of the inspection process.
“Business concerns about search and seizure are spot on,” said lawyer and McGill University law professor Pearl Eliadis. “You no longer have the right to say that the Office came in illegally and took your computers, your data, your images. Any data that you have in your possession can be seized from the business office.”
Some, like Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal president Michel Leblanc, insist those fears are overblown.
“Are we worried about the powers of the OQLF that could make it difficult for companies to operate? My sense is the government doesn’t want to make things difficult for companies,” he said. “It doesn’t want to oppose prosperity to the protection of French.”
Most people in the Quebec business community welcome measures to protect French in the workplace. More than 70 per cent of members of the Fédération des chambres de commerce du Québec, an association of boards of trade, said in a poll last year that they backed the broad concept of Bill 96.
“It’s the responsibility of the government, and the companies, to ensure that French remains the majority work language in Quebec, and we’re happy to do our part, said FCCQ head Charles Milliard. “Our concerns have more to do with the details of how the law is implemented.”
Leblanc, who severely criticized Bill 96 during hearings on the overhaul of the Charter of the French Language in October, struck a more conciliatory tone in an interview this week.
Quebec “has the full legitimacy to pass laws to protect the use of French by sending signals to immigrants, to institutions and companies,” Leblanc said. “That being said, we would have like to see more nuances in the bill.”
Aylwin, who heads a four-person group at Fasken that’s advising companies on the requirements and consequences of Bill 96, insists employers are taking the new law in stride.
“There is concern, but I wouldn’t say Bill 96 is making companies reconsider the idea of doing business in Quebec,” he said in an interview. “Even since Quebec started imposing language laws, there has always been fear of scaring off some businesses. It seems like things were a lot more heated in the 1970s.”
As many Quebec companies grapple with supply-chain bottlenecks, manufacturers say a Bill 96 requirement to translate all training and operations manuals into French is poorly timed.
“When you need to wait months or years to receive new equipment, having to find someone with the expertise to translate the manual is going to be complicated,” Proulx said. “There are risks that the equipment will break down, as well as safety and security risks. Given the context, it would have seemed more reasonable to leave the manuals in English.”
Manufacturers aren’t the only industry group worried about the impact of the new law. Small businesses, too, are feeling nervous.
Once Bill 96 comes into effect, any company with 25 or more employees in Quebec must register with the OQLF and report on the state of French in the organization. The previous threshold was 50 employees. If the OQLF rules that the use of French is not generalized across a given organization, it can impose the creation of a francization committee.
According to OQLF estimates, about 20,000 companies with 25 to 49 employees will be affected by the new legislation.
Bill 96 also cuts in half the time Quebec employers have to demonstrate compliance with language regulations — to three months. That will do little to help entrepreneurs already pressured by the pandemic and an enduring labour shortage.
“There’s very little sensitivity to the needs of small business in this bill,” said François Vincent, Quebec vice-president at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. “It adds a new administrative burden for small companies, even those that already work in French. If you operate a garage in Abitibi, you’re still going to have to fill in forms regularly, with much tighter deadlines than before.”
A regulatory impact analysis, prepared by the Quebec justice ministry, included no estimates on the additional compliance costs for companies. CFIB’s own analysis, conducted last year, estimated the total cost of conforming to the law for all small and mid-size businesses at up to $24.5 million.
Any company that violates the amended Charter of the French Language will be barred from receiving government contracts or subsidies.
No matter their size, employers say excessive government zeal is a major concern.
After an OQLF inspector visited its downtown Montreal offices, CFIB had to spend about $3,000 to cut a framed poster in two, redo the painting and the plaster on the wall, Vincent said — just because the poster was bilingual. The same poster, in both official languages, is on display inside CFIB’s Ottawa and Toronto offices, he said.
Proulx cites the recent case of an unidentified manufacturing company that was visited by OQLF inspectors. After discovering that some employees had chosen to work with English language software, inspectors demanded that the company install “watchguard”-type software to ensure that all employees use French versions only.
“We’ve all heard the horror stories,” Proulx said. “The OQLF has a role to play, but it must be clearly circumscribed. Nobody will win if the approach is coercive.”
Either way, the discussion will not stop with the passage of the bill.
“I fully expect that some aspects of the law will be tested in court,” said Aylwin at Fasken. “Either the OQLF will take actions that are contested, or a group of individuals or merchants challenge certain elements of the law.”
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