OTTAWA — Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains says the federal government will consider legislation to protect employees' pensions when a company goes bankrupt.
While there's no plan for the government to introduce legislation at the moment, he says it will carefully examine two different private member's bills on the subject, put forward by a New Democrat MP and a Bloc Quebecois MP.
"This is a legitimate issue and a legitimate challenge," Bains said Wednesday, adding that the government is "very mindful" of the fact that bankruptcy "could happen at any time with any company."
"That's why we support secure pensions, that we want to make sure that companies maintain and fulfil their pension obligations and so we'll work with the employees and companies to address this issue."
Bains added that the government is "willing to work with anyone that wants to put forward proposals."
The government has come under increasing pressure to do something to protect the pensions of employees since struggling retailer Sears Canada won court approval to liquidate its assets and close all its remaining stores. The company has been operating under court protection from creditors since June.
The NDP wrote Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday, asking him to launch a special parliamentary investigation into the liquidation of Sears.
"While in opposition, the Liberals vowed to change bankruptcy laws to protect workers," NDP pensions critic Sott Duvall told the House of Commons.
"But since then the Liberal government has done nothing to help workers except apparently monitor the situation, leaving workers at companies like Sears, U.S. Steel, Stelco, Algoma steel, Wabush Mines, and Cliff Mines reeling."
Outside the Commons, Duvall said he's met with workers who've lost their benefits, severance and termination pay and their pensions when a company goes belly-up.
"This is criminal and it's got to stop," he said. "It's theft, that's basically what it is, it's real theft."
Duvall said he believes it's already too late to help Sears employees but the government needs to act quickly to prevent the same thing happening over and over again.
In the Commons, Trudeau said that "our hearts go out to workers affected" by the Sears liquidation and he insisted the government has been making every effort to "help them through this tough time." However, he suggested their pensions are safe.
"I understand the current Sears Canada pension fund assets are held in trust and must be used solely for the benefit of pensioners," Trudeau said.
Bains said Service Canada has held 82 sessions with Sears employees across the country to advise them on the various government programs that exist to help them and their families.