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Bell executives defend job cuts, urge Ottawa to speed up competition regulations in committee testimony

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Mirko Bibic at the Campus Bell in Montreal on Jan. 3, 2020.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

The federal government has been too slow to aid media companies in crisis, BCE Inc. BCE-T executives told a parliamentary committee, as they urged Ottawa to speed up regulations that even the playing field so Canadian providers can compete with global streaming giants.

The House of Commons heritage committee is looking into the February announcement by BCE Inc., the parent company of Bell Media, that it would cut its work force by 4,800, ending several television newscasts and selling 45 of its 103 radio stations.

Chief executive officer Mirko Bibic and vice-president and chief legal and regulatory officer Robert Malcolmson defended the cuts in their testimony Thursday, arguing that BCE pays high fees that the global giants don’t pay, and pushing back against criticism from MPs that the cuts were harming local news.

“Let me be clear, we’re not asking for special protections. We’re asking for a level playing field with global media web giants,” Mr. Bibic said. “Yet, the regulatory framework has been too slow to adjust to the massive challenges we’re seeing. The Online Streaming Act took three years to develop and it is still not implemented.

“Bell pays almost $2-billion a year in federal regulatory fees and contributions. In contrast, Amazon, Disney, Netflix and others, each many, many times larger than Bell, have not paid anything. This despite the billions of dollars in revenue they earn from Canadians,” Mr. Bibic said.

Conservative MP Rachael Thomas pushed Mr. Bibic on how much notice the federal government was given ahead of the recent cuts, stating that the company was legally required to provide 16 weeks notice or seek an exemption.

Mr. Bibic and Mr. Malcolmson assured the committee that BCE complied with all applicable federal legislation while proceeding with the layoffs.

After being asked repeatedly by multiple MPs whether they gave the government 16 weeks notice, Mr. Bibic said the government was notified on Feb. 8, the same day as the public.

“The legislative requirements also allow for the giving of notice, combined with guaranteed 16 weeks salary continuance. … So if we get 16 weeks salary continuance, as well as notice, we are in compliance with the federal legislative requirements,” he said.

“It’s pretty clear that things are going well at Bell, if you’re a shareholder and a CEO, but not if you’re a worker, and not if you’re a consumer,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said. “Bell reported a whopping $2.3-billion in profit last year.”

Conservative MP Kevin Waugh told Mr. Bibic that he was harming local news.

“You and your organization have destroyed local news in this country. You should be ashamed. I’m telling you right now, as a 40-year employee of CTV, I’ve watched you and your network absolutely destroy [local news],” he said.

In response, Mr. Bibic told the committee that BCE is investing $300-million in news every year.

“You’re not investing in news. Come on, give me a break,” Mr. Waugh replied.

February’s announcement marked BCE’s largest restructuring in nearly 30 years. Less than a year earlier, in June, BCE announced 1,300 job cuts.

At the time, Bell partly blamed its decision to make cuts on the federal government and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, saying Ottawa did not provide aid to media companies soon enough.

The company paid out millions of dollars in performance bonuses to its top executives after falling short of its 2023 financial targets and slowing its annual dividend growth to 3 per cent from 5 per cent.

Ahead of Thursday’s meeting, Lana Payne, the national president of Canada’s largest private-sector union, Unifor, said she is happy to see the heritage committee holding BCE accountable for its decisions.

“Canadians and Canadian workers have no tolerance for this kind of arrogance in terms of these mass firings and mass job cuts, without a sense of understanding the impact that this is not just having on people’s lives but on the services that Canadians expect from a company like Bell Canada,” Ms. Payne said.

“It’s unacceptable, completely unacceptable.”

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