Inside the Bell Hearing Over It’s Job Cuts

Bell was dragged before committee after it laid off 6,000 employees. The hearing didn’t go well for Bell.

Yesterday, I noted that Bell got hauled before the committee at Canadian Heritage. The reason? Why Bell slashed 9% of its workforce after receiving truckloads of money from the government. Other fun topics included why Bell also subsequently raised dividend payments to shareholders during the same time frame.

As I pointed out yesterday, I had only begun watching the hearing and was looking forward to watching even more. The hearing, for those interested, can be found here. Full disclosure, when I continued watching the hearing, I had cooked up a bag of popcorn because I knew I was in for a show. Having watched more of it, I have to say, the popcorn was an excellent choice on my part as it almost felt like my own little recreation of the famous Jon Stewart popcorn gif. It was really quite the show.

Among other things, Bell tried defending the massive job cuts by saying that they are totally investing in Canadians by hiring techs to work different parts of their ISP infrastructure. That would later get shot down by Bloc MP, Martin Champoux who pointed out that all Bell was doing was taking existing infrastructure and manpower and moving it around within the company.

Another fun filled moment was Conservative MP, Rachel Thomas, asking if Bell chose to give government notice about the layoffs or if they sought an exemption. Both representatives repeatedly responded by evading the question by saying that they comply with all applicable laws. After repeatedly asking, an increasingly frustrated Thomas finally got her answer at the very end of that particular round. Unsurprisingly, she asked why Bell was so evasive about the question. Bell tried to worm their way out of it by saying that they gave the same answer repeatedly (they clearly didn’t), but unsurprisingly, that little dishonest attempt didn’t fly as Thomas pointed out that Bell was refusing to answer her questions.

NDP MP, Jagmeet Singh, made a number of very good points. Among other things, Singh pointed out how executives were pulling in huge bonuses, dividend payments were up, stock buybacks were a big thing, but for Canadians and employees, they were getting the short end of the stick with consumers paying some of the highest cell phone rates in the developed world and employees losing their jobs. Bell responded by, astonishingly, saying that the job cuts are actually good for consumers. Let’s just say that Singh wasn’t the only one with their mind blown by what was Bell said. It really was a complete nonsense answer that defies almost all levels of logic or reasoning.

Bell also pushed back at the comments about how they are increasing dividend payments. They argued that ordinary people are also shareholders and it is ordinary Canadians who are receiving some of those dividend payments. The comments more or less implied the question of why aren’t committee members thinking about them. Those comments really spoke to how out of touch Bell executives were because most Canadians aren’t filthy rich and shareholders of various companies. There’s a lot of Canadians who are struggling to pay the bills. For reasons that should be obvious, most of those Canadians aren’t throwing money around in the stock markets because, well, they can’t freaking afford such an extravagance in the first place.

Multiple Liberal MPs were also asking questions along the lines of how it is that Bell can justify these job cuts when they were receiving taxpayers money like they are and being a hugely profitable publicly traded company. Bell responded by saying that the job cuts were necessary in order to remain competitive in the marketplace. In a vacuum absent of all the other factors, that isn’t necessarily indicative of anything untoward. Bell’s problem here is the other factors that played out (i.e. the higher dividend payments, the massive bailouts, the tax cuts, etc.). In that regard, Liberal MPs were not really being given satisfactory responses.

In addition to that, Bloc MP, Champoux, worried about the coverage of news in Quebec. Bell argued that they were building a station from the ground up. Champoux noted that, concretely, they are seeing the opposite of an expansion. He openly wondered if regulations need to be strengthened so that companies like Bell can bolster its commitment to Canadians and have better coverage of different regions. Bell deflected by claiming that it’s all the web giants fault for there not being sufficient contributions to Canada. So, standard tired talking point that really doesn’t amount to anything, really given that the legislation the large media companies demanded be passed was, in fact, passed.

NDP MP, Niki Ashton, blasted Bell, saying that the height of arrogance from the corporate world is on full display. She noted Bells comments about how the media is in crisis, but quite pointedly, asked who is in crisis: the executives who receive tens of millions in compensation or the thousands of Canadians who lost their jobs while working for Bell.

Liberal MP, Patricia Lattanzio noted one of the things Bell has to remit money for and asked when they had to stop remitting that money. Bell responded by saying that it was when the Online Streaming Act came into force that they didn’t have to remit that money. Lattanzio asked how much money in saving did that represent. Bell said it was about $40 million. Lattanzio asked why that money wasn’t reinvested in journalism. Bell then evaded the question and argued that they are investing a lot in journalism and significantly more than ever before.

Lattanzio then made a reference to the Online News Act and asked how much money from Google does Bell plan to invest that money into journalism. Bell responded that it’s a very small number for Bell and they won’t be getting much out of that. Bell noted that the number hasn’t been negotiated yet.

Conservative MP, Jamil Jivani noted the number of scandals plaguing CTV regarding sexism, noting the number of departures that really highlighted those problems. He also noted Lisa Laflamme’s departure over ageism. Jivani asked if Canadian’s should be concerned about deplorable employment practices. Bell responded by saying that they are proud of the talent they have working for them. Jivani wasn’t impressed, saying that it sounds like Bell is proving the allegations that Bell engages in tokenism.

Liberal MP, Taleeb Noormohamed, noted that there is some clarity he wanted to provide Canadian’s and it was something several other MPs tried to get answers. Noormohamed asked if the employees were getting fired starting on the day Bell gave 16 weeks notice. Bell responded by saying that the terminations began shortly thereafter. Noormohamed noted that, basically, Bell gave the employees 16 weeks of pay and gave the government zero days notice. He asked if it was correct that Bell didn’t give 16 weeks of advanced notice that the layoffs were happening. Bell responded by saying that this was correct. It kind of sounds like there is a problem here in that case.

During that exchange, Bell argued that 70% of government advertising budgets goes to platforms such as Meta and Google. It’s really quite the comment considering last year, the Canadian government announced that they would be suspending $10 million in advertising towards Meta. Granted, this was part of their failed boycott of Meta in ironic support of companies like Bell, but that did happen. Yet, Bell is, once again, trying to blame the government at that point even though they made the decision to axe those positions.

Champoux asked, in reference seemingly to either the Online Streaming Act, Online News Act, or both (thinking it’s both at that point) that once they have achieved a “level playing field”, that Bell would start investing in local news coverage in places like Quebec. Bell only said that they would act in good faith.

Multiple MPs pointed out the many cuts and poor service. One MP pointed to a Manitoba first nation building the infrastructure for a cellphone tower, doing all the legwork to get the equipment set up. All that was left was to get Bell to flip a switch so data could start floating. When wildfires were raging, apparently Bell responded by asking for over $600,000 to flip that switch. This over top of Bell buying and gutting a local provider as well, resulting in residents having to resort to using walkie-talkies because the maintenance to the network wasn’t being done. In Saskatchewan, another MP pointed out how their news service has been cut down to a mere 1 hour per day. All Bell did was rely on the talking point that they are investing in their services.

Liberal MP, Anna Gainey wanted to clarify Bell’s comments from earlier about how the union was OK with the job cuts and asked if the union was comfortable with the cuts. Bell responded by saying that, absolutely, the union was OK with the cuts. As we noted in yesterdays coverage, Unifor later vehemently denied that. No really, part of the press release stated “Unifor vehemently refutes statements by Bibic implying that the union agreed with the company to make the job cuts.”

Conservative MP, Rachel Thomas, asked if Bell supported Bill C-11 (Online Streaming Act). Bell responded that it was the a step in the right direction to “fixing” the broader issues. Thomas then asked if Bell supported Bill C-18 (Online News Act). Bell responded that they do and it’s just one step in part of levelling the playing field between the Canadian broadcasters and the platforms. Thomas pointed out that Bill C-11 was created to shut down innovation and shut down YouTubers or digital first creators and it very much puts more money into digital broadcasters such as Bell. She commented that it’s no longer why Bell would support it because of course, it stifles competition and benefits Bell.

Thomas then noted that Bell receives hundreds of millions of dollars from the government, and yet puts its hands out for more. Yet, takes no qualms with the fact that creativity and innovation is being stifled. Yet, Bell keeps returning to one of the talking points, and this is one of the biggest problems in this country, that creativity and innovation is being stifled, but Bell is part of the problem by supporting Bill C-11. Thomas pointed out that Bell is holding us back and Bell is stopping us from going into the future. The Broadcasting Act, which is antiquated in its very nature, is being applied to the internet. Bell wants to take 30% of digital first creators revenue and put it towards Bell’s antiquated model. She finds that alarming and concerning.

Bell responded by saying that this is a major mischaracterization of their position. They said that they are transitioning towards being a digital media company. Bell said that he is always very surprised with positions that would so evidently favour the Disney’s and the Netflixes and the Amazons of the world against good Canadian companies that would employ tens of thousands of Canadians.

Thomas countered that by saying that as Bell stated themselves, people don’t want TV packages any more. They want access to online streaming. Bill C-11 pulls people back from the future into an antiquated past. It’s terrible legislation.

That has been the Bill C-11 debate in a nutshell. Innovative creators are seeing their careers in the process of being shot down. The response is always to ignore those creators and argue that everyone who is against the legislation is for “Big Tech”. It’s a complete lie and insults people’s intelligence.

Conservative MP, Jacques Gourde asked if the decision to raise dividend payments and make these cuts came from share holders or somewhere else. Bell responded by saying that Quebec is an important market and they are continuing to invest in the province.

Noormohamed pointed out that the bailout money and other taxpayer funded financial benefits was not intended to benefit shareholders and senior executives. He also named several employees and a news bureau, asking the Bell representative if he knew them. Bell responded by saying that CBS closed its Tokyo news room and that it’s a tough climate for news. He then asked how long it would take for someone to report from the ground breaking news in a location that was closed. Bell responded that it’s expensive to cover the news like that.

Noormohamed pointed out that Bell stated that it is going to take a $40 million hit. So, the government responded by giving Bell a $40 million break. Bell denied that this is how it transpired and Bell produces more news than ever before. Noormohamed pointed out that he is from Vancouver and Bell’s footprint is a shell of its former self to put it lightly.

Noormohamed then asked Bell to justify the bonuses of well paid executives and, at the same time, tell Canadians ‘thank you for the help you provided us, we’re going to lay off the journalists that provide you the news from your communities’. Bell responded by saying that the government should create a level playing field with the foreign web giants.

Champoux noted that platforms are being asked to contribute more. So, with that money, could Bell commit to reinvesting that money into local news. Bell responded by saying that he doesn’t have a crystal ball, so he can’t give an answer, but the hope is to continue to invest, but there is a need to level the playing field. Champoux said that Bell is responding to their questions like the Liberals are responding to opposition questions. He is asking for a simple commitment that if the playing field were level, would Bell commit to investing in news rooms? Bell said that they believe they would want to do more.

Ashton shared a brief story about a families financial stability and future being ripped apart by their layoffs from Bell. They said that they didn’t get the financial package upon termination and that a student had to delay their studies because of it. Bell responded by saying that they are in compliance with all applicable laws. Ashton also pointed out that in France, scrolling Instagram costs 5 cents while in Canada, it costs 20 cents thanks to Bells oligopoly power. Why do Canadians have to pay so much while executives make millions off the backs of Canadian consumers? Bell responded by saying that they are providing phenomenal services while prices are declining.

Jivani commented that it is clear that Bell wants to make light of this and that Bell doesn’t want to take this very seriously. He also commented that Bell doesn’t seem to treat the allegations of tokenism very seriously. There was even more talking over talking. Chair Hedy Fry had to call order. After Jivani repeated the question about whether Canadians should be concerned about financing a company that shows callous disregard for employees and diversity. Bell evaded the question by saying that they are proud of their journalists.

So, now that I’ve watched the video, I can definitely say that the accusations lobbed at Bell were definitely justified. Bell repeatedly evaded questions, spoke over not just MPs, but also the Chair, and it was evident that they were playing games by running down the clock when questions got tough. With repeating talking points, it was clear that Bell just didn’t care. For them, it seemed like the hearing was an inconvenience and that the whole idea is to just ride through this storm and hope it just blows over afterwards so they can continue to hollow out their own company.

With knowing this, I think a very fair question is what will MPs do next. It is very clear that some MPs had gotten complacent in just doing whatever Bell wanted to do and it ended up costing thousands of jobs in the process. Bell told MPs throughout the Bill C-11 and Bill C-18 debates to jump and some MPs only asked, “how high?” When Bell made those layoffs afterwards, it was Bell’s way of telling those MPs that went along with their bidding, “Hah! Suckers!”

So, with knowing all of this, how are MPs going to react to all of this? It is clear that if MPs do nothing and just carry on with business as usual by continuing to give Bell handouts willy nilly and pass whatever legislation they ask for, then MPs will end up showing that not only is Bell’s behaviour deplorable, but MPs are enabling that behaviour on top of it all. In the weeks and months ahead, that is the big thing I would be looking forward to in all of this.

MPs were right to be mad at Bell throughout that hearing (just like Canadians were right to be mad at Bell for their behaviour). Will their anger translate into actual action? That is what I look forward to finding out.

Drew Wilson on Mastodon, Twitter and Facebook.

1 thought on “Inside the Bell Hearing Over It’s Job Cuts”

  1. The MPs did a terrible job. If they’d done a little bit of homework by reviewing Bell’s Annual Report, CRTC filings and other documents they could have asked much better questions. For example, they could have pointed out the following information that indicates Bell has been late to the digital revolution and, when it has responded, that it has done a poor job.
    1) Bell hired a Hollywood executive in late 2023 to head up its content business. Does this indicate that Bell is now serious about producing original content as a result of competition from streamers?
    2) TSN did not have a smart TV app until the fall of 2022.
    3) The CTV app can’t be used unless you have a cable subscription. Why can’t people subscribe to it?
    4) In the Play Store, the TSN app has a 2.5 rating and the CTV app has a 3.3 rating. The comments indicate the same problems have persisted for years.
    5) Fibe TV is not marketed as a stand alone IPTV product. Instead it is bundled with Fibe internet.

    Bell has introduced a targeted ad program called SAM that has privacy implications. The MPs could have asked:
    1) What data does it collect.
    2) Can customers opt out.
    3) Does it collect only Fibe TV viewing data or does it report everything watched on the TV.

    Numbers reported to the CRTC indicate Fibe TV lost over $800 M last year. Is this correct, and if so, why is Bell still in the IPTV business.

    Instead of admonishing Bell for supporting the online streaming act MPs should have asked:
    1) How much do the regulations cost customers.
    2) Which regulations are outdated and should be abolished.
    3) Which regulations inhibit innovation and competition.

    Bell has not provided a complete picture of its news operations. They do indicate that CTV spent over $160 M on news, that CP24 doubled its pre-tax income from $18 M to $36 M from 2018 to 2022 and that CTV Newsnet and BNN make money. The MPs should have asked for the earnings and viewership of CTV’s news operations split between the three hour morning show, the national news, and local news.

    Internet prices are high because of the lack of competition. MPs should have asked how 5G internet will impact competition and prices.

    One last point, most Canadians indirectly own Bell shares through CPP, pension plan membership, and Mutual Fund/EFT ownership.

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