I respond to a recent letter “Fish union’s delay tactics appalling,” (The Telegram, May 5th, 2020). At the heart of this letter was, unions have no right to raise concerns about safety in the workplace. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, occupational health and safety is a primary concern of the union movement.
In 2019, 26 workers died in Newfoundland and Labrador (NL). This number has been constant over the past five years. On average, one worker dies every two weeks in our province. Who were these workers? How did they die? In what industries? Somehow we never get to know. How many employers have been found guilty of negligence of worker safety? The answer to that is, very few.
Unions must remain constantly vigilant and raise concerns to ensure workers and workplaces remain safe.
For far too long, worker safety has taken a back-seat to the primary concern of business, increased profits. Consider the Cargill meat plant in Alberta (AB). Workers were called back to work and they came. Out of 2,000 workers, there are now 936 cases of the Covid-19 virus and one worker has died. Another 609 cases are linked to these employees. JBS meat-packing plant in Brooks, AB has 469 confirmed cases with another 529 people getting infected from the outbreak. In Quebec, a large fish plant had to shut down when 3 plant workers and a local fisherman contacted Covid-19.
In Ontario, where roughly 18,000 people have contracted the virus, over 15% of these are health-care workers. We expect the same sort of numbers would apply here.
Surely unions who represent front-line workers have a right to raise the alarm when there is a lack of basic personal protective equipment (PPE) available to workers. I would suggest, they have an absolute obligation to do so.
Ever since the pandemic started, we have asked essential workers from health care to grocery stores to women’s shelters, to be on the front-line to keep our economy moving and our society safe. They are going to work every day, at great risk to themselves and their families, so that we can stay home and stop the pandemic.
These workers have had our backs for the past eight weeks. Yet should a worker get ill, as a result of leaving their bubble to do their shift, they are not guaranteed workers’ compensation. Each claim will be reviewed on a case by case basis. Only British Columbia has agreed to change their policies, so that COVID-19 claims will be presumed to be caused from work, unless proven otherwise.
Workers need to be able to take time off work – either to self-isolate, or to deal with child care issues, sick parents or family members. They need to be protected against job loss for this, and if sick – they need to have paid sick time. We have asked government to amend the Labour Standards Act to include seven (7) paid sick days, as well as an additional fourteen (14) paid sick days in the event of a crisis like COVID-19. The response has been silence.
How dare anyone blame a union for raising safety concerns? Too many workers fear reprisal should they raise any health and safety issues. Unions have fought hard to win basic rights for workers: the right to know what hazards exist in the workplace, the right to participate in addressing health and safety issues and the right to refuse unsafe work. These rights are critically important now, as we start to re-open the economy. Worker safety will always be a priority concern for unions.