TORONTO--(BUSINESS WIRE)--By failing to enforce health and safety protections amid a pandemic while allowing businesses and services to reopen across the province, the Ontario government is placing untold numbers of workers at risk, the United Steelworkers (USW) union says.
“We cannot be opening up the Ontario economy without ensuring workers will be protected, and when they are not, that there are consequences,” USW Ontario Director Marty Warren states in a letter sent today to Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton.
“If we don’t get this reopening right, workers, their families, friends and communities will be the ones who pay dearly for the cost of denial and inaction,” Warren says in the letter.
Warren’s letter calls out the labour ministry for dismissing virtually all coronavirus-related unsafe work refusals during the pandemic – directly contradicting public statements by McNaughton and Premier Doug Ford that workers who believe their job is unsafe can refuse to do that work and walk off the job.
Approximately 300 workers across Ontario have exercised their right to refuse work, citing safety issues related to COVID-19, but it appears only one such case was upheld by the labour ministry. The ministry will not accept such work refusals unless it is demonstrated that the virus is present in the workplace, according to media reports.
“Is this your official position?” Warren asks in his letter to McNaughton. “If so, you have abdicated your role and responsibility, and have clearly undermined the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
“If the ministry waits for a confirmed case, the damage has already been done, others will in all likelihood be infected and some will die. We need only look to the meat packing plants, long-term care facilities and farms dependent on migrant workers to know this much,” Warren states.
Warren notes that, following the SARS outbreak in 2003, the Ontario government appointed an independent commission to hold public hearings, consult with experts and make recommendations to improve public health responses, including better workplace health and safety measures.
The Campbell Commission’s report called for the Ministry of Labour to provide “clear direction and information regarding guidelines for work refusals, pregnant workers and immunocompromised workers.”
The Ford government has failed to heed such recommendations, Warren says.
“We are now three months into the COVID-19 pandemic and as a result of media investigations, we finally have some answers. When it comes to work refusals, the ministry’s criteria as reported are unacceptable, given the criteria are not protective of worker health and safety. I might add, we have heard nothing on how you propose to protect pregnant and immunocompromised workers,” the letter to McNaughton states.
Warren is calling on McNaughton to ensure labour ministry officials recognize workers’ right to refuse unsafe work, vigorously enforce the Occupational Health and Safety Act and hold employers accountable for not taking every precaution reasonable to protect employees.
“Let’s not repeat the wrongs of the past,” he states in the letter.