From the get-go, the Conservative government of Ontario has shown a toxic disregard for the needs of working people. The province’s March 17 shutdown to slow the spread of COVID-19 did nothing to change the government’s outlook, which prioritizes business interests over the health and safety of Ontarians.
Ontario needs a government with a different viewpoint. Worker and community safety must be the priority if we are to create an economic recovery plan that restarts Ontario safely for everyone, reducing potential new waves of COVID-19. Ontario must flatten the curve, not the working class.
Labour Day 2020 comes almost six months into Ontario’s COVID-19 crisis. Today the Labour movement is calling on the Ford Conservatives to stop treating health and safety in Ontario workplaces as secondary to the economy.
When workplace health and safety is put on the backburner, the government risks the health of every one of us. Worldwide, we have seen how rapidly the coronavirus can spread; from worker to worker on a factory line, unknowingly carried home to family and friends, or from room to room in long-term care homes.
In Ontario, thousands have died, many because they were unable to protect their safety at work. At the start of the pandemic, home care workers reported their employers rationing masks, a key tool in slowing the spread of COVID-19. Workers in Ontario still don’t have legislated, employer-paid sick days so they can stay home when they have COVID-19 symptoms without facing financial hardship. Ford allowed farmers to keep migrant agricultural workers on the job after testing positive for COVID-19. The working and living conditions endured by migrant workers in our province have led to outbreaks, but these workers have little to no recourse. They are excluded from Ontario’s labour and employment laws and have no say about what safety precautions are taken on their work sites or in their bunkhouses. Without these protections, migrant workers must continue to work in unsafe conditions. Three migrant agricultural workers have died on Ontario farms from COVID-19 already.
When will the Ford Conservatives learn that they cannot rely on employers to provide safe and healthy environments for workers? Again, and again we see that big business puts workers at risk: in one commercial bakery, the employer did not tell workers on the line that a co-worker had tested positive for COVID-19, letting them continue to work together. Eventually, 180 people in that workplace contracted the virus. The government continues to allow private, for profit companies to operate long-term care homes, and have given themselves greater powers to appoint operators, when research shows that death rates from COVID-19 are much higher in privately-run long-term care homes than in publicly-run homes.
Ford promised pandemic pay to front-line workers and gave businesses the option of assigning and distributing pandemic pay. Guess what? Front-line workers still face almost all the same risks, but their bosses cancelled the pay bump as soon as they could.
Our schools are also in the government’s sights. The PCs presented education proposals that disregard safety measures and put teachers, education workers, students and families at risk.
Workers have three important rights when it comes to health and safety in their workplaces. They have the right to know about the dangers they face while working and the actions that are being taken by the employer to mitigate against those dangers. They have the right to participate in the decision-making processes to ensure worker health and safety at their workplace. Finally, they have the right to refuse unsafe work, including an evaluation of the workplace to be done by the Ministry of Labour.
During the SARS crisis, the Ministry of Labour was sidelined, and Ontarians died as a result. Under COVID-19, there have been hundreds of work refusals due to unsafe conditions. In a seemingly similar set of events, work refusals are not being processed by the Ministry. All signs seem to indicate that the Ministry of Labour is being sidelined again. Did we learn nothing from SARS?
To weather this health crisis, our government must bring Ontarians together and develop its plans to guarantee inclusion for women, Black, Indigenous, 2SLGBTQI+, and disabled workers in Ontario. We must have input into the decisions that affect us all. Public services that families rely on must be strengthened to build equity and equality in all areas. Collective agreements, and the charter right of every worker to bargain collectively with their employer must be respected.
It is the strength and resilience of workers of Ontario that holds up the food chain, the service industry, our health care and our education systems. Workers are the backbone of our economy. These workers will not accept the hypocrisies of this government.
Together, we are the Power of Many, and we demand better in our workplaces and in our communities. The government must put worker health and safety first as we move forward together toward a just recovery for all.
This Labour Day, we reaffirm our solidarity, demand better, and commit to move forward together to ensure healthy and safe workplaces and communities.
Join us. Visit powerofmany.ca to learn more and to join our call.
Patty Coates is the President of the Ontario Federation of Labour.