June 11, 2020
The Ford government’s sidelining of the ministry responsible for worker protections will cost lives, and changes within the ministry are required.
The Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development (MLTSD) has a legal mandate to protect the lives of all workers. It is the last line of defence when workers cannot get support and resolution through the joint internal health and safety process. However, during COVID-19 workers are finding that the ministry is not there to protect them when their employers fail to take reasonable steps to protect workers.
The Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development (MLTSD) must put Occupational Health and Safety first by addressing worker concerns based on up-to-date epidemiological evidence about COVID-19.
“The ministry is disturbingly inactive when workers call on them for assistance especially at this time when aggressive protections are needed for workers. This must change,” said Ontario Federation of Labour President Patty Coates. “These are important requests for protections that must be taken seriously. The government must follow its own laws.”
The OFL has discovered that an internal ministry committee, the Work Refusal Advisory Committee now known as the COVID-19 Advisory Team, rather than inspectors, has been making decisions on how the health and safety inspectors will address COVID-19 issues, including work refusals. For example, work refusals have been downgraded to complaints; occupational health has been ignored in favor less stringent public health directives, and advice from unions and workers has been ignored. The end result of Committee decisions is that workers are not properly protected from exposures to the virus that causes COVID-19.
The OFL reminds the Ford government that the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) supersedes any public health directives issued by Public Health Ontario (PHO) when it comes to the health and lives of front-line workers.
Ontario has already seen, from the SARS crisis, the deadly result of sidelining the ministry. Government mishandling of SARS is well-documented in Justice Archie Campbell’s SARS Report “Spring of Fear”, which showed “widespread, persistent, and ingrained failures by the health care system to comply with, and by the Ministry of Labour to enforce, Ontario’s safety laws, including the Occupational Health and Safety Act and Ontario Regulation 67/93, Regulation for Health Care and Residential Facilities.”
“The labour movement is calling on the Ford government to do better under COVID-19 than it did under SARS. It must avoid repeating a painful history that resulted in avoidable deaths in Ontario,” said Coates. “The Ford government must do better to protect the lives of Ontarians.”
Recent Superior Court and Ontario Labour Relations Board decisions support workers’ rights at work and confirm employers’ duties under the OHSA. The law is very clear: when workers determine through their expertise that they require personal protective equipment (PPE), the employer has a responsibility under the OHSA to provide it. This is the law, and it must be followed.
Emerging evidence and research points to the corona virus remaining airborne. OFL affiliate members are asking for better PPE, including N95 masks, in light of this evidence. This significant evidence is not reflected in PHO directives. Instead of adjusting PHO directives to fit this newer scientific evidence, the government has chosen to ignore, devalue or argue against the information.
Decisions are consciously being made to allow frontline workers to be placed in harm’s way without the protections needed to prevent these deadly exposures.
The OFL reminds the Ford government and ministry officials that they must apply the precautionary principle in making independent decisions on the level of protection required for workers. Ministry health and safety inspectors must be equipped with proper protective equipment, training and directives so they can do their job.
The OFL has filed a Freedom of Information request seeking information on the Work Refusal Advisory Committee and the COVID-19 Advisory Team. The OFL and its affiliates will ensure that the ministry remains accountable to the workers, families and public who are bearing the brunt of their decisions.
“The government and the ministry must exercise due diligence and ensure that workers’ rights are respected, the OHSA is enforced, and that workers are protected,” said Coates.
To that end, the OFL has sent individual letters to ministry officials demanding changes, reminding them that lives are at stake, and that litigation may follow if changes are not made.
This ministry can and should do better. Ontario workers and those they care about are counting on it and should expect nothing less.
For more information, please contact:
Director of Communications
Ontario Federation of Labour
firstname.lastname@example.org l 416-894-3456
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