April 16, 2020

Workers Continue to Speak Out

Partial Reopening of Residential Construction Sites in Quebec
Workers Step Up the Fight for Proper Working Conditions - Pierre Chénier
Interview, François Patry, President, National Brotherhood of Carpenters,
FTQ-Construction Local 9

Transportation Workers
• The Need to Compel Canadian Airlines to Fully Protect Workers
and Passengers

Frontline Public Transit Workers Demand Action to Protect Transit Workers

Partial Reopening of Residential Construction Sites in Quebec

Workers Step Up the Fight for
Proper Working Conditions

On April 13, the Quebec government announced that it is reopening some residential construction sites starting April 20. These are sites for residential units that are scheduled to be delivered by July 31. Construction sites in Quebec have been closed since March 24.

According to Quebec's Labour Minister, the work that was done during the shutdown by the COVID-19 Committee set up by the Labour Standards, Pay Equity and Workplace Health and Safety Board (CNESST) has created confidence that the reopening of residential construction, and eventually of all construction sites, is going to be done safely for construction workers.

Even a cursory look at the guide produced by the committee reveals that the Labour Minister's claims are false. It is shocking that on the issue of sanitary installations, the guide states that "for construction sites with less than 25 workers, a chemical toilet can be used." Besides anything else, a chemical toilet does not have running water and soap for the workers to wash their hands. Most residential construction sites in Quebec have fewer than 25 workers. This is being imposed on construction workers at a time the World Health Organization has stressed that frequent and thorough washing of hands with soap and water is a primary measure to stop the spread of COVID-19 and the Quebec government has declared a public health emergency. Still, this is not enough to convince the Quebec government to provide construction workers with basic sanitary measures as a sine qua non condition for the reopening of construction sites.

For decades, construction workers have been waging a bitter fight for such basics as adequate sanitary installations on all sites. The government has deliberately chosen to impose the status quo on construction workers in the midst of a crisis, and cover it up with nice-sounding language, rather than finally meeting the legitimate demands of construction workers by solving this long-standing problem. Nor was a second of consideration given to the opportunity to satisfy the long-standing demand of construction workers for full-time prevention representatives on construction sites. The only role of the prevention representatives would be to make sure that adequate prevention is done on the construction sites, report on violations of health and safety standards, and make proposals to correct unsafe conditions. They would be of immense value during the pandemic in which safety hazards are significantly increased.

The government still considers that construction workers have no rights and are basically troublemakers interfering with the fulfillment of narrow private interests. Construction workers create immense value for society and their claims and rights must be upheld, including the right to have a decisive say in the determination of their working conditions. The COVID-19 crisis has not changed the basic anti-social stand of the state and of the ruling elite towards construction workers, which has led, among other things, to the construction sector being the most deadly sector of Quebec economy year after year. The state-organized violation of the rights of the construction workers has to stop and it has to stop now.

This leaves construction workers no choice but to step up their fight in defence of their health and safety which also defends the health and safety of everyone. They will do their utmost to defend and protect themselves and demand that the authorities take up their responsibility to provide those rights with a guarantee. They are doing so in difficult conditions and need the full support of all workers and the building of public opinion which supports their demands that they be provided with everything they need so that construction work can continue during the pandemic.

Let us make sure that we support and popularize their demands in the court of public opinion so that it is impossible for the state and construction companies to isolate them.

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Interview, François Patry, President,
National Brotherhood of Carpenters,
FTQ-Construction Local 9

Workers' Forum: What is your opinion on the Quebec government's decision to allow some residential construction to resume?

François Patry: At Local 9, we have always been in favour of the opening of construction sites. What we want is to make sure that employers respect the conditions that are necessary for the opening of construction sites. That means sanitation, having proper and clean washrooms, places where we can eat, having the space necessary to maintain the two-metre social distancing, having a work organization that allows us to work in a safe manner. It also means having the equipment that allows us to work two metres apart. In the document produced for the reopening of construction, it talks about transporting workers in pairs by truck. Two per truck does not respect the two-metre distance.

If all safety measures are respected, we agree with the reopening of the construction sites. Our problem is that the safety rules were not respected before the sites were shut down so how are they going to do it now? What has changed so that now the safety conditions are going to be respected? There is nothing that tells us that will be the case.

Unfortunately, my experience in 30 years of health and safety in construction is that employers do not put the necessary energy into prevention. This is not part of their work habits. Even in a context such as the one we are in right now, I do not believe they will change their way of doing things. However, we have to give them a chance, but we will be present on the construction sites to ensure that they comply with the rules.

It is clear that it is through concrete action on construction sites, at the workplace itself, that situations can be changed. It is not enough to say that I have a nice labour code or a nice regulation on health and safety in the workplace, the issue is to apply these health and safety regulations. FTQ-Construction and Local 9 have always denounced the fact that, for construction employers, prevention on construction sites is the least of their concerns, and measures taken are always no more than the minimum that is provided for by the safety code for the construction industry. We fought for 15 years on construction sites to have washrooms that meet minimum health standards. We had to fight and we are still fighting to have them.

We understand that there are people who have bought houses, condos, that they are waiting to take possession in July, and that it will be hell for them if they don't get them. But it must not be that we, the construction workers, become the agents of a new rise in the number of COVID-19 cases. This can happen because although we want to get the economy going again there is a danger if employers do not respect their obligations and do not act responsibly.

WF: What do you think of the "Guide COVID-19 -- Construction Sites," which was issued by the committee that was set up by the Labour Standards, Pay Equity and Workplace Health and Safety Board (CNESST) to guide the reopening of construction sites?

FP: This guide tells me that things have not changed much. Nothing has been changed in the safety code for the construction industry. A few things have been added: the employer has to ask the worker if he's had any symptoms, if he has a fever, if he's just returned from a trip out of the country. It says too that the employer must do everything possible to ensure that the two-metre distance is respected. That is it.

As far as toilets are concerned, the guide reproduces exactly what we have in the code. For work sites with 25 workers or less, toilets will still not need running water when the work sites reopen. According to the code, on construction sites, in order to be entitled to a trailer to eat, it takes at least 10 workers who work for more than seven days. It is the same thing in the guide. The document they put together makes no changes to the Safety Code for the construction industry.

In the past, we were forced to negotiate that flush toilets with a sink and water for hand-washing, would be reserved for construction sites with 25 or more workers, because the employers did not want to talk about providing such washrooms for small construction sites. In the committee that is responsible for reviewing the code, we have to have unanimity, otherwise nothing will move forward. This is a never-ending negotiation and that is why it took us 15 years to come up with regulations. How is it that in the midst of a public health emergency, the government used its power to force people to stay at home and to refrain from assembling, which we accept and implement because we understand the situation, and it cannot even decide that work sites with 25 workers or less must have the same washrooms, the same sanitary facilities as on work sites with 25 workers or more?

In the document, they put things such as that workers must wash their hands.

They say that employers must take their responsibility to protect the health and safety of workers, but they also say that if the worker feels ill, he cannot endanger his health or that of the public. That means that if the employer does not respect his obligations, it falls on the shoulders of the workers who must make the decision to leave, or any other decision.

The guide does not go far enough. However, we are going to work with it to start, but we are going to demand more and more. On work sites with 25 workers or less, we will ensure that there is always water and something to wash our hands. There is no way we are going to accept degreasers or disinfectants. Construction workers' hands get stained and dirty. What are they going to do with Purell? This is completely out of sync with our situation.

WF: How do you see the intervention of construction workers and unions in the coming period?

FP: In Local 9, we have 23 representatives across Quebec. The 23 of them will be present on the construction sites to focus on the measures that will be taken to ensure that we are not the agents of the propagation of COVID-19.

We are in the process of organizing ourselves to develop an intervention strategy to ensure that workers can work safely, with rules that will ensure that they will not contract COVID-19 at work and that, if they catch it inadvertently, they will not be an agent in the spread of the disease.

Workers want to earn a living. They want to move society forward. But this should not be at the expense of their working conditions. Already, we are working in a dangerous workplace where the necessary preventive measures are not being taken.

Our role is to make sure that safety measures are taken, that everything is going to be okay for everyone. We want to produce to ensure that consumers receive their homes, their condos, by the required date. We want to do that because we are part of this society, but not at the expense of the safety of construction workers.

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Transportation Workers

The Need to Compel Canadian Airlines to
Fully Protect Workers and Passengers

In an April 14 press release, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Airline Division states that by refusing to immediately compel Canadian airlines to fully comply with the COVID-19 guidance to protect airline workers, especially with regard to personal protective equipment for the crews, the federal government is complicit in endangering the safety of these workers and the traveling public. The statement recalls than on April 6, CUPE Airline Division local and component presidents wrote a joint letter to Transport Minister Marc Garneau and Labour Minister Filomena Tassi asking them to step in to force airlines to provide flight attendants with the full personal protective equipment (PPE) they need to do their jobs safely.

The letter of April 6 also asked the ministers to act to uphold the health and safety laws and enforce the basic health and safety rights of flight attendants, including their right to refuse dangerous work.

To date, no answer has been received.

The press release says that for months the CUPE Airline Division has been saying that the lack of sufficient PPE is endangering its members' safety on the job.

"Airlines in Canada are making progress, but not enough. For the health and safety of our members and the traveling public, the federal government must get involved now," said CUPE Airline Division President Julie Roberts.

The statement reports that since March 15 there have been over 300 flights in Canada with confirmed COVID-19 travelers, resulting in at least 60 confirmed cases of infection of CUPE members. Over 2,000 flight attendants across Canada are, or have been, in isolation after working on flights with infected passengers on board.

Among the minimal standards that should be imposed by the federal government to the airlines, the CUPE division says:

- Reducing physical contact between flight attendants and passengers and in-flight service items is critical.

- Non-essential in-flight service to passengers needs to be minimized. Flight attendants should only be interacting with passengers for urgent matters such as medical or security situations.

- There must be increased availability of PPE, including medical grade gloves, long-sleeve isolation gowns, N95 masks and face shields for every flight attendant

- Airlines must properly stock every flight with adequate disinfectant and potable water, and properly disinfect every plane after every flight.

- Airlines or airports should have specially trained personnel assigned to do the pre-flight screening of passengers for COVID-19 symptoms.

CUPE's Airline Division has more than 15,000 flight attendants in its ranks. They work at Air Canada, Air Canada Rouge, Air Transat, Sunwing, CALM Air, Canadian North, WestJet, WestJet Encore, Flair Air, Swoop, Cathay Pacific, First Air, Air Georgian and PAL Airlines.

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Frontline Public Transit Workers Demand
Action to Protect Transit Workers

In an April 15 press release signed by John Di Nino, President of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Canada, the union demands action from the federal government to protect transit workers and preserve this essential service.

The union states that as of April 15, transit workers across Canada have not been provided personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves. In spite of this they continue to work, moving the general public including essential workers in health care, emergency services, grocery, pharmacy and other services deemed essential.

"Public Transit employees have no way to protect themselves and have a right to protective masks and gloves, just like other public service workers," says Di Nino.

Di Nino goes on to say: "We stand together to urge the government of Canada to provide dedicated operating funding to public transit agencies in Canada. We are united to help our community amid the pandemic and we are united in our call for federal operating subsidies to make these important investments in front line transit workers. Public Transit across the nation is suffering from a drastic reduction in riders as people are encouraged to stay at home until COVID-19 is under control -- and this will lead to service reductions and lay-offs, Public Transit operations rely on the farebox and without those fares, the system will be devastated and unsustainable -- but the immediate issue is keeping our workers safe."

As part of its demand for emergency funding to save Canada's public transit system, ATU Canada is demanding the immediate redirection of at least $5 billion from the Canadian Infrastructure Bank to support a National Transit Strategy with dedicated operational funding.


ATU Canada has launched a national petition calling for people to Stand with Canadian Transit Workers to send a strong message to the Canadian government that it needs to protect the workers that move the country.

The petition reads:

"To: The Cabinet Committee on the federal response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

"From: [Name of the person]

"We, the transit professionals in mass public transit, over the road buses, maintenance, bus operations, paratransit, train and subways, are providing quality transportation to the people of Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have been working around the clock during this crisis to deliver public transit for essential service workers on the frontlines. As transit professionals, we are acutely aware of the critical role we play in guaranteeing unrestricted access to mobility for emergency service providers, health care professionals, and grocery and retail workers.

"We are maintaining service, but we have urgent priorities that need to be addressed with emergency funding for our agencies. These priorities include personal protective equipment for transit workers, additional leave for anyone affected by the virus, fare elimination to support social distancing, rear door boarding and ensuring furloughed transit workers are compensated and have jobs to return to when our economy restarts."

To sign the petition, click here

(Photos: ATU Canada)

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