April 29, 2020

Workers Speak Out on
the Day of Mourning

• Marc Robitaille, USW Local 9291 Prevention Representative, Westwood
Mine in Abitibi

Simon Lévesque, Head of Health and Safety, FTQ-Construction
Gary Howe, President, United Steelworkers Local 1005, Stelco in Hamilton
Nathalie Savard, President, Union of Nurses, Licensed Practical Nurses and Respiratory Therapists of Northeastern Quebec (SIISNEQ)
Geneviève Royer, High School Remedial Teacher

Workers Speak Up in Defence of the Working Conditions They Require

Marc Robitaille, USW Local 9291 Prevention Representative, Westwood Mine in Abitibi

At the mine, we work to prevent workplace accidents and ensure worker safety. We started working in the mining sector again just over a week ago, after being forced to shut down at the end of March. A lot of workers are worried, there is a lot of concern and that is normal. No one wants to take this virus home. My role is to make sure that the company has put measures in place that are based on the health regulations required by Public Health. We are working for the good of everyone. Regular mine workers, contract workers, all have the right to a safe work environment. Even though as a prevention representative I do not represent the managers, what we are doing is also beneficial for them. As soon as someone enters the site, we have to make sure that everything is safe. We don't want anyone to get hurt or sick.

When you're a prevention representative, you have to focus exclusively on workers' health and safety. You have to ask yourself if the measure that is in place, if the practice that is being used, poses a danger to someone. If there is a danger, you have to find a solution. We are not talking about dollar signs. We are talking about health and safety. We are talking about putting the means in place to ensure that workers work safely. When we take part in regulatory review committees our watchword is health and safety, while for the employer it is always "Safety, yes, but how much does it cost?" We do not care how much it costs. The issue is to eliminate the danger to workers.

In our case, physical distancing is our first problem at the moment. Even before we were in confinement [due to the pandemic], we had already been dealing with this problem. The employer had begun to implement measures but they were not clear at first. The physical distance was one to two metres, and programs were put in place to respect a one metre distance. A mine is vast. There are bottlenecks; in the morning everyone meets in the same place to get their work orders for the day, there are changing rooms, there's the cage that takes us underground. Workers were worried about being very close to each other in those places.

Initially, the employer did not want to put measures in place that were consistent with the Public Health guidelines. But with containment, there were very clear directives from Public Health, that if you want to reopen the business you have to take this and that measure. So the measures were put in place. There is also an educational aspect, because there are changes required to work procedures and behaviour. More and more, when workers pass each other, it is becoming instinctive to do so with the two-metre separation without having to pull out a measuring tape to determine if you are within the two metre distance. That is what we are going through right now on a daily basis. Hand cleaning is very important. When you enter the site, you have to wash your hands and your temperature is taken. There are cleaning stations all over the place. Workers must clean their machines and controls before starting their shift. Same thing at the end of a shift. As for the cages to go underground , we have halved the number of people who use the cage at one time. This means changes in the schedule. It's a reality we are having to adapt to in our workplace and in society.

We must continue to insist that work be done safely and not hesitate to use health and safety resources. The mining sector is a priority sector under the Act respecting occupational health and safety and it is a legal obligation of the employer to have a prevention representative in the mines. Workers must not hesitate to use union representatives to help them with health and safety issues.

When we are in a unionized environment, we must use our resources. Where workers do not have a union, their rights as workers must also be asserted. The Act respecting occupational health and safety applies to everyone, and that is a minimum standard. With COVID-19, we are becoming aware that our health is important and we are taking care of ourselves, protecting ourselves. So, let us also protect ourselves at work. Let's keep that in mind. We must always ask ourselves: is it dangerous to do the work I'm doing? We must not hesitate to ask and seek a safe solution if there is a problem.

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Simon Lévesque, Head of Health and Safety,

With regard to construction, we've had the same demands for 40 years. There's constant talk about those involved on work sites taking charge of their environment, however we lack the tools to do so.

There are a lot of serious accidents in the construction industry. Health and safety is measured by the number of workplace fatalities, which is particularly high in construction, however we must not forget about the workers who are seriously injured. Sites must be organized so that lives stop being destroyed. In recent years, the pressure has increased enormously, as there's a lot of work in the construction industry and employers are scrambling to try to facilitate entry into the trade for poorly trained workers. Training is being weakened. Instead of requiring vocational diplomas, labour pools are being opened up, often at the expense of workers and their health and safety.

The main tool we require is the prevention representative. We want to have prevention representatives appointed by the unions, who will go to work sites, involve themselves in health and safety, do the appropriate follow-up, enforce prevention programs and modify employers' prevention programs without being threatened with dismissal. Even though they are unionized, our workers have no job security. As soon as they raise a health and safety issue, they're let go under false pretexts, such as being told by employers that they no longer have any work for them. Prevention representatives are required to improve health and safety records.

Intervention on construction sites is difficult because although workers want assistance, they do not want to be targeted by employers and risk losing their jobs. Furthermore, union representatives cannot be on site full-time to follow up on work methods and work organization as a whole.

With regard to the pandemic, our main work concerns hygiene, sanitation, eating areas and their regular cleaning, hand washing, etc. Asking for water for hand washing is like asking for a luxury. It was always presented as something impossible. And yet, on sites where water is needed for the job to be done, the means are found to provide adequate toilets where our workers can wash their hands with soap. There are other cases, such as a contractor who installed a hand-washing station with a water heater, a wash basin -- a proper portable facility. So it is possible! Of course we can't give up! It's a basic demand and it must be met!

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Gary Howe, President, United Steelworkers
Local 1005, Stelco in Hamilton

The slogan for April 28 is "Mourn for the Dead, Fight for the Living." Our members and retirees have been subjected to hazardous conditions and designated substances, such as asbestos and coke oven emissions. I've seen a lot of our workers pass away, a lot of my friends passed away in their fifties, many because they worked with designated substances.

For me and for Local 1005, COVID-19 is another hazardous substance that we workers, not just us but all workers, must deal with. So it's something more on top of everything else that we are required to deal with. The difference with COVID-19 is that for some people it's a lot more acute, they're seeing the results a lot more immediately, whereas with designated substances such as asbestos, it takes a lot longer before they evolve into a cancer. This can take up to 20 or 30 years for workers.

COVID-19 is another hazard that workers have to work with and that's why it's so important that we recognize the workers who are dealing with this hazard now, all the essential workers, like the health care workers. For over 20 years now we've been talking about these workers, the problems that they are facing, the hospital workers and so on. That's why for me this day of mourning is so vitally important. It adds to all the problems that we have with the other designated substances and the immediate hazards. For us, on COVID-19, we've got to see some movement forward. There have to be rules and laws in place to protect workers and make it better for everyone there in the system. The whole health system has to be overhauled. And then on top of that, there's the issue of the right to refuse unsafe work. The workers' ability to have a meaningful right to refuse must be re-enforced, not just having the right to refuse, then the Ministry comes in and does nothing. It has to be meaningful.

Besides, in the plant, it's difficult when working with your co-workers to try to stay six feet apart to respect physical distancing. This is one of the things that we're trying to do in the plant and it's challenging.

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Nathalie Savard, President, Union of Nurses, Licensed Practical Nurses and Respiratory Therapists of Northeastern Quebec (SIISNEQ)

As president of the union, and from what I see in the field, my concerns are always for the health and safety of our members and health care workers as a whole. It seems to me that decisions are sometimes made based on what equipment is available and on inventories, not on the basis of what is needed. Instructions for protection and the equipment needed are constantly changing. Recently, we had a new directive from our employer in the morning regarding disposable gowns and in the afternoon the Minister of Health said that we were actually facing a shortage. We can see how the government is failing to protect people's health and safety. There are over 4,000 people in the health care system in Quebec who are infected with the coronavirus. There is a big difference between what the government says and what is happening on the ground.

As far as we are concerned, we have gone from being guardian angels to a situation where we simply have to obey. Because we are in a war situation, our members are forced to increase their availability, their shifts are changed, they are not being respected. Yet these are the troops who need to be motivated. We have to make sure that the troops are there, but instead everything is done to disrespect them and that pushes them to resign. Since the Government of Quebec's ministerial order in March, that allows the government to unilaterally change our working conditions, employers are no longer looking for a solution to problems. If we have a problem, instead of working with us to solve it, they tell us that they will use the ministerial order and that they have the right to do whatever they want.

We have been saying since the beginning that it takes people on the ground to look after the health and safety of workers. We no longer see the managers. We do not know where they are. If the managers do not have the time, they should put people in charge who will take care of occupational health and safety. During the last negotiations, we asked for occupational health and safety officers, who are health care workers and are in the field, to take care of what is going on. The officer would be deployed on a full-time basis, to go around the establishments, with the power to say that this is not working and demand that this or that measure be applied. Right now we are seeing a big gap in terms of prevention in the health care network. We see the weakness of our network. Since the COVID-19 crisis, the work of the joint health and safety committees has been stopped. We never see people from the Labour Standards, Pay Equity and Workplace Health and Safety Board either.

Health care workers are not guardian angels, they are human beings who provide care. They need to be given good working conditions and the means to protect themselves.

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Geneviève Royer, High School Remedial Teacher

The main health issue facing teachers is anxiety. This is reflected, among other things, in a year-over-year increase in the number of teachers needing to take extended leaves of absence. For example, between 2013 and 2018, while there was a four per cent increase in the number of teachers in the profession, 13 per cent more teachers had to take this type of leave.

It is clear to us that it is our working conditions that generate this illness. The contradiction between the needs of our students (both pedagogical and human) and our ability to meet them, given the lack of resources, is untenable. Schools are places of complex social relations where all of society's problems come together, day after day. We need to deal with young people who are themselves struggling with mental or physical illness, or with family members who are suffering from it, young people who are financially insecure, or who have learning disabilities. We reject the pressure that our overwork is due to individual behavioural problems, a "bad" way of managing our classes.

Let's look at what's happening now. The government has been talking about reopening schools since April 10 and not once has it presented the measures it intends to take to teachers and their organizations for approval. It induces extreme anxiety for education workers, their families and the families of our students. So we talk to each other to put forward our criteria, as experts in school life. We see all the more the justice of our demand, which dates back more than 20 years, to reduce the student-to-teacher ratio and to have a sufficient number of professionals and specialized educators with sufficient hours to assist us. Things cannot go back to the way they were.

Another example is maintenance, the cleaning and sanitation of schools. The number of hours allocated to this has been decreasing for years to such an extent that the proposed maintenance schedule for primary and secondary schools, published in 2015 by the Ministry of Health and Social Services, is not being followed at all. We don't want to go back to our schools where students' desks are cleaned once a year!

This is why we are currently discussing among ourselves and with our unions how we ourselves will organize the return to the classroom. This is already providing a sense of security in opposition to the way the government is dealing with the issue of reopening schools.

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