May 5, 2021 - No. 41

Quebec Workers Speak Out on Health and Safety 

Workers Oppose Neo-Liberal Health and Safety Reforms on Day of Mourning

Sounding the Alarm on the Crisis in Quebec's Health Care
- Pierre Soublière 

The Case of OPTILAB

Quebec Workers Speak Out on Health and Safety

Workers Oppose Neo-Liberal Health and Safety Reforms on Day of Mourning

Day of Mourning action in Gatineau, April 28, 2021

As an expression of unity in action in the face of the Quebec government's anti-social anti-worker Bill-59 to "modernize health and safety at the workplace," actions were organized throughout Quebec on April 28, the Day of Mourning. Bill 59 imposes a complete overhaul of Quebec's health and safety regime without any say by the workers or their defence organizations. It includes changes that will save employers millions of dollars by denying injured workers just compensation.

Outaouais locals of several unions representing the main sectors of the social economy organized an event at noon in front of a Gatineau long-term care centre which, like many such centres, was hard-hit by the pandemic in both the first and second wave. This was the place of work of the first worker known to have succumbed to COVID-19 in the Outaouais -- Sylvain Roy, a long-time personal support worker.

Spokespersons pointed out that April 28 was a day to pay homage to all those who had fallen ill or died from COVID-19, and all those who had suffered work-related accidents, exhaustion or mental health problems, as well as to express the workers' strong opposition to Bill-59. It was pointed out that it was particularly ironic that the Legault government chose these times of pandemic, when workers are going through great upheavals and many are putting their very lives on the line to provide services essential to society, to pass a law which attacks the people's right to work in a safe environment. As one speaker pointed out, not only is health and safety an obligation for the employer, it is a worker's fundamental right.

A Quebec Federation of Labour (FTQ) spokesperson said that health and safety in the workplace must be a priority in a modern society and that, above all, it is a matter of human dignity.

In the actions that were organized across Quebec opposition to Bill 59 was a prominent theme. Speakers pointed out that the Ministry of Labour's official document on the regulatory impact of the bill states that this reform will save employers $4 billion over the next 10 years through reduced treatment and compensation for injured and sick workers.

In the actions, the workers also pointed out that this bill deregulates everything related to prevention, putting it all under the control of employers. Among other things, prevention and health programs, hours devoted to prevention, and the operation of joint health and safety committees will now be left to the sole discretion of employers.

This dismantling is called a "modernization" of the occupational health and safety system.

That this is being done at a time when hundreds of thousands of workers are risking their health and safety to protect the public and help them get through the pandemic crisis only shows the contempt that neo-liberal governments such as the Legault government have for workers.

On the Day of Mourning, Quebec workers took a firm stand in defence of their right to healthy and safe working conditions and for workers to have the decisive say in determining those conditions and the treatment and compensation of workers injured and made ill on the job.

(Photos: WF, FTQ)

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Sounding the Alarm on the Crisis in
Quebec's Health Care Sector

Quebec health and social services workers continue to organize actions to inform people of their situation. Their collective agreement expired at the end of March 2020 and no progress has been made in negotiations. The Legault government has been ignoring not only their demands, but the solutions they are putting forward to improve the health system in times of the pandemic and overall.

The Legault government is completely oblivious to the serious problems which its Ministerial Orders and various measures such as reduced services have compounded, and continues to deal with social issues in a law-and-order fashion. Its reaction to one of the workers' actions, rallies on March 31 under the call "Sound the Alarm" illustrates this. Workers organized demonstrations and various actions to make themselves heard on the first anniversary of the end of their collective agreement.

The response of the Legault government was to, through its Employers' Negotiating Committee, appeal to the Labour Court (TAT). The latter, taking "sounding the alarm" literally, issued a warning on March 30 as to what alarms the workers were "authorized" to set off, stating that "no bells, alarm clocks, flutes, fire alarms, nor any other noisy instrument, are to be used." It even determined that these alarms should be limited to cell phones or watches, and that they should not be used more than four times per employee, for a maximum time of 30 seconds and at a reasonable volume!

Beyond the absurdity of all this, it is the reason given by the TAT which is of concern; that is, it claims that its objective is to "avoid all harm or threat of harm affecting a service to which the public is entitled," as well as threats "to safe and continuous health and social services to which the population is entitled." This is what is most outrageous.

The week before the anniversary actions Premier Legault declared that concerning the decisions with regard to the pandemic, he took "sole responsibility." But responsibility is a term not to be taken lightly. Is he ready to be held responsible, as those before him, for all the measures which have caused and will continue to cause untold hardships and avoidable deaths of health care workers and those in their care? Health care workers, and workers in general, don't need the courts to decide how they will take up their social responsibilities. They have shown this time and time again, at the risk of their own health and lives. Those in power must be held accountable for their lack of social responsibility, if "rule of law" is to have any meaning today.

(Photos: FTQ)

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The Case of OPTILAB

The centralization of Quebec laboratory services at the OPTILAB biological testing clusters is just one example of how the Quebec government has failed to take social responsibility for the health care network, those who work in it and those it is supposed to serve. OPTILAB was created in 2017 under then Liberal Minister of Health Gaétan Barrette, as a highly centralized merger of biological testing services. Laboratory testing that was previously done on-site at major hospitals in Quebec is now done in an OPTILAB facility. Test results that previously took days now can take weeks.

When the changes were made to centralize laboratory testing, Quebec health care workers' unions and many doctors objected on the grounds that it was a threat to both patients and workers. They underlined the importance of maintaining laboratory services that are community-based, to be able to provide the fastest possible test results for patients in Emergency Departments and those admitted to hospitals. They warned that this centralizing measure would reduce the quality of services and limit access to the population.

The recent tragic death of a Saguenay doctor bears out these concerns. Thirty-year-old Dr. Michael Proulx died in February after a diagnosis of stage four lung cancer.

Having been diagnosed with advanced stage four lung cancer, Dr. Proulx was hospitalized at the Institut universitaire de cardiologie et de pneumologie de Québec (IUCPQ), where specialists suggested emergency chemotherapy as well as targeted therapy. Although they had the personnel, expertise and equipment to perform the tests necessary to determine the appropriate treatment within two to three days, they were not permitted to conduct the tests and had to send specimens to OPTILAB for testing and wait weeks for results. By the time the results came back from OPTILAB, Dr. Proulx had succumbed to his illness. The IUCPQ specialists and family members say that the delays caused by having testing done by OPTILAB prevented treatment that might have saved his life. The situation is particularly frustrating in light of the fact that the current Minister of Health has told doctors that disagree with the centralization and warn that it will have serious negative impacts on patient care, that they just had to "live with it."

The medical staff and family have been left with a sense that "all was not done" to help Dr. Proulx. This tragedy also raises the question of how many other lives have been lost or peoples’ health severely compromised because of the neo-libeal restructuring of the health system in the name of “economies of scale” and other “cost saving." This was also brought home by the Quebec Health and Welfare Commissioner who, with regard to the loss of lives in long-term care centres, recently stated that lives could have been saved during the COVID-19 pandemic "if the Quebec health care system had been truly based on the needs of the population."

Such is the reality of the Legault government's so-called responsibility for Quebec's health care system.

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