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
Day of Mourning action in Gatineau, April 28,
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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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