August 20, 2021 - No. 72

Quebec Government Dismantles Occupational
Health and Safety Regime

Defend the Rights of Workers to a
Safe Working Environment

Kevin McLean, Chair of the Health-Safety-Environment Committee of the Federation of Public Service Employees-CSN
Sonia Charette, United Steelworkers Representative in Abitibi-Témiscamingue

Quebec Government Dismantles Occupational Health and Safety Regime

Defend the Rights of Workers to a
Safe Working Environment

Despite strong and broad opposition from workers, unions and organizations that defend injured workers, the Quebec government is proceeding with preparations to pass Bill 59, An Act to modernize the occupational health and safety regime. The Commission that is studying Bill 59 resumed its sessions on August 17. It is carrying out a clause-by-clause study of the bill which the Legault government says it wants passed when the National Assembly reconvenes on September 14.  

Quebec workers are intensifying their fight against this anti-worker, anti-social bill. On August 26, they are organizing a noon-hour demonstration in front of the National Assembly to demand that the bill not be passed and other actions will follow.

The government is serving narrow private interests by treating workers' health and safety as a cost to employers and treating workers themselves as if they are disposable. The government no longer permits workers' organizations to have a say on laws which affect the workers thereby putting workers' health and lives in danger. It must not pass!

To learn more about Bill 59 click here and here.

(Photo: CSD)

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Kevin McLean, Chair of the Health-Safety-Environment Committee of the Federation of Public Service Employees-CSN

My union is the Montreal Transit Union. I am an electromechanic and I do repairs on the mechanical components of the Montreal Metro. Bill 59 is very backward. It is an entirely pro-employer bill. For a long time now, employers have been asking for reforms that will turn the clock back with regards to workers' health and safety. They want to have health and safety protection that has the least possible impact on their business because having such measures restricts what they can do. When workers start enforcing safety standards, they can quickly shut down a business if conditions are not safe. That's why in the bill, health and safety conditions are left to the discretion of the employer.

In my union, our health and safety conditions are negotiated. They are part of the collective agreement. We assume that in the next agreement our employer will ask for concessions. They will say that the law does not provide for these things. They will want to take them away from us and we will have to fight even to keep what we have already achieved.

We did a survey of our member unions and we found that many union contracts say that health and safety standards are those that are in legislation. If the law changes, the health and safety standards for the workers covered by those union contracts change. To fight this, we are going to have to equip our unions to negotiate health and safety language so as to keep what we have and to assist those who have the legislation as the reference point for health and safety standards in their collective agreements. Otherwise, they will lose a lot.

For example, my collective agreement clearly states that there are six people who work 40 hours a week in health and safety. They are paid by the employer, and we meet twice a month with the employer in a health and safety committee meeting. We bring up issues. We discuss. We participate in investigations. All this is written in our collective agreement. In collective agreements where the law is the reference point, if the law changes the situation can change overnight. This may be legal, but it is shameful. It is unacceptable that we have to change our collective agreements to ensure that workers are protected.

In the bill, health and safety hours are left to the discretion of employers, which makes no sense. There is also an issue concerning employers with several workplaces. According to the bill, it will now be possible for employers who have several establishments to set up a single prevention program, a single health and safety committee and a single prevention representative for all of their establishments. This could affect us very seriously at the Société de transport de Montréal, given the fact, for example, that each Metro station has its own civic address and that we have several different repair shops. What will happen if the employer uses this to say that it is a multi-establishment employer and so it can reduce the number of prevention representatives?

The federation is very active against Bill 59. We are participating in demonstrations. We participated in the 59-hour vigil that started on May 31, in front of the National Assembly.

Workers visit MNA's offices, January 2021

We have asked our members to contact their Member of the National Assembly (MNA), whether he or she is in government or in opposition. This is a very different method than simply having the central union write to the minister. We have had responses from MNAs. They are not used to this, to being questioned in this way, to being asked to take a position.

Then we organized 'phase two.' We made a Facebook post that said that the latest amendments proposed by Minister Boulet to Bill 59 are not only insufficient but downright backward and that the occupational health and safety law must protect all workers. I was the one who signed it, and we asked the unions to send it to their members and tell them to put it on their Facebook pages and tag their MNA. We gave them the list of MNAs and government ministers and the constituencies they represent.

We continue to put pressure. We are not going to give up. We need a health and safety law that protects all workers.

(Photos: FTQ)

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Sonia Charette, United Steelworkers Representative in Abitibi-Témiscamingue

Vigil against Bill 59 at Quebec National Assembly, June 1, 2021

The reform brought about by Bill 59 does not help us at all. On the contrary, it will reduce the entire prevention and compensation component for the recognition of workers' occupational diseases.

As far as prevention is concerned, the main thing is the four prevention mechanisms that were introduced for the priority sectors in the Act respecting occupational health and safety that was adopted in 1979. Those were supposed to be applied to all sectors in 1985, but that never happened. 

Minister Boulet tells us that Bill 59 is good because now the prevention mechanisms will apply to all sectors. What he does not say is that these prevention mechanisms are diluted. Before, in the law, there were minimums that the employer had to abide by. In this bill, these minimums no longer exist. There will no longer be a minimum number of hours for prevention representatives to do their work, and no minimum hours for the work of health and safety committees. 

For the other two mechanisms, the prevention program and the health program specific to the establishment, the bill gives the employer the power to establish these programs unilaterally. The notion of joint representation, where workers and employers discuss problems and how to remedy them together, is eliminated. When workers are involved in solving problems they are more likely to implement the necessary preventive measures. The stated objective of the bill is to save employers $4.3 billion over ten years. They will do this on the backs of workers who will no longer be able -- or will have great difficulty -- to have occupational diseases recognized and to obtain compensation. Many will end up on social assistance.

Another aspect that is not addressed by the bill is the psychological aspect. Already, for all psychological injuries including burnout, for example, nine times out of 10 workers' claims are refused by the Labour Standards, Pay Equity and Workplace Health and Safety Board (CNESST). The bill fails to deal with this problem. 

There is nothing on psychological injuries, except for a small section on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). On this aspect, the government has just put in the bill what jurisprudence has already determined. They didn't add anything new. At the Westwood Mine we had a landslide a few months ago, one of five in the last few years. This is causing PTSD to our workers, and the CNESST is refusing to recognize this as an occupational injury. Another major issue in the mines is deafness. The bill will raise the threshold for recognition of occupational deafness.

We have met with all of the region's Members of the National Assembly to make them aware of the impacts of this bill. We elect people to represent us but we can't hold them accountable afterwards, so they do what they want because they are not accountable to us. They have to think of the region and not of their party.

We, the steelworkers, are convinced that if this bill passes, it will lead to problems in negotiating collective agreements. Since there are no longer any minimums on prevention measures in the law, the need to negotiate them will create more labour disputes.

(Photos: ATTAAT, FTQ)

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