In the News
Workplace Health and Safety
What We Achieved in 2021 and Challenges
Facing Us in 2022
Félix Lapan is a community organizer with the Quebec Union des travailleuses et travailleurs accidentés ou malades (UTTAM). He sent the following report to the forum organized by the Workers’ Centre of CPC(M-L) in the New Year on what the workers achieved in 2021 and the challenges they face in 2022.
The major issue for us in 2021 was the fight against Bill 59, An Act to modernize the occupational health and safety regime, which has now been adopted. This is a huge attack on the working class, on the rights of victims of work-related accidents and illnesses, and challenges all the conditions that existed in the Act respecting occupational health and safety with regard to prevention. While the law claims to extend prevention to sectors not covered, it was done by weakening the existing prevention mechanisms.
For us the adoption of this law was most certainly a blow, as it’s a step backwards. But it was inspiring to see the strong mobilization around the issues of occupational health and safety within the workers’ movement, the trade unions, more than we had seen in decades. Even if the reform was adopted, this movement helped in mitigating the setbacks. The bill that was passed is much less of a disaster than the one originally introduced in October 2020.
We were able to get many of the things that were in the original bill removed. For example, there were provisions that made it almost impossible to have certain illnesses recognized, such as those caused by repetitive movements, occupational deafness, metal poisoning including lead, etc. It also had provisions that allowed the CNESST [Labour Standards, Pay Equity and Workplace Health and Safety Board] to force people back to work. We were losing our right to contest. We find that through the reform, the CNESST is gaining a lot of power and that is very worrisome, but without that mobilization things would have been much worse.
We were able to block a lot of rollbacks and this mobilization gives us hope that the labour movement will keep the issue of workplace health and safety front and centre. We will have to mobilize again in the coming months and years, particularly because of the provisions still contained in the law.
The law gives the CNESST regulatory powers that it will use in the months and years ahead. In particular, there’s the list of occupational diseases. The CNESST will use its power to determine the conditions for all the diseases on the list, for example thresholds, the levels of toxic substances to which one must be exposed in order to have a disease recognized. In the coming months, there’s a risk of there being draft regulations restricting the recognition of certain occupational diseases. There’s also the new regulatory power regarding medical assistance that will set limits on reimbursements for drugs, orthotics, prosthetics and treatments. As we always do, but now even more than ever, we will be carefully monitoring every publication of the Official Gazette, and we will mobilize as soon as there’s draft regulations restricting rights.
The other big issue is how the CNESST will be applying the provisions concerning the return to work and vocational rehabilitation before the workplace injury has healed or stabilized, that come into effect on October 6, 2022. We are very worried, especially about non-unionized workers who will be required to return to work with their employer against their doctor’s advice. They risk ending up on social assistance because they can be fired at the drop of a hat because they will be forced to do a job they are not capable of doing. We’ll document and denounce these situations.
Thanks to the struggle and to mobilization, the Minister agreed to put a sunset clause into the law with a 2026 deadline. We’re keeping this in mind and hope that the organizations will be mobilizing and talking to each other until then, when the Minister of Labour must table a report in the National Assembly on an assessment of the reform and on recommendations that the provisions be maintained, modified or repealed.
It’s a window of opportunity to force a debate in the public space on occupational health and safety, on the outcomes of the reform. As the provisions of the law come into force, we’ll be seeing on the ground what the impacts are on people’s lives and on the injustices and we’ll be demanding changes.
We must remain mobilized on the issues of workplace health and safety just as we are for any injustice.
(Workers’ Forum, posted February 1, 2022. Translated from the original French by Workers’ Forum)