In the News April 28
April 28 Day of Mourning
Health Care Unions’ Demands to Protect Workers and Society
On the Day of Mourning this year health care workers and their unions are paying attention to what has been learned over the course of the pandemic. Health care workers were and are on the front line of the battle to prevent the spread of COVID-19, to treat patients, and to protect society. Foremost in the concerns of health care workers is that they must have a say in decisions that affect their working conditions which determine their own health and well-being and whether or not they are able to provide the care that patients, residents and the society needs.
The Canadian Institute for Health Information reported in January 2022 that since the start of the pandemic 150,546 health care workers have been infected with COVID-19 and 46 have died.
The Institute reports that “The long-term effects of the pandemic on Canada’s health workforce, including mental health, remain to be seen. Health care workers have continued to provide care for patients despite exhaustion, personal risk of infection, fear of transmission to family members, and the loss of patients and colleagues.” It cites a survey of health care workers conducted in November and December 2020 to which one-third of respondents reported fair to poor mental health and 77 per cent of respondents working in direct contact with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 reported worsening mental health.
Leaders of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) wrote a letter to Minister of Health Jean-Yves Duclos and Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health Carolyn Bennett on March 31 asking that concrete measures be taken to keep health care workers healthy and safe. In the letter they describe “systemic occupational health and safety gaps that put health care workers at risk.”
First and foremost is the implementation of the precautionary principle by the federal government in responding to a public health emergency, which would require that governments and employers take every reasonable precaution to protect the health and safety of workers without having to wait for scientific certainty. Throughout the pandemic workers were denied the personal protective equipment (PPE) they needed because the precautionary principle was not followed.
To address the problems of inadequate supplies of PPE the unions called on the federal government to reform the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile (NESS) to ensure sufficient supplies and domestic production and supply. They point out that internal audits going back to 2010 had identified problems with the NESS and that a recent audit of the federal government’s procurement of PPE during the pandemic found that the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) “was not as prepared as it could have been to respond to the surge in provincial and territorial needs for PPE and medical devices brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.” They outline specific measures that must be taken to implement what has been learned, including stockpiling of PPE based on the precautionary principle, rotating PPE stock to ensure that the provinces and territories do not have expired stock: “Health care workers should never again face garbage bags [used as makeshift gowns], expired masks, and locked PPE supply cupboards.”
Lastly they recommend that the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), rather than PHAC, be responsible for workers’ health and safety during public health emergencies. Amongst other reasons for this proposal is the fact that unions have input into decisions of the CCOHS. Throughout the pandemic workers and unions were never brought into the discussions that informed the decision-making of the PHAC. All the solutions proposed by frontline workers to protect themselves, patients and the public fell on deaf ears. The lack of input into what can be life-and-death decisions is a major contributor to the deterioration in the mental health of workers and the increasing numbers of workers who are leaving their jobs because their working conditions are untenable.
The demands of the unions address the failures of the federal government and its agencies to carry out their social responsibility to prepare for and manage public health emergencies, particularly with regard to protecting health care workers which is key to protecting society.
In fact, the emergency powers invoked during the pandemic used to escalate anti-social measures, allowing employers to arbitrarily change workers’ schedules, work assignments, impose mandatory overtime and deny vacations and other leaves are causing great harm to workers and have deepened the crisis in health care, with thousands leaving their jobs. Workers, when they demand PPE and other supplies, increased wages and benefits and a say in how their work is organized, are denounced by governments as self-serving when in fact only by meeting the demand for acceptable wages and working conditions for health care workers can society guarantee the right to health care for everyone.
The overriding question facing the working class and people of Canada is “Who Decides?” The governments and their agencies that make all the decisions do so without the mobilization of the people in working out and implementing solutions to problems that arise that favour the people. The solution lies in workers organizing to empower themselves, for renewal of the political process which puts the decision-making power in the hands of the people.
Workers’ Forum, posted April 28, 2022.