It’s all too common after the death of a worker to read a human interest story about workers and their lives. It’s important to know something behind the names of those killed in industrial accidents and Carolyn Thompson did a great job humanizing Phuong Thang, the worker killed.
As the relevant authorities investigate the accident and the family lays Phuong to rest and grieves, we must realize that a health and safety culture in the workplace does not happen in a vacuum.
I am not presuming to know the situation at the plant where the worker was killed, but the accident has caused me to reflect on my time at the Windsor Workers’ Education Centre where I have met many non-union workers, many of whom were women, and of those, most were recent or established newcomers. They work in manufacturing plants throughout Windsor/Essex.
I was moved by this accident involving a member of the local Vietnamese community. I feel like I know the worker killed: two years ago we met a number of established immigrant women from Vietnam who worked in a non-union manufacturing plant in Windsor. Those and other workers were faced with a $3 per hour wage cut – from $13.80 per hour to the minimum wage – and resigned rather than continue working in a toxic work environment for minimum wage. Their work was fast paced, they had no washroom supplies, the plant was unsafe and dirty, and racist and sexist harassment from management was common. They took a difficult and principled stand and fought for the severance pay they were owed. Now a member of their community has been killed in a second fatal accident at Canadian Electrocoating Limited.
One of the biggest difficulties workers have is knowing how and when to invoke the right to refuse unsafe work. According to the Ministry of Labour website, work refusals in the industrial sector have fallen from 370 in 2002/03 to 117 in 2011/12. In an age of increasing employment precarity for workers the numbers suggest workers may not be reporting unsafe conditions. And the thing is a worker only has to feel there is something unsafe, report that, and a process is supposed to be followed until the situation is resolved to the satisfaction of everyone; not to be told to ‘get back to work we’re too busy for this’. There are great wallet sized cards that can be easily carried by a worker and on it are all one needs to know to report unsafe conditions.
Undoubtedly increasing employment precarity – not just in Windsor, but throughout the country – has eroded workers’ ability to act in their own interests. Many a worker has described the very uncomfortable position of being the “shit disturber” and how fellow workers will steer clear out of fear of being in trouble too if they support their fellow worker. Few want to put their job at risk in the unemployment capital of Canada, even when protected from reprisals.
Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act workers have three key rights:
• right to participate to be part of the process of identifying and resolving health and safety concerns
• right to know about any hazards to which they may be exposed
• right to refuse work that they believe is dangerous
The Act also bans reprisals against employees who exercise these rights.
Yet even with these rights and protections we know at the centre workers have difficulty in exercising rights under both the Employment Standards Act and the OHSA. Workplaces we have experience with do not respect workers rights. And to make matters actually worse, government regulations assume a level playing field for workers and employers. Also in our experience, workplaces are rife with uncertainty over whether jobs are long term, favouritism, and bullying and harassment. The latter two items are what we are increasingly hearing about. How can health and safety committees operate properly in toxic work environments? In fact on questioning a worker in non-union workplaces on whether there is a health and safety committee they could rely on, invariably there is a shrug and I’m told the people on the committee are the bosses’ favourites. Don’t even get me started on Human Resource departments and personnel.
In our view at the centre, the solutions to dangers and other problems in the workplace will come from workers themselves. The goal of the Windsor Workers’ Education Centre is to educate workers on their rights and, recognizing the unequal power distribution between employers and workers, strategize on how to exercise rights workers have under the law – that’s the tough part.
Instead of waiting for a worker fatality and the resulting eulogy in the media, workers must be able to express their full humanity in the workplace, just as they do in all other aspects of their lives: as parents, homeowners, and so on. That means being fully protected under the law and able to confront workplace challenges and correct problems on an ongoing daily basis. Tepid regulations assuming a level playing field actually make that harder.
Here are some points for workers to consider:
• The workplace is NOT a family ( I hear that a lot). It is a business and power rests with the owners and management.
• Workers can develop a sense of camaraderie and solidarity, and often do with social events outside of work. How can that sense of solidarity be used to create a more equitable share of power in the workplace?
• If something looks and feels unsafe then it probably is. Workers not only have a right to speak out we have a duty to others and their safety: when in doubt in a toxic workplace talk it over with other workers you trust, do some research on the Ministry of Labour website, and/or come in to the workers’ centre. Plan a strategy (that’s especially where we can help) and approach management for a solution.
Here also are a list of duties that fall on all workers (posted on the Worker Health and Safety website:
By law, Ontario workers also have duties in the workplace. These include the duty to:
- report hazards/unsafe conditions to a supervisor/employer;
- report injuries/illnesses to a supervisor/employer/worker representative;
- report the absence or defect in any equipment or protective device to supervisor/employer;
- wear and use required safety equipment or device.
With power comes responsibility. It is up to employers to ensure workplaces are physically safe and free from harassment and discrimination. Workers then must be vigilant and ready to take action to protect themselves and others if employers are failing to hold up their end of the social contract between them and workers.
The Windsor Workers’ Education Centre can be an advocate in helping workers bridge the power gap in workplaces.
As well, the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) exists to “protect all workers and their communities from occupational injuries and illnesses, support capacity building to address occupational hazards and promote the social, mental and physical well-being of workers and their families.” Also, there is the Windsor Occupational Health Information Service (WOHIS) located at 3129 Marentette Ave.