Dear Premier Ford and Minister McNaughton,
Following yesterday’s media conferences announcing Ontario’s COVID-19 modelling and your government’s response to the dire projections, our offices were flooded with messages from workers who are outraged and frightened at the seeming lack of tangible action offered.
Ontario’s workers heard loud and clear that without a major shift, ICUs that are not yet overrun will be filled with COVID-19 patients by the end of January. We were told to expect 50 to 100 deaths per day between now and the end of February.
Very few of the updated restrictions announced yesterday were new. Furthermore, the new restrictions and enforcement do not address the main recommendations that will stop the spread of COVID-19 and prevent our health care system from being overwhelmed.
In order to get a different result, government has to do something different. You must step up and protect Ontario’s workers.
Unifor members in retail and warehousing, manufacturing, in the service sector, and who work for temporary agencies are also well aware that workplaces have been the largest contributor to the spread of COVID-19. By mid-December, nearly 8,000 workers had contracted COVID-19 on the job. A month later, that number is likely to be far higher.
Thanks to the reporting of the Toronto Star, Ontarians know that your Ministry of Labour inspected more than 31,000 workplaces and issued a similar number of health and safety orders because an employer was found to have violated the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Despite this, and the devastating consequences of such violations, only one employer has been fined.
How can workers put their trust, and their health in the hands of a system with seemingly no enforcement? All workers deserve to come home safe and well from work, but across the province, it seems that employers are allowed to act with impunity and endanger workers.
Unifor recommends the following are imperative to better protect workers from the crisis that lays ahead:
- 14 Paid Sick Days
Workers need access to job protected, paid sick days in order to stay home in the event they are sick or have contracted the novel coronavirus and are asymptomatic. Unifor recommends a full seven paid sick days be permanently legislated with an additional seven during a public health crisis. All workers need access to this benefit.
The Ontario government must mandate these paid sick days now in order to ensure workers have the means to stay home while sick and prevent the spread of COVID-19. As was demonstrated above, the workplace is the largest spreader of the virus, people who are sick need to stay home.
- Enforce the Occupational Health and Safety Act and Public Health Guidelines; Sanction Violators
As noted above, more than 30,000 workplace health and safety orders have been issued and only one employer has experienced any penalties. That means more than 30,000 violations have been found. We have been in this pandemic for 10 months already. If an employer hasn’t implemented the stringent health and safety measures required to prevent workplace spread, it is hard to believe they will do so without being compelled through the imminent threat of a penalty. That penalty must be high enough that it is more costly than implementing the health and safety measures necessary and pose the real likelihood of being enforced.
Furthermore, workers have shown they are willing to phone the Ministry when they feel unsafe at work. Unfortunately, as word gets around that reporting a workplace violation does nothing to increase the safety in their workplace, workers will be less likely to participate in the system – why enter a complaint and put your livelihood at risk, if nothing will be done to improve health and safety standards in the workplace.
- Proactive Inspection for Workplace Health and Safety and Public Health Guideline Violations
While maintaining a responsive complaint system is critical, governments must take proactive steps to inspect workplaces and ensure compliance with COVID-19 public health directives and health and safety guidelines. Such proactive enforcement is even more important in workplaces, which have been one of the primary sites for COVID-19 outbreaks and community transmission across the country.
- Ensure that all workers are aware of their legal rights, including the right to refuse, the right to know, and the right to participate.
Workers must be made aware of the legal rights not only to refuse work, but to know about the hazards that they might be exposed to while working. Many employers have not met this obligation and hiding behind privacy as an excuse to not share information. Furthermore, the Ministry inconsistently enforces the right to know. This needs to change.
Workers must also actively participate in the mitigation of these hazards through their health and safety committee or as a health and safety representative, without fear of reprisal. Workers rights must be upheld through the above recommended investigating and sanctioning as well as recognizing legitimate work refusals when a worker is fearful of exposure to a workplace hazard.
- Pro-active Testing and Contact Tracing
Workers who have been exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace must have access to testing. This should be a central component of the fight to contain the virus and not simply saved for those who are showing symptoms. The current, sporadic enforcement of the right to know has made testing and contact tracing more difficult which further contributes to the spread of the virus.
Furthermore, jurisdictions that have successfully contained the virus did so through rigorous contact tracing. Public health authorities will need to receive additional funding to develop and implement effective systems to contact-trace COVID-positive workers and quarantine those who have been exposed.
The guidelines and recommendations necessary to fix the problem and reduce the spread of COVID-19 are in your hands. What remains to be seen is whether or not the political will exists to put them in place and follow through.
Unifor National President
Unifor Ontario Regional Director