Quebec workers fight changes to health and safety protections


YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO PROTECT YOURSELF on the job. That’s just one reason members from many unions spent 59 hours in an overnight picket in front of the Québec legislature last week. It was all part of an all-out, across-the-board effort by every major trade union confederation in the province to stop passage of Bill 59.

The bill is touted as a way to “modernize” occupational health and safety laws in Québec, according to the conservative Coalition Avenir Québec government of François Legault.

A return to the ‘bad old days’

In reality the bill turns back the clock to the days when workers had no real rights when it came to occupational health and safety; to the days when the right to have and participate in health and safety committees was unknown, along with the right to know about any and all hazards at work, and the right to refuse unsafe work.

Bill 59 ignores or undercuts every single one of those rights. For example Bill 59 will:

  • grant the employer sole power to decide on the workings of any health and safety committee—including the power to operate without worker input

  • allow less time, and fewer worker representatives, to work on prevention of work hazards

  • give employers incentives to challenge compensation claims and possibly cheat

  • no longer require employers to inform workers of hazardous materials and contaminants in the workplace

  • give employers the power to force injured or sick workers to return to work—even if they are still being treated

Paper-thin protections

“This so-called ‘reform’ would lead to a prevention regime that exists on paper only,” says Steelworkers Québec Director Dominic Lemieux. “The real impact of on-the-ground prevention would be diminished and the compensation would be cut for injured and ill workers.”

Current labour laws in the province only require certain “high priority” workplaces to conduct prevention activities, like joint union-management monitoring of risks.

Bill 59 will abolish the existing priority sectors. A new system would prioritize employment sectors based on their level of risk. High-risk sectors could get more frequent meetings of their health and safety committees and worker representatives could have more paid time to identify risks.

But there are still plenty of problems, says Karen Messing, professor emerita of ergonomics at the Université du Québec à Montreal (UQAM). Beginning with the fact health care workplaces were still classed as “low risk,” even during the pandemic.

Not only that she says: “In the new, amended version, there are no more legislated meetings of health and safety committees. At all. No more paid time for workers to identify risks. At all. Everyone is equal, women and men. Nothing for anyone.

"Even the construction workers will have to bargain to get their health and safety committees time to meet. And non-unionized workers? Are Amazon and Dollarama really going to smile and give away time for health and safety protection?"

Non-union workers left defenceless

“If this legislation is adopted, protections currently provided in the law will no longer be available and unions will have to negotiate new provisions in collective agreements to compensate for the weakening of our laws,” Lemieux noted.

“This is disastrous for non-unionized workers, who have no such recourse, and is a threat to labour relations as it will increase the risk of labour disputes over issues that were previously settled in law,” he added.

“It’s unacceptable,” said Renaud Gagné, Unifor’s Quebec Director. “We have been demanding improvements to our occupational health and safety act for over forty years. We can’t wait another 40 years to assert our rights.”

“There is no way we’re going to let the Legault government encroach on workers’ rights like this,” said Gagné. “We have to take a stand together to make our voices heard.

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