Injured workers, labour communities and their families gathered at Queen’s Park Monday to commemorate workers injured or killed on the job, vowing to continue the struggle for dignity, respect and justice in the workers’ compensation system.

On June 1, 1983, thousands of injured workers came to Queen’s Park to oppose the government’s proposal to eliminate the permanent disability pension. The government backed down, setting aside the recommendation.

“We hope that we don’t have to keep coming here,” said Peter Page, president of the Ontario Network of Injured Workers Groups. “We hope that things would change. But it looks like we may be coming here for another twenty six years.”

Steve Mahoney, chair of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) said: “We realize that you don’t have an easy existence and sometimes it seems that perhaps we don’t care. But I want you to know that the men and women who work at the WSIB do care.”

More than a century ago, if you were the victim of an accident on the job, you’d most likely be left to fend for yourself. As Canada evolved from a largely agricultural economy to an industrial society, people were getting hurt – and dying – in large numbers on the job.

But that changed when William Meredith, the province’s chief justice at the time, was appointed in 1910 to review workers’ compensation legislation in other countries and make recommendations for an Ontario law. Under his plan, workers would be eligible for guaranteed no-fault benefits from a system that was wholly funded by employers. In exchange, employers were freed from legal liability.

“We realize the system isn’t perfect or you wouldn’t be here,” said Mahoney. “We realize that there need to be improvements.” He told the crowd that his office is in the midst of a major review on experience rating. “Many of you would support canceling that particular program,” he said. “But we have to examine the benefits and unintended consequences that might occur and make a decision that’s good for injured workers and employers.”

Mahoney acknowledged that the labour market re-entry program needs review and reassured injured workers that the WSIB has launched a “complete value for money audit of that program” because it currently only sees about 40 per cent of injured workers returning to the workplace.

“Improvements for injured workers require legislative change,” said Marion Endicott, a community legal worker for Injured Workers Consultants. “However, we know that there is plenty that the WSIB can do within its present construct, in particular around deeming and experience rating. We’re looking very much forward to getting those two monsters wrestled to the ground and getting rid of the poverty of injured workers.”

In Ontario, it’s estimated that there are hundreds of thousands of permanently disabled workers struggling with their condition. Every year, at least 80,000 new claims are filed for lost time.

“Think about defending your rights, but also expanding them for yourselves and others in future generations,” said Alec Farquhar, president Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers Inc. “Also think about those who weren’t able to be here today because they passed away from occupational disease and injury.”

When Jorma Halonen was 5 years old, his father died in an explosion at work leaving his 24-year-old mother to raise three small children on her own. “Even now, the events of that day remain etched in my mind as one of my earliest childhood memories,” said Halonen, president of the Office of the Worker Adviser.

“Within six months, we had to move out of our nice three bedroom home to a tiny fifth floor apartment in a single room with two alcoves, a toilet for a sink, a closet for a kitchen, no bathtub, no shower, and no fridge.”

As a young woman with three children, Halonen’s mother couldn’t go back to school. Compelled to work for low wages, her income with compensation was less than what her husband earned when he was employed.

“So we ate meat only on the week the compensation cheque came,” he said. “It was bone or fish head soup the next week. And the week before the comp cheque, dinner was what we kids called water bread, which was sort of a baked oatmeal porridge.”

Marion Endicott added: “Injury should not equal poverty. But all too often it does.”

At a press conference earlier Monday at Queen’s Park, the Ontario Network of Injured Workers Groups released its report Impacts of Workplace Injury, revealing high rates of depression, use of food banks, and loss of housing amongst injured workers.

“We also found that 45 per cent of the injured workers were not receiving anything at all from the Workers Compensation Board,” said Endicott. “Many people with permanent disabilities…end up on social assistance or other parts of our social safety net.”

In the meantime, said Endicott, the Board has reduced rates for employers by about 25 per cent since 1996 and still protects them from being sued.

When Jeannie Martel got hurt at work, she didn’t know that she could refuse more work due to her injuries. “My doctors, employer and WSIB weren’t there for me,” said Martel. “My doctor threw me out of his practice because after a simple x-ray he couldn’t find any abnormalities with my back. My employer refused to acknowledge that I was permanently disabled.”

No longer able to work, Martel was fired.

“WSIB refused to send me to the rec centre for the MRI that could have solved my claim which will take another three years,” she said. In 2004, Martel went to the Hamilton and District Injured Workers Group looking for help. “To them I am forever grateful.”

Fa Lim used to work for Progressive Moulded Products, a non-unionized workplace. Last July, the company suddenly shut down and walked away with over $30M in severance and termination pay. Even before the closure Lim said, “The company was cruel getting away with numerous health and safety violations.”

When Lim got injured, he said the company told him that his doctor had no right to tell him to stay home and rest. “We tell you when you’re going to stay home,” said Lim. “And they forced me to continue working.” After he reinjured himself, Lim said the WSIB told him that he had to report for work or he was on his own.

“It was so painful,” he said. “At work, I couldn’t use the first aid room to rest my back. I had to lie down on that plant floor.”

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.