Friday was the International Day of Mourning. Who we mourn are the untold, uncounted numbers of women, men and children who have been killed, injured, disabled or sickened while doing their work.
The occasion is mostly marked with modestly unobtrusive ceremonies where organized working people gather — union halls, lunchrooms, and the like.
In Canada, April 28 is an official observance. It has been since 1991, when Parliament Passed the Workers Mourning Day Act. You might have noticed that the Canadian flag was at half-mast on federal government buildings.
It’s mildly surprising the act was passed in Canada. The Conservatives were in power at the time — although they were Progressive Conservatives, led by Brian Mulroney, a former labour lawyer who, for all his flaws, got some things right now and again.
Still, while we all, in the words of the act, “seek earnestly to set an example” of our “commitment to the issue of health and safety in the workplace,” there’s a certain discomfort about being too forthright about this in a capitalist society.
Pieties aside, the primary purposes of capitalism are the pursuit of profit and the accumulation of wealth — goals that are not necessarily compatible with the protection, or even the enhancement, of the lives of working people.
This reality guarantees the Day of Mourning will always be an occasion marked warily in Canada, and in most of the other countries where it is now observed. And it means we can be confident federal and provincial governments will move forward gingerly on improving worker safety — lest it cut unduly into the profits of the “job creators” we nowadays celebrate, as if corporations, and not demand, actually created jobs.
Just try to use Google to look up the number of workplace fatalities in a given year in any Canadian province and you will see how seriously we take these tragedies. The numbers are there, but they take a little work to dig out. A total of 166 such deaths were recognized, an important distinction, by the Alberta Workers Compensation Board in 2017, an increase from 144 the year before.
But the results of a new study released yesterday by the Parkland Institute at the University of Alberta suggest, in the words of the researchers, that there is “a fundamental problem” with the so-called “internal responsibility system” used in Alberta to prevent workplace deaths and injuries.
According to the study by researchers Bob Barnetson and Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull, survey data they collected from 2,000 Alberta working people suggest that workplace injuries in Alberta are vastly underreported — almost 70 per cent of the real total are not reported.
Moreover, their research indicates most employers violate the province’s safety rules, and that large numbers of workers are afraid to exercise their legal safety rights.
Alberta government statistics for 2016 show that more than 45,500 workers suffered disabling injuries on the job. But because of underreporting, the researchers concluded, the real number was closer to 170,000, and that more than 400,000 experienced one workplace injury in 2016.
“The data suggest a breakdown in the internal responsibility system that is at the heart of the workplace health and safety system in the province,” said Matsunaga-Turnbull, executive director of the Alberta Workers Health Centre.
Barnetson, an Athabasca University labour studies professor, acknowledged that Alberta’s NDP Government legislated real improvements in worker health and safety when Labour Minister Christina Gray last year brought in the first major changes in occupation health and safety legislation in Alberta in more than 40 years.
However, Barnetson and Matsunaga-Turnbull suggested, the improvements legislated by the NDP won’t mean much without meaningful enforcement.
Accordingly, they called for more, and more vigorous, workplace inspections — which, of course, would require the hiring of more inspectors. Other recommendations included publication of workplace safety orders, mandatory penalties that escalate for repeat offenders, public shaming of violators, prosecution of employers who retaliate against workers, and an end to the Tory blame-the-worker tactic of ticketing employees.
The report also calls for integration of occupational health and safety into the entire school curriculum, from kindergarten to Grade 12, government-funded health and safety education for working people, and independent training for the members of the joint employer-employee health and safety committees now required by the NDP legislation.
If we were serious about occupational health and safety in Canada, enacting such policies would be a slam-dunk. Alas, we all know that’s not so, and why.
Alberta’s NDP, facing an election next year and nervous about being characterized as “anti-business,” is likely to move cautiously, if at all.
The Opposition, while it will mouth the usual platitudes about worker safety, would assail any such necessary actions as “red tape,” “needless regulation” and “too expensive.”
Jason Kenney, the leader of the Opposition, has pledged to his supporters to repeal every single piece of legislation passed by the NDP — although we don’t hear that so much from him any more.
Whether or not he would actually follow through on that promise remains debatable, but readers can be assured Bill 30, an Act to Protect the Health and Wellbeing of Working Albertans, would be in the UCP’s crosshairs.
This would be framed, of course, as saving money, balancing budgets, cutting red tape, and trusting responsible businesses to do what we all agree is the right thing.
The result, I imagine, would be a picture even worse than the troubling situation unearthed by yesterday’s Parkland report.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.
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