(Canadian OH&S News)
Canada’s largest public sector union is raising the alarm over proposed changes to the federal labour code, contending that amendments would set back labour rights 30 years.
Bill C-4, which passed second reading in the House of Commons on Oct. 25, includes over 50 amendments to the Canada Labour Code, including those relating to occupational health and safety. The omnibus bill proposes amendments to the code that would see a change to the definition of “danger” as it relates to the right to refuse unsafe work; a revision of the work refusal process itself; and the transference of health and safety officers’ rights and responsibilities to the federal Minister of Labour or a delegate.
“By changing the definition of danger and taking all health and safety officer authorities away from them and vesting them in the minister solely, there’s been a huge politicization of health and safety,” charged Bob Kingston from the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC).
But Minister of Labour Kellie Leitch stressed in a statement that the right for a worker to refuse dangerous work has not been affected. “Recourse mechanisms will always be available to workers and employers, with health and safety officers available 24/7 to address issues raised by employees and employers,” she said.
Kingston, who is also co-chair of the occupational health and safety committee of the National Joint Council, which comprises 18 public service bargaining agents and the Treasury Board of Canada, added that the current version of the code is “the result of 12 years of deliberations by expert participants on a tripartite nature and this undoing of all those improvements was done in secret with no consultation.” He called on the government to consult with labour on the matter.
Under the revised code, the definition of danger would change to “an imminent or serious threat to the life or health of a person” and would no longer include chronic illness or damage to reproductive organs.
Shane Todd, an employer-side labour lawyer at Heenan Blaikie in Toronto, admitted that he can understand why labour is concerned. “What we have, in a sense, is a reversion to a more restrictive definition of danger that we had in the mid-1970s.”
However, Todd disagreed that the changes will negatively affect workers’ rights, welcoming the obligation of employers to investigate and conduct a written report of work refusals.
The labour minister said the proposed changes are intended to improve workplace health and safety outcomes. “Consider this, over a 10 year-period, 2000 to 2010, more than 80 per cent of the refusals to work have been determined to be situations of no danger, even after allowing appeals. These requests have put a strain on resources and have prevented a higher number of proactive interventions by health and safety officers,” said Leitch. “These proposed amendments will address this situation and at the same time preserve the fundamental rights of workers.”
Under the revised code, references to “health and safety officers” would also be removed and the labour minister would be expected to exercise those duties or delegate them to another party. The minister would be given discretion not to investigate work refusal claims if the minister deems them trivial, frivolous or vexatious.
Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, representing about 80,000 workers in federally regulated sectors who would be affected by the changes, called on the government to withdraw the bill. “What exactly is the goal of weakening health and safety laws and collective bargaining rights for Canadian workers?” asked Unifor national president Jerry Dias in a press release. The union said the changes would greatly impact health and safety rules in federally-regulated sectors such as marine shipping, air and railway transportation and uranium mining.
“It presents a huge obstacle to people actually exercising their rights in the workplace,” Kingston concluded. “I’m anticipating extremely serious consequences to workers based on this.”