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Oped by Sid Ryan,
CUPE Ontario President,

It was more than 100 years ago when working people chanted these words in the struggle that would eventually win the eight-hour workday and the weekend. Since then workers have seen many good days, winning the gains that have ensured our workplaces are healthy and safe and that workers’ rights are protected.

But, tomorrow – just one day after the Labour Day holiday, a day set aside to recognize the contributions made by workers in our communities- will not be a good day for working people in Ontario.

When the province’s 4.2 million workers return to work they will toil in workplaces where many of the long-standing standards and regulations that protected them from bad employers, and ensured their health, safety and rights at work, have been compromised, or eliminated altogether.

Tomorrow, regressive changes made by the Ontario Tory government to the Employment Standards Act (ESA) – laws that provide the base-minimum protections, ensure non-union workers’ rights are enforced and that minimize health and safety risks, become law. It’s a real kick in the teeth to all workers whose labour has contributed to Ontario’s economic growth, and who will now be subjected to the worst employment standards laws in the country.

The new ESA allows employers to intimidate workers into working 60 hours a week, taking vacation one day at a time, and working longer hours for less money because of radical changes to overtime rules. It’s hard to imagine that employers have now been given government permission to harass employees into working longer hours for less pay.

Over the past six years the Harris government’s contempt for working people has intensified. Those hit hardest are the working poor who have not seen an increase in the minimum wage and are now seeing a government sanctioned rent increase of 3.9 per cent. Now with the erosion of standards, low-paid, non-union, minimum wage earners who work in factories, fast food outlets and retail, many of who are visible minority workers, women and youth are being dealt another debilitating blow.

The Harris Tories are fond of referring to the many laws, standards and the checks and balances that ensure the quality of our drinking water, safeguard public health, and guarantee workers’ safety, as “red tape. Now while workers couldn’t actually see this red tape getting in their way, the Tories believe there is just too much of this red tape around and a barrier to the kind of global, free market economic growth the Tories envision for Ontario. So, all this red tape has to be eliminated. They even have a special group of people called the Red Tape Commission assigned the task of ridding us of this regulating nuisance.

From the Walkerton inquiry we now know the Tories ignored all warnings about how eliminating red tape and decreasing the protections and regulations that ensured safe drinking water put Ontarians at risk. We also know they believe funding cuts to the Ministry of the Environment had nothing to do with the E. coli contamination in the drinking water that resulted in the tragic deaths of seven people. They gambled the policies of the Common Sense Revolution posed a “manageable risk.

On the same day in June that the Premier testified at the inquiry that any risks posed by his government’s policies were manageable, a change was made to the Occupational Health and Safety Act that increases the risk of injury and death in our workplaces.

Hidden in an omnibus bill -originating from the Ministry of Consumer and Commercial Relations and affecting 15 other ministries – called the Government Efficiency Act, the government added a simple housekeeping amendment that essentially eliminates the right of workers to refuse unsafe work. The new efficiency amendment allows for labour ministry inspectors to assess on the phone or fax, if a workplace is indeed unsafe and poses a risk to workers.

The Tories argue that they can protect working people. But over the last five years, they have cut $8.2 million from the Ministry of Labour’s health and safety budget and 25 per cent of the staff. The few remaining ministry inspectors lack the resources to adequately investigate and enforce health and safety standards in tens of thousands of Ontario workplaces. The new ESA also fails to provide workers with an effective anonymous complaint process to alert inspectors to dangerous worksites.

The reality is that workplaces are not as safe as they should be, and workers are injured on the job everyday. In Ontario last year there were 243 workplace deaths. Sixteen of those deaths were young workers under 24 years of age. There are also 134 fatality claims for the year 2000 still pending a decision by the Workplace Safety Insurance Board (WSIB). Even if half of those claims are validated, the workplace death toll is over 300, the highest it’s been in the past 20 years. But the fatality figures do not accurately reflect the true death toll once occupational diseases, estimated to be as high as 6,000 workers every year are included.

In the past month, four men have died while working, two of them in a gravel pit, one in a bakery during the sweltering heat and another an experienced hydro worker on the line. A construction worker was buried under materials for hours after the scaffolding he and 16 others on his crew were working on collapsed. Laws that protect workers and set good standards are essential to ensuring that employers make health and safety in the workplace a priority. By lowering employment standards and essentially eliminating the right to refuse unsafe work, the Tories are again taking a chance. They are prepared to gamble that the risks posed to workers’ lives are manageable

As we celebrate this Labour Day holiday, it is also fitting to think ahead to another day that commemorates the contribution of workers – April 28, our provincial Day of Mourning – honouring those who have died on the job. Gambling and taking risks with the health and safety of workers will, undoubtedly, and sadly result in more deaths, injuries and illnesses for Ontario workers. Shame.