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Sep
24

Reflection on Worker Safety: Paul Chislett

It’s all too common after the death of a worker to read a human interest story about workers and their lives. It’s important to know something behind the names of those killed in industrial accidents and Carolyn Thompson did a great job humanizing Phuong Thang, the worker killed.

As the relevant authorities investigate the accident and the family lays Phuong to rest and grieves, we must realize that a health and safety culture in the workplace does not happen in a vacuum.

I am not presuming to know the situation at the plant where the worker was killed, but the accident has caused me to reflect on my time at the Windsor Workers’ Education Centre where I have met many non-union workers, many of whom were women, and of those, most were recent or established newcomers. They work in manufacturing plants throughout Windsor/Essex.

I was moved by this accident involving a member of the local Vietnamese community. I feel like I know the worker killed: two years ago we met a number of established immigrant women from Vietnam who worked in a non-union manufacturing plant in Windsor. Those and other workers were faced with a $3 per hour wage cut – from $13.80 per hour to the minimum wage – and resigned rather than continue working in a toxic work environment for minimum wage. Their work was fast paced, they had no washroom supplies, the plant was unsafe and dirty, and racist and sexist harassment from management was common. They took a difficult and principled stand and fought for the severance pay they were owed. Now a member of their community has been killed in a second fatal accident at Canadian Electrocoating Limited.

One of the biggest difficulties workers have is knowing how and when to invoke the right to refuse unsafe work. According to the Ministry of Labour website, work refusals in the industrial sector have fallen from 370 in 2002/03 to 117 in 2011/12. In an age of increasing employment precarity for workers the numbers suggest workers may not be reporting unsafe conditions. And the thing is a worker only has to feel there is something unsafe, report that, and a process is supposed to be followed until the situation is resolved to the satisfaction of everyone; not to be told to ‘get back to work we’re too busy for this’. There are great wallet sized cards that can be easily carried by a worker and on it are all one needs to know to report unsafe conditions.

Undoubtedly increasing employment precarity – not just in Windsor, but throughout the country – has eroded workers’ ability to act in their own interests. Many a worker has described the very uncomfortable position of being the “shit disturber” and how fellow workers will steer clear out of fear of being in trouble too if they support their fellow worker. Few want to put their job at risk in the unemployment capital of Canada, even when protected from reprisals.

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act workers have three key rights:
• right to participate to be part of the process of identifying and resolving health and safety concerns
• right to know about any hazards to which they may be exposed
• right to refuse work that they believe is dangerous

The Act also bans reprisals against employees who exercise these rights.

Click on image for more information on work refusals

Click on image for more information on work refusals

Yet even with these rights and protections we know at the centre workers have difficulty in exercising rights under both the Employment Standards Act and the OHSA. Workplaces we have experience with do not respect workers rights. And to make matters actually worse, government regulations assume a level playing field for workers and employers. Also in our experience, workplaces are rife with uncertainty over whether jobs are long term, favouritism, and bullying and harassment. The latter two items are what we are increasingly hearing about. How can health and safety committees operate properly in toxic work environments? In fact on questioning a worker in non-union workplaces on whether there is a health and safety committee they could rely on, invariably there is a shrug and I’m told the people on the committee are the bosses’ favourites. Don’t even get me started on Human Resource departments and personnel.

In our view at the centre, the solutions to dangers and other problems in the workplace will come from workers themselves. The goal of the Windsor Workers’ Education Centre is to educate workers on their rights and, recognizing the unequal power distribution between employers and workers, strategize on how to exercise rights workers have under the law – that’s the tough part.

Instead of waiting for a worker fatality and the resulting eulogy in the media, workers must be able to express their full humanity in the workplace, just as they do in all other aspects of their lives: as parents, homeowners, and so on. That means being fully protected under the law and able to confront workplace challenges and correct problems on an ongoing daily basis. Tepid regulations assuming a level playing field actually make that harder.

Here are some points for workers to consider:
• The workplace is NOT a family ( I hear that a lot). It is a business and power rests with the owners and management.
• Workers can develop a sense of camaraderie and solidarity, and often do with social events outside of work. How can that sense of solidarity be used to create a more equitable share of power in the workplace?
• If something looks and feels unsafe then it probably is. Workers not only have a right to speak out we have a duty to others and their safety: when in doubt in a toxic workplace talk it over with other workers you trust, do some research on the Ministry of Labour website, and/or come in to the workers’ centre. Plan a strategy (that’s especially where we can help) and approach management for a solution.

Here also are a list of duties that fall on all workers (posted on the Worker Health and Safety website:

By law, Ontario workers also have duties in the workplace. These include the duty to:

  • report hazards/unsafe conditions to a supervisor/employer;
  • report injuries/illnesses to a supervisor/employer/worker representative;
  • report the absence or defect in any equipment or protective device to supervisor/employer;
  • wear and use required safety equipment or device.

With power comes responsibility. It is up to employers to ensure workplaces are physically safe and free from harassment and discrimination. Workers then must be vigilant and ready to take action to protect themselves and others if employers are failing to hold up their end of the social contract between them and workers.

The Windsor Workers’ Education Centre can be an advocate in helping workers bridge the power gap in workplaces.

As well, the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) exists to “protect all workers and their communities from occupational injuries and illnesses, support capacity building to address occupational hazards and promote the social, mental and physical well-being of workers and their families.” Also, there is the Windsor Occupational Health Information Service  (WOHIS) located at 3129 Marentette Ave. 

Jun
09

June 8th Worker Forum

On Sunday June 8th Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW) in conjunction with the Windsor Workers’ Education Centre held a worker forum. We brought together migrant workers and non-union, out of work or under-employed low wage workers in Windsor/Essex to discuss the system of exploitation that affects all workers in varying degrees.

Workers gather to discuss common struggles at WWEC

Workers gather to discuss common struggles at WWEC (Photo: Paul Chislett)

Over food and after introductions, J4MW organizer Chris Ramsaroop led a discussion on the globalized workplace. Workers were from Mexico, Indonesia, St Lucia, Jamaica, Burundi, Ethiopia and Windsor/Essex. Truly, the workers of the world united for a couple of hours at the workers’ centre!

The discussion began with a description of words used by politicians and corporations; words like austerity, tax cuts, restructuring, privatization, globalization, and streamlining. Workers discussed how labour and immigration policies are formulated using language meant to hide the damage done to social relationships in the workplace and society at large. For example, wealthy greenhouse growers give excess food away to food banks while they claim a healthy tax break.

Workers also reflected on the causes of migrant labour where local economies are subsumed to the needs of the global economy. Migrant workers, perhaps especially Mexican workers, are unable to find work in at home because of free trade agreements that sacrifice local farming for low wage manufacturing plants that feed consumer needs in North America. Mexican workers  themselves become a commodity as cheap labour right in our backyard.

Workers also discussed the need for the complete overhaul of labour and immigration laws where the right to work for a living wage and other benefits should be extended to ALL workers, and a route to full citizenship should be guaranteed for all who  want to immigrate and become full citizens of Canada.

 

What was exciting about this gathering was the mix of workers: temporary foreign workers in the country under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), and local workers either born in Canada or established immigrants with full citizenship. The workers discovered that the power imbalance in their workplaces, and their resulting struggles, were what they had in common. The workers with citizenship described the power imbalance they face in non-union manufacturing plants and having to hold down multiple minimum wage jobs that still leave them in poverty and precariousness. The foreign workers risk deportation if they try to challenge inequality, and Canadian workers risk being easily dismissed, a dire consequence in Windsor/Essex with high unemployment, if they speak out or try to organize in the workplace.

In 2012 Klinec Mfg workers resigned rather than submit to a $3/hr pay cut. They expereinced first hand the limits of their power in the workplace but also the power of solidarity. They went on to fight for severance & termination pay.

In 2012 Klinec Mfg workers resigned rather than submit to a $3/hr pay cut. They experienced first hand the limits of their power in the workplace but also the power of solidarity. They went on to fight for and win severance & termination pay. (Photo used with permission)

The SAWP workers described facing exploitation, isolation, and constant attacks on their dignity, both in their workplaces and in the communities in which they live. One Mexican worker described being subject to a racist attack when he was hit by a bottle in downtown Leamington thrown by locals. Racist attacks such as this are common occurances. A worker originally from St Lucia described his battle against racism and how he won a Human Rights complaint against his former employer.

Workers struggle not only for their rights but those of their children.

Workers struggle not only for their rights but those of their children. (Photo: Paul Chislett)

The workers engaged in a frank discussion on how foreign workers are stereotyped, where if they are in agriculture the perception is that is all they are good for. The foreign workers are held in servitude to one employer and have no mobility or right to seek other employment. It is the constructed  power imbalance that all non-union workers face that is the feature most common between Canadian and foreign workers.

The common struggle for justice was the theme at Sunday's forum.

The common struggle for justice was the theme at Sunday’s forum. (Photo: Paul Chislett)

Where Latin and Asian workers are held in servitude in agricultural work, Canadian workers of colour, and most common, female workers of colour, face hurdles in the workplace. A Windsor citizen, an established immigrant from Ethiopia, experienced bullying and harassment when she sought a promotion to a job that paid 50 cents per hour more. She observed this happening to others over almost 20 years on the job. Her dignity was assaulted simply because supervisors  thought she  was stepping out of place. She discovered he has little recourse under existing labour laws to challenge the employer.

An Essex area worker was dismissed from his job even as the employer hired temporary foreign workers from Tunisia – an allegation the employer denied in the media, yet the worker talked at length with the Tunisian workers. Even with his dismissal and that of several others, he knows the fault does not lie with the foreign workers, rather with policy makers and unscrupulous employers.

As the forum wound down the workers concluded that sharing stories was key to building understanding and solidarity. They were also aware that sharing stories more broadly would require speaking to the media which has its own logic in slanting stories in ways that continue the stereotyping of workers, and especially foreign workers, as passive victims powerless to change their circumstances.

But the workers revealed they are well aware of their circumstances and well aware that their circumstances are the result of policy – deliberate choices – by those in power. Resistance and the will to change policy is the ultimate goal of meetings like this, and the need to challenge the dominat theme of victimhood requires that workers get to tell their stories their way. The workers were determined to follow-up this successful meeting with a planned get together in Leamington on July 13th.

Min Sook Lee is documenting women migrant women and filmed the forum.

Min Sook Lee is documenting Asian migrant workers and filmed the forum. (Photo: Paul Chislett)

For a couple of hours over food and dialogue workers from around the world were on equal terms in the workers’ centre, a space that is meant as a hub for education, advocacy, information sharing, safety, and relationship building. Such a hub can help workers  counter the neo-liberal global economic framework of systemic inequality, injustice and the de-basement of social relationships created and maintained by corporate leaders and their political allies.

Workers can and must be the leaders of change by transcending structural inequality and finding common ground.

Dalam Solidaritas!
En solidaridad!
En solidarité !
In Solidarity !

Apr
28

April 28 2014: J4MW warns Federal Government that its’ actions are repeating racist past

Click image for more info on J4MW

Click image for more info on J4MW

(Toronto) Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW) a migrant workers advocacy group is raising concerns that the recent moratorium against the restaurant industry will impact tens of thousands of migrant workers. While the Federal government has responded to abuse of the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program by employers, no consideration was given to the effects the moratorium will have on migrant workers, including the impacts of racism.

J4MW believes the moratorium will leave migrant workers in a more precarious position. The Federal government needs to address what steps will be taken to protect migrants who are in the following situations:

  • Migrant workers already in Canada who are currently awaiting LMO’s in the restaurant sector.
  • Migrant workers who are employed at a workplace in the restaurant sector but desire to leave to seek alternative work as a result of exploitative working conditions.
  • Migrant workers who where employed in the restaurant industry and who have filed complaints about workplace violations.
  • Migrant workers whose contracts are close to expiration and desire the ability to find other employment.

While many politicians, community groups and labour unions welcome this announcement, J4MW believes that the TFW scheme and any effort to address abuses will fall short if the needs of migrant workers are not addressed. Without larger structural changes to protect migrant workers, this decision will have far reaching negative consequences on migrant workers across Canada. Open work permits, strengthened anti-reprisal measures, proactive enforcement of workplace rights are the immediate starting points of necessary reforms, not denying people the ability to work. Steps should be taken to increase standards for all workers so that migrant and Canadian workers are not pitted against one another.

Canadian history is filled with periods of heightened xenophobia and targeted racism against communities deemed foreign. Today’s attacks against migrant workers across various segments of society are no different than the attacks against Chinese, South Asian and Japanese communities in the past. Canada continues to impose restrictions on access to status for thousands of migrants in Canada.

For more information please contact Chris Ramsaroop (647) 834-4932 or j4mw.on@gmail.com.

                              

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