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TORONTO – Ontario’s next provincial government must stop the trend toward privatizing hospital support services or risk future outbreaks of infectious diseases like SARS, the Canadian Union of Public Employees says.

“We are very concerned that the Liberals under Dalton McGuinty are about to be elected without a clear commitment to keeping hospital support services public,” said CUPE Ontario Secretary-Treasurer Brian O’Keefe. “We learned from last spring’s SARS outbreak that a high standard of hygiene is an absolute requirement in hospitals. We need a clear indication that McGuinty is prepared to put more resources into cleaning services.”

From 1995 to 1999, spending on hospital housekeeping services dropped by 1.8% a year on average, while spending on laundry services, dropped by 5.4% a year, CUPE representatives told the SARS Commission headed by Mr. Justice Archie Campbell. The commission’s public hearings started yesterday and run until tomorrow.

“Not only is spending down, but privatization of support services is increasing,” said Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions. “The experience in British Columbia and Great Britain shows the end result is lower wages for staff who have less knowledge, fewer skills, and a reduced commitment to the hospital.”

Unfortunately, frontline workers in some GTA hospitals may believe that’s what employers want after their experiences with the SARS outbreak, Hurley said.

“All too often, employers and the Conservative government ignored and even rejected the knowledge and information offered by frontline workers. Occupational health and safety committees were not used, a fact that reflects the hierarchical structure of hospitals and a government that wished to restrain worker influence on health and safety,” he said.

Overall, there is little evidence that much has changed, despite the “new normal,” in any of the workplaces represented by CUPE.

“Major Canadian Airlines were far too slow improving their infection control preparedness,” said France Pelletier, legislative & regulatory affairs officer for CUPE’s Airline Division. “It’s just not acceptable. During the SARS crisis, the union actually purchased gloves and masks for flight attendants at Air Canada, but the employer initially banned their use. There was simply no contingency planning for such a situation.”

“Workers have got to be involved when a crisis like SARS occurs,” Mark Ferguson, a Paramedic III with the City of Toronto, told the commission. “That happened in Toronto Emergency Medical Services and the results were positive. Where it didn’t happen, there were significant problems with communications and compliance.”

While CUPE is still collecting information from frontline employees and has not reached final conclusions about the SARS outbreak, its delegation urged the commission to examine all the reasons why hospitals began to “ramp up” operations in April, just as the outbreak was spreading to other hospitals, and whether there was an undue focus on economic interests at the expense of public health and safety.

In the meantime, said Brian O’Keefe, “we’re looking for some guarantees from Dalton McGuinty and the Liberals that they will not allow privatization of support services.

“We are not aware of any initiative from the present government to create more full-time CUPE positions in health care facilities. We note that support workers, not just RNs, work at more than one facility and can be as easily infected as any other person.”

In Ontario, CUPE represents more than 50,000 hospital, nursing home, home for the aged, ambulance, home care and public health employees, as well as flight attendants at major Canadian airlines. Hundreds of CUPE members were quarantined during the SARS outbreak. Ten CUPE hospital members and four paramedics were infected with SARS.


For more information, please contact:

Brian O’Keefe, Secretary-Treasurer
CUPE Ontario
416-579-7414 (cell)

Pat Daley
CUPE Communications
416-299-9739 Ext 264
416-616-6142 (cell)