In the past, efforts to improve workplace health and safety have focused on achieving legislation to improve working conditions. Occupational health and safety acts across the country were reviewed and strengthened. Tripartite committees that included input from workers functioned extremely well. We were building a health and safety system that would keep us safer at work.
Unfortunately, governments across the country have made concerted and determined attacks against workers’ rights.
Governments are undermining workers’ rights
The two most significant attacks have been against federally regulated employees (including changes to the definition of danger and to the right to refuse unsafe work) and against workers in Saskatchewan, with the introduction of the Saskatchewan Employment Act, both occurring in 2013.
Governments have also reduced the number of inspectors who enforce legislation, leading to fewer proactive inspections and a drop in compliance orders for employers.
New challenges, new strategies
In addition, health and safety has become far more complicated in the past 20 years. Laws have become more complex and litigation has increased. New challenges, including mental health and harassment, are being recognized as health and safety issues. And some employers have tried to limit the internal responsibility system which promotes the idea that health and safety is a partnership shared across an organization, even though it’s the principle underlying health and safety laws across the country.
In response to these pressures, unions need to bargain fundamental health and safety protections into our collective agreements – while we keep pressing for better legislation. Some CUPE locals have already bargained language that goes beyond minimum requirements contained in legislation. Others have gained specific language on topics that do not currently exist in law.
It’s important to remember that bargaining language that goes beyond existing law must be done responsibly and strategically. We must continue lobbying to improve health and safety legislation. The role of government needs to be maintained so that the responsibility to police the health and safety system does not fall onto workers alone.
Negotiate health and safety protections right into your contract
The most basic protections we can bargain into our contract should include measures to:
- Protect and enhance the structure and function of workplace health and safety committees, and
- Affirm the right to organize union-led health and safety orientations or annual training on workers’ rights and workplace hazards.
Almost any aspect of health and safety in the workplace can be included in your collective agreement. For more information, contact your CUPE national representative.