Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Honouring the memory of the 26 workers killed on this day 20 years ago

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Westray mine disaster that killed 26 workers in Nova Scotia. The public inquiry into the Westray story called the deaths “predictable” and concluded management, “starting with the Chief Executive Officer,” had failed in its responsibility to design and operate a safe mine. It recommended federal legislation “to ensure that corporate executives and directors are held properly accountable for workplace safety.”

It was these 26 deaths and that recommendation that led to Parliament unanimously passing in 2003 what has come to be known as the “Westray Bill.” Under that law, employers responsible for workplace deaths can face criminal charges, and if convicted, can be sentenced to time in prison.  

Unfortunately eight years later, despite thousands more workplace deaths, only a handful of criminal prosecutions have proceeded in Canada; no charges have been laid in Manitoba to date. Workplace safety activists who worked so hard lobbying for passage of the Westray Bill are frustrated and demoralized. Parliament was clear that the criminal code should be used to hold employers accountable for ensuring safe and healthy working conditions for workers they employ. Yet there has been virtually no enforcement.

To find out why, the Canadian Labour Congress organized a Westray bill symposium last fall, bringing together police, prosecutors, workplace safety regulators and health and safety activists. At the symposium it quickly became clear that, without the political will to enforce it, the Westray law would remain a largely unenforced “paper tiger.” Participants identified a number of barriers to enforcing the Westray law:
  • Police indicated that criminal investigation of workplace deaths was part of neither their training nor their operating protocols. They cited lack of access to specialized expertise about workplace safety. They said evidence collected by government regulators without a warrant may not be admissible in criminal prosecutions.
  • Not all prosecutors have closely followed implementation of the Westray law and cases to date.
  • Health and safety regulators indicated their investigative procedures were oriented towards gathering evidence required for criminal prosecutions.

Everyone in attendance agreed that proper enforcement of the Westray law will require a deliberate and collaborative effort on the part of everyone present. Investigative procedures for police and regulators need to be revised. Police, prosecutors and regulators need to be trained or updated on the latest developments. Provincial officials need to show leadership by bringing all these players together to work through these challenges.

Families of workers who fall victim to workplace tragedies deserve to know that these deaths are all investigated through the lens of the Westray law. Employers need to know that there will be tough criminal consequences if they act irresponsibly with the health and safety or workers they employ. This is how we can truly honour the memory of the 26 workers killed 20 years ago.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Exaggerating the Size of Manitoba’s Public Sector

As Manitoba’s provincial budget gets closer, we have heard repeatedly from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation the claim that Manitoba has a “bloated” public sector. The claim has been based on a recently published piece of propaganda from the Frontier Centre: “The Size and Cost of Manitoba’s PublicSector.”

The lead claim from this document is that Manitoba has a far higher proportion of its jobs in the public sector than other provinces: “26% of jobs in Manitoba are in the civilian public sector (all levels of government). In the country as a whole, just 20% of jobs are in the civilian public sector.”

That sounds like a big gap, doesn’t it?

However, if you look more closely at the data, you quickly find that the “analysis” is not comparing apples to apples. To achieve the 26% and 20% figures the report includes employment at crown corporations and other government business enterprises. This has the effect of exaggerating public sector employment for provinces that have more public ownership and less privatization. For example, Manitoba’s public sector employment figure includes all the staff at MPI, one of Manitoba’s larger employers, whereas (most) provinces that have private auto insurance will have no public sector workers for this service.

To get a fair, apples-to-apples comparison of public sector employment rates, you need to look at public sector workers without including workers at crown corporations. If you do that, you find that Manitoba has 20% of its total employment in the civilian public sector, compared to 19% for Canada as a whole (Statistics Canada, CANSIM Tables 183-0002 and 383-0009).

That’s not much of a gap. What’s bloated is the claim that Manitoba’s public sector is too large.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Federal Budget Drops the Ball on Jobs

The Federal budget finally appeared – two days before the end of the Federal Government’s fiscal year.   I guess they wanted to put off the bad news for as long as possible.

We were looking for a budget that emphasizes job creation and the needs of working families: a budget that would support the fragile economic recovery by continuing with job-creating stimulus investments in infrastructure; a budget that doesn’t put the economic recovery at risk by making deep depending cuts to services; and a budget that protects the services that working families rely on.

But, what did we get?

Instead we got a budget that makes deep cuts to the front-line services that working families count on.  It closes every youth jobs centre in Canada (the $6.5 million savings are about half the $12 million that the Harper government is spending to advertise this budget); it will cut the number of centres that process Employment Insurance claims from 120 to 20; and within 5 years, front-line health care will begin to suffer from the budget’s commitment to slash federal health transfers to the provinces.

How will this budget impact working families? 

This budget means the middle class will continue to shrink as almost 20,000 good, family-supporting jobs are cut.  It will hurt the middle class that has been the engine of our economic prosperity since the Second World War. 

This budget means working families will be more on their own in saving for retirement.  People 53 and younger will have to wait two more years before they become eligible for Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement. Federal civil servants will have to make up for cuts to their pensions.

The budget also means more injuries in federally regulated workplaces.  The Harper government has already cut the number of inspectors who enforce workplace health and safety rules by 15%.  That’s why federally regulated workpalces are the only workplaces in Canada where the average injury rate is actually getting worse.  This will just get worse with federal job cuts.

Harper the Vindictive reappeared in this budget.  During the last election Conservatives insisted they had no plans to cut the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s budget.  But a media outlet that actually does its job and looks beyond the government news release and points out the reality of what’s going on is just too tempting a target for Conservative cuts.  There’s an easy $115 million to pluck and the bonus for Harper is that it will silence one of the few reliable media voices that doesn’t swallow Harper’s guff holus bolus.

I’m glad to see there are going to be new investments in running water and education for First Nations communities.  That’s a good step forward but it’s not nearly enough.
Clearly the deficit needs to be addressed, but let’s be sensible about it.  The approach in this budget could actually make it worse. As we have seen in recent months, the global economic recovery is very fragile and leading economists have cautioned Canada not to put it at risk by making deep cuts in federal spending.   Just look at Europe where country after country is slipping back into recession because they took their foot off the stimulus pedal too soon.

The best way to restore balance is to get Canadians working again. When the economy is operating on all cylinders, tax revenues go up and spending on services comes down. That’s how you get back to balance.

Deep cuts will only hurt the recovery and reinforce the economic pressures that caused the deficit in the first place.

Our top priority should be economic recovery and getting Canadians back to work. With the global economic recovery at risk I would have expected a renewal of the federal stimulus program to invest in job creating infrastructure projects.
Instead of deep cuts to front-line services, I would have closed tax loopholes and breaks for corporations and high-income Canadians.   When Canada’s highest paid CEOs cash in stock options, they should be taxed at the same rate that other working Canadians are taxed. This loophole costs the federal government $750 million/year. We can’t afford that anymore and it’s not fair.

We need to put a stop to Canada’s failed corporate tax cut experiment. Canada’s corporate tax rate is now far below the US rate, yet instead of reinvesting their tax savings into job creating investments, Canadian corporations have stockpiled more than $500 billion in cash. We could support public services and stay competitive by letting the corporate tax rate rise to at least the US rate.

Canada needed a budget that prioritizes jobs and services for working families. Instead we got front-line service cuts and layoffs that will put the fragile economic recovery at risk. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Stepping up for Lake Winnipeg

After the 1997 "flood of the century," concerns about the impact of large-scale flooding on the health of lake Winnipeg were a catalyst for the establishment of the Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium.

The Consortium, best known for operating the research ship M.V. Namao, coordinates and promotes independent scientific research on Lake Winnipeg. The Consortium's work helps determine what needs to be done to restore the health of Lake Winnipeg.

With Manitoba once again experiencing flooding larger in scope than we have ever seen before, the importance of the Consortium's research has once again been underscored.

Yesterday, I had the honour of participating in an announcement of new support for the Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium. Manitoba's labour unions have decided to support the Consortium because the working families we represent have told us they are concerned about water quality issues in general, and the health of Lake Winnipeg in particular.
The Manitoba Government and General Employees Union is contributing $20,000 over 5 years to a new scholarship fund that will support graduate student research on the Lake.

The MFL and other unions are also making contributions to the scholarship fund and joining the membership of the Consortium.

We hope others in our community will join the effort to save Lake Winnipeg and support the important work of the Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Your vote and the safety of 1 million working Canadians

Earlier this month, I had the honour of joining with 150 workers committed to safer and healthier workplaces at the 30th Annual MFL Health and Safety Conference

While I was there I learned something very surprising and disturbing. While disabling injury rates in provincially regulated workplaces are falling, they are actually rising in federally regulated workplaces. The gap is shockingly stark. Over the past 5 years, disabling injury rates in provincially regulated workplaces have seen an average decline of 25%, while federally regulated workplaces have seen a 5% increase over the same period.

A recent report by David Macdonald shows very clearly that this depressing statistic is no accident. It is the direct result of two conscious decisions by the current Conservative government.

First, he shows that the federal government is scaling back enforcement of the rules meant to keep workers safe and healthy. The number of federal enforcement officers has been cut, significantly increasing the number of workers per officer.

Second, an announcement buried in the 2007 federal budget required the benefits of any new federal regulations over the private sector to be balanced against the cost to business. That's right, the Harper government now requires regulators to balance saving workers' lives and preventing injuries against potential profits for employers! Once again, we see the "war on red tape" for what it really is - a move "to redefine the problem of injured worked as a cost of doing business." 

These moves have been very bad news for the more than 1 million workers in federally regulated workplaces.

Manitoba has shown how a government that cares about workers and their families can make workplaces safer and healthier. By doubling the number of health and safety enforcement officers and by quintupling the number of workplace inspections, Manitoba's NDP government has reduced the workplace injury rate by 40% over the past decade.

Jack Layton and the NDP have also shown a strong commitment to safer workplaces.

On May 2nd, let's vote to make federally regulated workplaces safer and healthier so that workers can make it home safely to see their families when the working day is done.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Reflections on spilled oil ... and blood

Many media outlets gave significant attention to an important anniversary this week - the one year anniversary of the horrific Deep Water Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The stories reminded us of the tremendous damage that was done to the environment. They reminded us of the outrage and shock we felt when we learned that, despite the advanced technologies that allow for deep water drilling, nothing could be done for months and months to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf.

The stories were also depressing because they underscored the degree to which so little has changed over the past year. Despite the horrors of the explosion and the subsequent spill, the appetite for offshore drilling appears to be as strong as ever. The public outrage of last spring and summer appears to have dissipated.

But what really struck me was that most media coverage completely ignored the significant fact that 11 workers were killed in the Deep Water Horizon explosion on April 20, 2010. These 11 workers never made it home from that job site:

• Karl Kleppinger, 38, of Natchez, Mississippi, who left behind a wife, Tracy, and a 17 year-old son, Aaron.
• Adam Weise, who was mourned at a vigil attended by hundreds of people in his community of Yorktown, Texas, last week. “Adam was my baby, just 24 years old,” the man’s mother, Arlene Weise told reporters.
• Aaron Dale Burkeen, a 37-year-old resident of Neshoba County, near Philadelphia, Mississippi. A local paper reported that Burkeen was responsible for getting the other crew members to safety before leaving, but was unable to get off the rig in time. He is survived by a wife and two children, ages 14 and 6.
• Donald Clark, 49, of Newellton, Louisiana, was scheduled to leave the rig on April 21, the day after the explosion.
• Roy Kemp, 27, Jonesville, Louisiana, leaves behind two daughters, one three years old, the other three months old, and his wife, Tracy.
• Jason Anderson, of Bay City, Texas, also leaves behind two children.
• Stephen Curtis, 39, of Georgetown, Louisiana, is also survived by two children. He had been working in the oil industry for 17 years, following in the footsteps of his father, Howard, who worked as a diver-welder for 34 years.
• Gordon Jones, 28, of Louisiana, leaves behind a son and a pregnant wife, Michelle.
• Blair Manuel, 56, of Gonzales, Louisiana, worked as a chemical engineer on the rig. He had three daughters and was engaged to be married.
• Dewey Revette, 48, from State Line, Mississippi, worked for Transocean for 29 years as a driller, and was also a father.
• Shane Roshto, 22, was from Franklin County, Mississippi and left a widow, Natalie Roshto.

And this carnage was not an isolated incident. Another 69 workers have been killed on offshore oil drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico since 2001. Another 1,349 workers have suffered injuries on these rigs.

I am telling you this because workers continue to die needlessly at workplaces across the world. In Manitoba last year, 15 workers died on the job, and countless others died from occupational disease.

Next week, on April 28, we will mark the International Day of Mourning for workers killed or injured on the job. I encourage you to take some time to mark this important day when we mourn the dead and pledge to fight for the living.

Events planned for Winnipeg include:

MFL Day of Mourning Candlelight Memorial Service
6:00pm, April 28, 2011
Room 2C, Union Centre, 275 Broadway, Winnipeg
Contact:  Manitoba Federation of Labour, 953-2563
A candlelight service to remember those who have lost their lives earning a living, and those who have become disabled from work.

SAFE Workers of Tomorrow Annual Day of Mourning Leaders’ Walk
11:45am, April 28, 2011
Depart from Union Centre entrance, 275 Broadway, Winnipeg
Contact: Allan Beach, SAFE Workers of Tomorrow, 992-2988
Join labour and community leaders in the Annual Leaders’ Walk to the Legislature to honour the National Day of Mourning for workers killed or injured on the job.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Time to Act on Accessibility Rights Legislation

Approximately 40% of complaints to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission relate to the rights of Manitobans with disabilities. That's a clear sign that the 170,000 Manitobans with disabilities are facing far too many barriers to full participation in our communities.

The Manitoba Federation of Labour supports the campaign by Barrier Free Manitoba for accessibility rights legislation in Manitoba. Modeled on the Accessibility of Ontarians with Disabilities Act of 2005, such legislation would:
1) Establish a deadline for Manitoba to become barrier free for Manitobans with disabilities. Ontario’s law provided 20 years to achieve full accessibility.
2) Identify areas in which accessibility standards must be implemented. These would include customer service, transportation, the built environment, information and communications, and employment.
3) Establish a process by which recommended accessibility standards would be developed. That process would be led by cross-sector committees, involving all stakeholders, including members who are persons with disabilities or their representatives.
4) Make government responsible for determining which standards are implemented to achieve full accessibility.
5) Establish a pro-active  enforcement mechanism that includes regular reporting on compliance. This is in contrast with the current complain-driven system.

The time to act is NOW. Barrier Free Manitoba has organized a postcard campaign urging the Premier to introduce accessibility rights legislation in the upcoming spring session of the Manitoba legislature. Please support this campaign by sending in your message of support HERE.

For more information about Barrier Free Manitoba and accessibility rights legislation, click HERE.

To read the Province's discussion paper on accessibility rights legislation, click HERE.