The law? That's for workers, not owners

COVID-19 has already killed 103 residents of continuing care facilities across Alberta, and hundreds of workers and residents have tested positive for the virus. In response Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer of health, issued a number of orders meant to protect workers and residents from the spread of the virus--but some employers are apparently choosing to ignore them.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) filed a complaint with the Alberta Labour Relations Board (ALRB) on Monday about one company that is violating these orders.

On April 24, the Minister of Health enacted a ministerial order that made directives from Dr. Hinshaw regarding working conditions at health care facilities legally binding in Alberta. One immense risk factor was that care work is very precarious: workers in this industry often have jobs at more than one facility to patch together enough hours to pay a living wage. 

Because the status quo would see the virus rapidly jumping between facilities through shared workers, one of Dr. Hinshaw’s key directives was that workers would be prevented from working at multiple facilities. And part of that instruction was a legally-binding ministerial order that workers who are employed at multiple facilities must be granted unpaid leave, in order to comply with the law, with a guarantee that their jobs at other facilities would still be there for them when they returned.

At least one care provider, CBI Home Health, is completely ignoring these orders, according to the AUPE. AUPE alleges that at least five workers are facing retribution from CBI after they requested unpaid leave in order to comply with Dr. Hinshaw’s and the health ministry’s orders.

It’s a frustrating and financially precarious situation for these workers, who are effectively being punished for following the law while their employer gets to ignore it.

We spoke with Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull, a workers’ safety advocate with the Alberta Workers’ Health Centre, for context.

“Workers struggle to have a voice when it comes to health and safety and other workplace issues, even when there’s not a pandemic. I’d like to believe that there are good employers out there, and there certainly are, but without workers complaining about violations things often don’t move forward,” Matsunaga-Turnbull explained.

“There was a clear order, and if you violate that order you’re breaking the law. The question is how will it be remedied? And how quickly? The longer we delay remedy, the longer that workers are potentially at risk, and the patients involved are also at risk. It’s very problematic for a workforce that tends to be precarious to begin with… yet it takes voice, agency, and power to even raise the issue that laws are being broken.”

The egregious flouting of the ministerial order by CBI comes as yet another example of Alberta’s UCP government failing to enforce worker safety laws during the pandemic. As The Progress Report reported on May 9th, the Cargill corporation broke occupational health & safety laws by shutting worker representatives out of their investigation into conditions at the Cargill meat packing plant in High River. The coronavirus infection at Cargill exploded into North America’s largest workplace outbreak, with over half of the plant’s 2000 employees testing positive for the virus within only a few weeks. Three people were killed.

Workers raised the alarm about conditions in High River long in advance, too, but the UCP government did not listen to their warnings. Nor did it punish Cargill for violating the law. In fact, the health minister advised workers that the plant was safe and that they should return to work.

Matsunaga-Turnbull notes that part of the problem rests in a disconnect between the public health authorities (led by Hinshaw and the Health Minister) and the workplace safety authorities (answering instead to the Labour Minister.) But ultimately laws to protect workers accomplish very little if the government simply won’t enforce them.

“Even when we have things on the books that are supposed to ensure workers at the table, and that their voices are listened to, we’ve seen unfortunately that the enforcement agency--the government--has not stepped up… if you’re going to set a law, you have to stand behind it--and you have to be proactive about that. It shouldn’t rely on the might of a union and series and series of complaints before we admit that there’s a problem.”


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