The Ontario government has announced plans to allow the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) to return surplus funds to employers. A government agency that operates at “arm’s length” from the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development, the WSIB provides compensation for workers injured or killed on the job. Plundering its coffers to give cash to bosses while underfunding workers is a blatant reminder whose side Premier Doug Ford is on.
The WSIB is funded entirely through employer premiums, administrative fees and revenue from investments. On Oct. 6, Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said that the government plans to introduce legislation before the end of the month that would allow the WSIB to either lower premium rates or send money back directly to “safe employers”. The current surplus of the WSIB is $6.1 billion, or 119 per cent of its insurance fund, which it is not allowed to distribute back to employers.
The government’s proposed legislation would allow the WSIB to distribute surpluses when the fund reaches a 115 per cent surplus, and require it to do so when it attains a 125 per cent surplus. Along with a five per cent cut to premiums totalling $168 million, the move would allow the government to give about half the WSIB surplus to employers, amounting to a handout of up to $3 billion for the bosses.
McNaughton boasted that the proposed measures would “save employers hundreds of millions of dollars that can be reinvested in new jobs, technology, and health and safety protections. At the same time, injured workers will continue to receive the benefits and services they deserve.” In other words, he claimed, bosses and workers would both benefit. Everybody wins! What’s not to love?
Contrary to the rosy picture McNaughton paints, the truth is that capitalists and workers have mutually antagonistic class interests—and the Ford government is firmly on the side of the capitalists. We see this in the opposing reactions to the government’s announcement across the class divide. The Toronto Star reported: “The move to give roughly half the surplus back to employers was applauded by business lobby groups, but slammed by workers’ rights advocates and unions.” Ryan Mallough, regional director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, praised Ford’s move as offering some “financial flexibility” to businesses that have taken on debt during the pandemic—but noted tellingly that “I’m not sure it will make or break any business”, suggesting this is not a life-or-death question for employers.
For injured workers, on the other hand, it may well represent such an existential issue. Deena Ladd, executive director of the Workers’ Action Centre, told the Star that the WSIB could have drawn down its surplus by making access to benefits easier and making benefits last longer. “Workers are finding it harder and harder to get medications paid for,” Ladd said. “They’re getting told that they’re ready to go back to work long before they actually are. That surplus could be used to help improve these things for workers.” Ladd suggested that Ford is attempting to shore up support among business owners upset by the government’s handling of the pandemic before next year’s provincial election.
Relentless attacks on workers
The government’s announced legislation is not the first time the Ford regime has ransacked the WSIB to fill the bosses’ pockets while attacking workers.
When Ford took office as premier in 2018, he did so the same year that the WSIB eliminated a longstanding shortfall in funds. For years the WSIB had been underfunded due to repeated cuts by Conservative and Liberal governments, the low point occurring in 2011 when it contained only 52 per cent of the funds needed to pay out future benefits. The Liberal governments of Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne managed to eliminate this unfunded liability, albeit on the backs of injured workers—by increasingly denying claims. No sooner did Ford take over at Queen’s Park than he immediately cut employer premiums by 30 per cent, making additional cuts to WSIB in the years that followed.
The trajectory of the WSIB over the years is part of a common trend under capitalist rule. When there is a deficit, governments implement austerity on the backs of the workers. When there is a surplus, governments reward business with tax cuts and corporate welfare—until the deficit returns and the cycle repeats itself. When times are bad, workers pay; when times are good, the bosses reap the rewards. Under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class always wins.
To break this cycle, we need a workers’ government that can ensure all of society’s resources are used to benefit not a small minority of capitalists, but the toiling masses that form the vast majority of society. A fund designed to support injured workers will be used to support injured workers, as part of a socialist planned economy in which the workers who produce all wealth will at last reap all the benefits.