Source: Andrew Louis/Flickr

On March 15, 2020, only days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, Ontario’s team of health and safety inspectors received a secret memo ordering them to enforce workplace laws in ways that explicitly risked the lives of workers across Ontario.

The secret memo obtained through a freedom-of-information request by a journalist provided “guidance” to health and safety inspectors on a range of issues such as masking requirements, occupational illness reporting, and whether pregnant employees should continue working. A central question was whether educators, who would soon be returning to school from March break, could refuse work they considered unsafe.

The answer to this question was a simple “No” from the Ford government. Over the last 18 months, with thousands of school-related COVID cases, out of the total of 44 work refusals filed in the education sector to date, all of them have been refused. Some safety concerns included quality of masks, poor ventilation and absence of information about air exchange in classrooms. In one case, health authorities refused to fix air ventilation due to their stance that “the transmission of COVID-19 occurs through droplet contact” and so no safety orders were issued to the school in question. This was further evidence that backed-up concerns about the province’s delay in accepting the science around aerosol transmission. 

According to experts, to this day many schools still do not have mechanical ventilation systems at all. Some insufficient federal funds were only released this spring, more than a year after the start of the pandemic. Valuable precautions like air quality testing and implementing necessary renovations could have been taken a long time ago. They have not, and the public finds itself at risk once again. Nearly 400,000 kids between 12 and 17 are not fully vaccinated and another 1.7 million are under 12 and still ineligible. With the Delta variant, the risk of contagion is exponentially higher. In the U.S.A. alone, 250,000 children have already tested positive since the start of the school year.

Outside the education sector, only eight of the 482 work refusals filed in Ontario have been accepted. But in countless situations, workers do not even file work refusals as they are aware of the extremely low chance of it being accepted. This has undeniably resulted in thousands of workers’ lives being put in danger, and to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of workers, from transit drivers to personal support workers.

Under provincial laws, work refusal criteria includes the need for a workplace’s physical condition to present a clear safety risk. In response, the secret memo said, “general concerns related to COVID-19 would not meet the requirements” set out in law. This reveals that from the outset of the pandemic, the Ford government has explicitly treated workers’ wellbeing as secondary to the interests of employers.

Further, the guidelines in the document say that work refusals would be rejected even if a COVID-positive individual had been in the workplace, so long as they were “entering the workplace by a different entrance” and “working alone”. One wonders if these guidelines would apply to the politicians at Queen’s Park. Would Ford, who tested positive in the past, be forced to enter parliament through a different door and work in isolation in his office instead of being given sick days off as he was? Would his fellow ministers be happy that there are COVID-positive employees in the same building, because they couldn’t afford to stay at home? Would wealthy employers in Ontario accept these guidelines for themselves in their fancy offices on Bay Street? Every working class person knows the answer to these questions. Paid sick days were not expanded for workers, but the wealthy who rarely contracted the virus or were near colleagues who had contracted it, had the luxury of staying far away in their beach houses and mansions.

Lessons from the 2003 SARS outbreak ignored

The health guidelines in the March 2020 secret memo deliberately violated the precautionary principle. This is the idea that maximum precautions should be followed in the absence of scientific certainty about a hazard. For example, when a worker has reasonable grounds to believe working conditions are endangering them, they should be able to refuse work. 

In the years that followed the 2003 SARS outbreak that infected over 400 Canadians and killed 44, an independent inquiry was launched in Ontario to investigate the response to the outbreak and learn from the mistakes made by the government. Experts from that inquiry have concluded that none of the lessons were seriously considered by any level of government in 2020.

Mario Possamai, a senior advisor on the 2007 SARS commission, said the most important lesson from the SARS Commission was that accepting the precautionary principle is essential to preventing an outbreak from getting out of control. In other words, that the safest approach be taken before even waiting for all the scientific evidence. As we’ve seen over the past 18 months, the government did not apply this principle. Possamai concluded that early government hesitation to close borders, resistance to recommending the use of masks for the general public and the impact of depleted stockpiles of PPE had devastating consequences on Canada’s ability to control COVID-19.

“In key areas, we just didn’t take a precautionary approach,” Possamai said. “The kinds of arguments that the federal government made at the time didn’t make sense then, and make even less sense now.” This same criticism of the Trudeau Liberals is true of the Tories in Ontario.

Enough of appeals to the bosses, labour must use class struggle methods!

In the same month as the secret memo was published, Canada’s biggest unions wrote an open letter to governments and employers. In the midst of a health-care crisis, with hospitals at capacity, as nurses and PSW’s were getting sick and dying, Canada’s biggest unions demanded “reasonable safeguards” should be put in place “when a virus is clouded in scientific uncertainty.” 

However, the mistake made in this open letter is that it relies on the bosses and pro-big business governments to care about workers’ lives. Every reasonable person understands the general evidence of how the virus spreads—this is why people wear masks, why they expect proper ventilation in their workplaces, why they keep their distance, etc. There is no need to win the government and the bosses over on this front. 

Quoting scientists and even lawyers in an open letter failed to convince the government to take steps to protect workers. This was not for lack of evidence, but because the government and the bosses simply chose to prioritize profits over workers’ lives—they have proven this at every turn. 

With the pandemic entering a fourth wave, many workers are now returning to workplaces where they won’t be able to refuse unsafe work. The secret memo has revealed explicitly that the government has thrown the precautionary principle out the window, even after the release of more and more evidence on COVID-19 transmission methods.

The main driver of this fourth wave is workplace infections. With no organized opposition to the profiteering bosses, the government has the opportunity to act with impunity against workers. This is why infection rates rise even with lockdowns. 

Enough is enough. It is time the labour movement stopped relying on the bosses to save workers’ lives, and started organizing using class-struggle methods to stop workplace infections. The Ontario unions and the Canadian Labour Congress, representing millions of workers across Canada, should instead take on this task by democratically organizing their members, bringing together non-unionized workers and preparing an offensive to save workers’ lives.

Fightback reiterates our statement from December 2020 that the labour movement must launch a campaign on the following demands:

  1. Release the names of all businesses with outbreaks! No impunity for negligent bosses.
  2. For mass workplace testing of all employees.
  3. Any workplace with more than an incidental infection must be shut down for at least two weeks while workers receive full pay.
  4. Support for and mass organization of work refusals when bosses refuse to close unsafe workplaces. If they refuse to test, mass work refusals under the precautionary principle. 
  5. Worker and union-controlled health and safety reviews with no expense spared in stopping work-related infection (including the outside-the-workplace effect of low pay, transit and shift work). 

Organized labour needs to make a declaration of war against COVID-19 and the negligence of the bosses. As long as labour leaders continue to remain idle the fourth wave will sweep through the working class and this living nightmare will continue.