EDMONTON - Alarm bells should be ringing in the provincial labour department now that it has been revealed that there may have been no guardrails on the roof where a 14-year-old boy was working before falling to his death last week.
According to a newspaper report published today, Edmonton police are investigating the possibility the fifth-floor barricade that 14-year-old Shane Stecyk supposed fell over was actually erected after the accident.
"It looks like we had a deadly combination of factors contributing to the death of this young boy," says Les Steel, Secretary Treasurer of the Alberta Federation of Labour. "First, we had a roof that was wet and slippery. Second, we had a young worker with no experience; who had not been given any kind of protective harness; and who had not received any safety training. Third, it looks like there was no guardrail as required by law. It was a deadly accident waiting to happen."
Steel says the provincial government has to take a significant share of the blame for the accident because it doesn't do nearly enough to ensure that companies - especially in dangerous industries such as construction - comply with existing health and safety rules.
"It's not enough to have rules saying things like 'guardrails must be erected' or that "'oung workers need special permits'," says Steel. "These rules are meaningless unless they are enforced and violators are punished. That's just not happening in Alberta today. As a result, the lives of working Albertans - young and old - are being put at risk."
In a letter sent to Human Resources Minister Clint Dunford yesterday, Steel pointed out that provincial spending on occupational health and safety programs has plummeted from $10.61 per worker per year in 1993 to $4.61 per worker in 2000. As a result, the province now has only 58 health and safety inspectors - down from 69 in 1993 - to look after 1.6 million workers and nearly 70,000 work sites.
To make matters worse, Steel says companies are rarely prosecuted for breaking health and safety rules - and even when they are, the fines are too small to act as an effective deterrent. For example, only one company was prosecuted in 1999 - out of the nearly 1,000 companies that were cited for violations.
"It's like trying to mop up an ocean with a sponge," says Steel. "Because of their overwhelming case loads, the inspectors spend almost all of their time investigating fatalities, leaving them with no time to investigate less serious incidents or to do preventative spot checks of problem employers."
Steel says that the government and the public are fooling themselves if they think that Shane Stecyk's is an isolated case.
"It's just the tip of the iceberg," he says. "How many other construction sites don't have proper safety railings? How many other young teens are working illegally on construction sites? Probably a lot - but we don't know because we don't do enough inspections. And despite all the attention this case has received, unscrupulous employers will probably continue to cut corners because they know that, here in Alberta, they can get away with it."
One of the most frustrating aspects of this whole situation, says Steel, is that the government knows which employers and which industries are most dangerous - they've compiled a list based on injury statistics from the WCB. Many of these employers have been targeted for preventative spot inspections under the so-called "Planned Inspection Program" - but the inspectors almost never get around to actually doing the inspections because of lack of resources.
"The bottom line is that we believe the death of this young worker - and many of the other workers who die on Alberta worksites each year - is directly related to the government's lax enforcement of health and safety rules," says Steel. "If nothing else, this case proves what we in the labour movement have been saying for years: namely that there is a desperate need for more frequent and more aggressive health and safety inspections in this province."
For more information call:
Les Steel, Secretary Treasurer @ 483-3021 (wk) / 499-4135 (cell)
Gil McGowan, Director of Communications @ 483-3021 (wk)
Workplace deaths are the "tragic and predictable result" of under-funding and lack of political will, says AFL
EDMONTON - The Alberta government is not doing nearly enough to promote and enforce adequate health and safety standards on work sites across the province, says the Secretary Treasurer of Alberta's largest labour organization.
In a letter to provincial Human Resources Minister Clint Dunford, AFL Secretary Treasurer Les Steel criticized the government's track record on health and safety. He also accused Dunford of callously shrugging off the case of 14-year-old Shane Stecyk, who died last week while working at an Edmonton construction site.
Steel says accidents like the one leading to Stecyk's death can never be entirely eliminated. But he says they would happen much less frequently if the government put a higher priority on promoting and enforcing basic health and safety standards.
"I think most Albertans would be appalled if they knew how little money this government spends on things like workplace health and safety inspections," says Steel. "They would also be appalled if they knew how soft the government is on employers who break the rules and put their workers at risk."
In his letter to the Minister, Steel points out that the Alberta government now spends only $4.61 per worker each year on occupational health and safety programs - down from $10.61 per worker in 1993. As a result, there are fewer inspectors, doing fewer work site inspections - even though the Alberta workforce has been growing dramatically.
"Here in Alberta, we now have about 1.6 million people working in nearly 70,000 work sites across the province," says Steel. "Yet we only have 58 inspectors - down from 69 in 1993. It's like trying to mop up an ocean with a sponge and a pail."
To make matters worse, Steel says that companies are rarely prosecuted for contravening health and safety rules - and even when they are, the fines are too small to act as an effective deterrent.
To illustrate this point, Steel referred to the government's own figures showing that only 6 companies have been fined for health and safety violations since 1996 - and the fines have averaged just $19,750 (all for incidents involving fatalities). This compares to the situation in Ontario, where General Motors was recently fined $325,000 in relation to a worker fatality at one of its auto plants.
"All of this leaves me deeply troubled," says Steel. "We have a Minister who shrugs off the death of a 14-year-old worker, by saying "accidents happen." And we have a government that seems content to let employers regulate themselves. In this environment, it's no surprise that workplace fatalities are on the rise. It's the tragic and predictable result of under-funding and a lack of political will."
If the Alberta government really wants to bring down the soaring rates of worker injuries and fatalities, Steel says it needs to take the following steps: 1) increase funding for inspections 2) adopt a much more aggressive approach to enforcement 3) levy much stiffer fines 4) place tighter restrictions on the work that children under 16 can do; and 5) require mandatory health and safety training for new workers (especially in hazardous industries such as construction.)
"In relation to the Shane Stecyk's death, the last two points are most important," says Steel. "As adults, we have a responsibility to protect children from harm - and that means keeping kids under 16 away from dangerous places like construction sites. And for workers between 16 and 24, we need legislation ensuring that they get safety training before they start a new job. If we take these steps then we might be able to avoid mourning the loss of another teenager at the beginning of next year's construction season."
For more information call:
Les Steel, Secretary Treasurer @ 483-3021(wk)/499-4135(cell)
Attachment to follow
Alberta Health and Safety Facts
I. Work-Related Deaths (Alberta)
Source: Alberta Workers' Compensation Board
II. Alberta Government OH&S Investigations and Prosecutions
|Investigations||Comply Orders||Convictions(involving fatalities)||Convictions(no fatality)||Average Fine|
Source: Alberta Human Resources and Employment
(Note: There has not been a successful prosecution involving a non-fatal workplace injury since 1994. The average penalty for non-fatality cases in that year was $3,800.)
III. OH&S Budget ($000s)
(Note: The amount the Alberta government spends on occupational health and safety programs has plummeted from $10.61 per worker per year in 1991/92 to $4.36 per worker per year in 2000/01 - all figures adjusted for inflation and presented in 2000 dollars.)
AFL President Audrey Cormack is calling on activists to lobby the Federal Justice Minister, Anne McLellan to demand Leonard Peltier's release.
A rally in support of clemency for the American Indian Movement activist and political prisoner will be held in EDMONTON on MONDAY, JUNE 26TH outside McLellan's constituency office (12304 -107 Avenue) at 4:30 p.m.
"It's time to increase pressure on the Justice Department. Leonard Peltier has been wrongfully imprisoned for almost 25 years, and it's time the federal government stop dragging their heels in this matter," says Alberta Federation of Labour President, Audrey Cormack.
"We are asking that the Canadian government file an official protest to the U.S. President, Bill Clinton, recommend that Leonard Peltier receive Executive Clemency, or that he receive a new trial."
On November 26, 1975, Leonard Peltier, along with three others were charged with the murder of two FBI agents during an altercation at Jumping Bull Ranch between members of the American Indian Movement and FBI agents. The charges against one of the accused were dropped. On July 16, 1976, two were acquitted in a trial in Iowa, where the defense was allowed to use the argument of self-defense.
Peltier, fearing for his life, fled to Canada. On December 18, 1976, Peltier was extradited back to the United States on the basis of affidavits, which were later shown to be false. His trial was moved to Fargo, North Dakota, where the trial judge refused to hear arguments of self-defense. Evidence supporting the defense was withheld. Peltier was convicted to two consecutive life sentences.
"The only honorable option the federal government has is to push the U.S. to grant Leonard Peltier clemency. I urge the Honorable Minister to act on this case and allow the truth to prevail. It's time for justice," says Cormack.
For further information contact:
Audrey M. Cormack, President @ 483-3021 wk/ 499-6530 cell/ 428-9367 hm
Yesterday's decision by the Labour Relations Board (LRB) to strike down the section of the Labour Relations Code banning secondary picketing is an important victory for workers and for freedom of expression, says the Alberta Federation of Labour. The AFL was commenting on the ruling released that deems section 82 of the Labour Relations Code as contravening the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and therefore inoperative.
The LRB decision affects the ongoing strike between Brewers Distributers Limited (BDL) and CAW Local 285 members. The union was asking for permission to picket the MTE Logistix warehouse, which is contracted to distribute all Molson and Labatt beer. Originally, the LRB had denied workers the right to secondary picket at the warehouse. They are now allowed to picket the location.
"This is a watershed decision," says AFL President Audrey Cormack. "The Labour Relations Board has, for once, stood up for workers' right to picket."
"We have said for years that Alberta's ban on secondary picketing is too broad and infringes on the right to free expression. And today we have been confirmed by the Board."
The LRB decided that section 82 is "overbroad" and "goes beyond the protection of bystanders to the conflict and erects an absolute prohibition on expression through picketing..." It says this sweeping ban is not justified under the Charter of Rights. It goes on to say the section shields "ally employers" from the consequences of participating in a labour dispute.
"In Alberta, employers have an unfair advantage because the law shields them from playing fair," says Cormack. "BDL and other employers have used the law to unfairly avoid bargaining in good faith with workers. Maybe this decision will mark a new trend to more fairness."
Cormack called on the government to accept the decision and not appeal to the courts. "They should acknowledge this decision and re-write section 82 so it complies with the Charter."
"When the striking CAW members start picketing the MTE warehouse, I'll be with them. It is a hard-won victory that I hope will help them get a good settlement."
For further information contact:
Audrey Cormack, President @ 483-3021 wk/ 499-6530 cell/ 428-9367 hm
EDMONTON - The changes to Alberta's Employment Standards regulations announced yesterday prove that the Klein government is more interested in catering to the whims of employers than protecting the rights of working people, says a spokesman for Alberta's largest labour organization.
Les Steel, Secretary Treasurer of the Alberta Federation of Labour, says the new regulations unveiled yesterday afternoon by a government regulatory review committee amount to a "betrayal of working people" - especially the thousands of people working in the oilfield servicing industry.
Under the new rules, employers will finally be required to pay domestic workers such as nannies at least the minimum wage. Ambulance attendants will also be given a break - they will be guaranteed at least four days free from on-call duties each month.
But that's where the good news for workers ends. Once the new regulations are implemented on July 1, people working in oilfield servicing and fish farming will be denied all protection under the Employment Standards Code - which sets out rules for things like maximum hours of work, overtime pay, vacations and the minimum wage.
Oilfield workers will be particularly hard hit. Under the old rules, there was a 12-hour limit on the length of time these people could be required to work in a given day. Now that limit has been removed entirely - opening the door for 14, 16 or even 18-hour shifts.
"The government review committee said their goal was to 'update and streamline' this province's basic workplace rules," says Steel. "But - with a few small exceptions - the committee is actually moving labour law in Alberta backward not forward. The exemption of oilfield service workers is particularly serious - it's an accident waiting to happen. If people are forced to work too long, injuries and deaths will increase, it's as simple as that."
Steel says the big problem with Alberta's Employment Standards law is that it exempts whole industries and categories of workers - leaving thousands of workers without even the minimum protections guaranteed by the Code.
For example, all agricultural workers and many salespeople are exempt from the Code. Other workers are exempt from certain sections of the Code. Domestic workers for example are still not entitled to over-time pay.
"The position of the AFL is that there should be no exemptions to the basic floor of rights established by the Employment Standards Code," says Steel. "Every exemption granted weakens that floor of rights not just for the workers involved but for the entire Alberta workforce."
Steel says the latest regulatory changes prove that the current Alberta government will always put the interests of employers ahead of the interest of workers - especially when the employers are from the influential oil and gas industry.
"What good are workplace rules like the Employment Standards Code if the government is willing to set them aside every time an industry asks for special treatment?" asks Steel. "We think the time has come for all employers in this province to follow the same basic rules - with no exceptions. These latest changes are clearly a step in the wrong direction."
For more information call:
Les Steel, Secretary Treasurer @ 483-3021 (wk)
Gil McGowan, Director of Communications @ 483-3021 (wk)
EDMONTON - The Alberta government and the Provincial Health Authorities of Alberta (PHAA) are sadly mistaken if they think large fines will stop unions from doing what's necessary to protect the interests of their members, says the president of Alberta's largest labour organization.
"They've got another thing coming if they think they can fine the labour movement into submission," says Audrey Cormack, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. "We at the AFL will stand behind AUPE and its members because we believe they did the right thing. If that means helping AUPE or other unions find the money to pay fines, then that's what we'll do."
Cormack's comments were made in response to the large fines levied against the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) for their recent two-day hospital strike. She was also responding to comments made by Clint Dunford, Minister of Human Resources, who warned that the government will take even stronger action to stop similar strikes in the future.
Late last week, AUPE was found guilty of contempt of court for violating a "cease and desist" order from the Alberta Labour Relations Board. As part of its ruling, the Court of Queen's Bench imposed a fine of $400,000 on AUPE for staging a two-day strike at hospitals and health facilities across the province.
Cormack says the fines are unfair because Alberta's harsh labour laws left the union and its members with no choice but to strike.
"Under Alberta's current labour law, the deck is stacked against unions and the workers they represent," says Cormack. "If AUPE had played by the rules, they would never have been able to win a fair settlement for their members. Given this reality, they had no choice but to do what they did."
According to Cormack, one of the biggest problems with Alberta's current labour laws is that almost all provincial public sector workers are deemed "essential" and therefore denied the right to strike. The problem with this arrangement, says Cormack, is that it removes all incentive from employers to bargain in good faith.
"When public sector workers go to the bargaining table in Alberta it's like banging their heads against a brick wall," says Cormack. "Without the right to strike, unions like AUPE have no leverage and are severely restricted in their ability to defend the interests of their members. That's why the strike took place over the past two days.
"Instead of fining AUPE, the government should look at the hospital strike as an important learning experience.
"What this whole situation really shows us is that Alberta's labour laws are deeply flawed. If the government wants to stop this kind of thing from happening in the future, they shouldn't turn to fines and other penalties. What they should do instead is consider legislative changes that establish a more even playing field for negotiations."
For more information call:
Audrey Cormack, President @ 483-3021(wk)/499-6530 (cell)/428-9367 (hm)
EDMONTON - The strike that is currently crippling hospitals across the province is a clear example of the provincial government "reaping what it has sown," says the president of Alberta's largest labour organization.
Audrey Cormack, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, says that the Alberta government created the conditions for a labour dispute in the health care sector by enacting harsh labour laws that blatantly favour employers and by starving the health care system of badly needed funds.
"By making it illegal for these workers to strike, the government has essentially created an environment in which employers hold all the cards. The regional health authorities have no incentive to bargain in good faith," says Cormack.
"This problem has been compounded by budget cuts and chronic under-funding. People working in hospitals and nursing homes across the province are constantly be asked to worker harder while earning less. This kind of situation can only go on so long before the workers involved reach a breaking point."
Under Alberta labour law, most provincial government workers - including the majority of health care workers currently on the picket line - are deemed "essential" and, therefore, denied the right-to-strike. Instead of strikes, disputes are sent to government-appointed arbitration panels which draft settlements that are binding on both the workers and the employer.
"The problem with the arbitration process is that it tilts the field in favour of the employer and undermines the entire bargaining process," says Cormack. "The employers know the government appointees on the arbitration panels will rule in their favour - so they have no real incentive to bargain in good faith. That's why the regional health authorities are just starting to bargain now - the strike is finally forcing them to take the workers seriously."
As a result of the arbitration process and the ban on strikes for public sector workers, Cormack says licensed practical nurses and other health care workers in Alberta have fallen far behind their counterparts in other provinces in terms of wages and benefits. But she says it doesn't have to be this way.
"If the government really wants to settle this dispute quickly they should do two things," says Cormack. "In the short term, they should allocate more of the provincial government's huge budget surplus to health care so that the regional health authorities can afford to give their employees fair wage increases. In the longer term, what's needed are major changes to Alberta labour laws. Without the right to strike, employers will continue to ignore the legitimate demands of health care workers and these workers will continue to be paid far less than they deserve."
For more information:
Audrey Cormack, AFL President @ (780) 499-6530 (cell)/483-3021 (wk)/428-9367 (hm)
EDMONTON - There are many lessons to be learned from the two-day strike that crippled hospitals across the province earlier this week - but the most important one is that Alberta's labour laws are deeply flawed, says Audrey Cormack, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"We're extremely pleased that a settlement has been reached that addresses the concerns of the health care workers involved," says Cormack. "But the bottom line is that this was a strike that could have been avoided. If Alberta had better labour laws, these workers probably would not have walked off the job and patients would not have been inconvenienced."
Cormack focused her criticism on the Public Service Employee Relations Act (PSERA) the law that governs labour relations in the provincial public sector.
Under this law, almost all provincial government workers - from clerks and janitors to technicians and nurses - are deemed "essential" and therefore denied the right to strike. Unions can still bargain for contracts, but if negotiations reach an impasse the dispute is sent to a government-appointed arbitration panel which drafts a settlement that is binding on both parties.
The problem with this arrangement is that the arbitration panels are made up of three members - one chosen by the union, one chosen by the government and one chosen by the employer (who is either the government itself or an agency of the government). The result is a panel that always votes two-to-one against the union.
To make matters worse, PSERA severely restricts the issues that can be dealt with by the arbitration panels. For example, basic workplace issues like pensions, workload, contracting out and job classification cannot be discussed. As a result, people employed in workplaces governed by PSERA have been left with absolutely no avenues to pursue a wide range of common and legitimate workplace concerns.
"PSERA is probably the most draconian piece of labour legislation in the country," says Cormack. "It doesn't just tip the playing field in favour of employers, it sets up a game in which the workers can never win."
Knowing that the deck is stacked in their favour, Cormack says public sector employers - such as the regional health authorities - usually refuse to bargain in good faith. Instead, they simply wait for the dispute to be referred to an arbitration panel where they know the workers concerns will be tossed aside.
"The law is so bad and so unfair that it was only a matter of time before workers and their unions said 'enough is enough'," says Cormack, adding that the built-in unfairness of PSERA is the reason why Alberta health care workers have fallen so far behind the wages of their counterparts in other provinces.
After reviewing the lessons of Alberta's latest health care strike, Cormack says what's obviously needed is a new labour law that gives public sector workers the right to strike.
"Once the workers actually went on strike, the regional health authorities finally started to bargain and an agreement was reached in just two days," says Cormack. "If the unions had the right to strike, the government would have taken the negotiations much more seriously from the start and an agreement probably could have been reached without job action. That's the lesson of this whole situation - a strike probably could have been avoided if the workers involved had the right to strike.
For more information call:
Audrey Cormack, President @ 483-3021(wk)/499-6530 (cell)/428-9367 (hm)
The Alberta Federation of Labour revealed today that WCB President and CEO Mary Cameron received a 39% pay increase in 1999. Also, WCB sources inform the AFL that the Board of Directors approved another substantial pay increase for the year 2000.
In 1999, Cameron earned a total of $355,699. This is up from $256,663 in 1998, her first year as CEO of WCB.
"What message does it send to injured workers who are forced to go on welfare while awaiting just resolution of their claim to hear that the President made almost $400,000 last year?" asks AFL President Audrey Cormack. "It looks bad."
Cormack also says that WCB sources informed the AFL that the Board recently approved another pay increase for Cameron to an undisclosed amount. "When will all this generosity make its way down to injured workers?"
"It is a double standard," observes Cormack. "Injured worker benefits are capped at 90% of $48,600, yet there is apparently no ceiling for how high the CEO's salary can go."
Cormack believes the huge salary jump is just the latest indicator that the WCB has forgotten why it exists.
"At the moment, the WCB is an organization under a black cloud. Injured workers and employers have serious concerns about the operation of WCB in Alberta," says Audrey Cormack, President of the AFL. "The WCB has forgotten why they exist - to pay fair benefits to workers injured on the job."
Cormack says she does not begrudge the WCB President from earning a reasonable salary for their job, but adds that almost $400,000 is excessive. In 1997, former WCB CEO John Cowell earned $366,287, plus received a $580,294 severance package.
Cormack calls on Cameron to release the details of her contract with WCB, including any severance provisions and other perks.
"This is a publicly owned organization, and to that end, it should operate with complete openness to the people who run it - the people of Alberta." Cormack concludes.
For more information contact:
Audrey M. Cormack, President @ (780) 499-6530 (cell) 483-3021 (wk)
Friday April 28 will mark the 5th International Day of Mourning. Commemorated around the world, the Day of Mourning highlights the loss of thousands of workers every year to fatal accidents and occupational disease. In Alberta, Day of Mourning is expected to be the largest since its inception, with tens of thousands of workers participating in events around the province.
"People should not have to live with the fear that they or their loved one may not arrive back home at the end of the work day," says Audrey Cormack, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour. "We mark April 28 to remind our community that working shouldn't be a cause of death."
"Day of Mourning is partly about remembrance and partly about making change happen," says Cormack. "We do not want the workers who we have lost at work to be forgotten. We want their memory to carry us forward to prevent anyone else from losing their life at work."
Tens of thousands of workers in Alberta will be commemorating the day at their worksite with a minute of silence, black armbands, flags at half-mast or some other form of small ceremony. There will also be larger events open to the public in most centres around the province.
"Very few people know that at least 2 workers in Alberta are killed at work every week. Around the world, a worker is killed every 30 seconds," says Cormack. "Last year 114 Alberta workers were killed. Each one of those workers had a family and friends who now mourn them. Their deaths were all preventable."
Day of Mourning has its origins in Canada. It was first proclaimed in Parliament in 1986. Since then it has become an international event, with over 70 countries marking the day as the time to remember workers killed on the job.
"My hope is that Day of Mourning can act as the catalyst to change attitudes and policies around workplace safety, so that one day, no one has to die because they worked for a living."
For more information contact:
Audrey M. Cormack, President at (780) 499-6530 (cell)