EDMONTON - The Alberta Workers Compensation Board (WCB) does not always treat injured workers fairly, but replacing it with a system of private insurance will not fix the problem, says the leader of Alberta's largest union organization.
"It's true that the WCB doesn't always work in the best interests of injured workers," says Audrey Cormack, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. "Too many legitimate claims are rejected and too many injured workers are forced to wait months or even years for the benefits they need and deserve.
But just because the system is flawed doesn't mean that it should be scrapped entirely. We have to be careful not to the throw the baby out with the bath water."
Cormack's comments come in the wake of rising criticism of the WCB and calls for the introduction of a private, for-profit system of compensation for injured workers. Cormack says she agrees with many of the criticisms that have been leveled against the WCB - but she says privatization would make things worse, not better.
"The big complaints about the current system have to do with accountability, the appeals process and the manner in which claims are assessed," says Cormack. "Many people feel that legitimate claims are being downgraded or rejected in order to save the WCB money. And they think the WCB is not open and transparent enough. But privatization won't fix any of these problems. If anything, profit-seeking insurance companies will have an even bigger incentive to deny claims - and they will be even less open to public scrutiny."
Cormack says the question of whether or not it makes sense to privatize the WCB has been studied numerous times over the past ten years. In almost all cases, she points out, academics and other people investigating the issue have concluded that Canada's current system of publicly-controlled compensation for injured workers is far superior to the private, for-profit systems that exist in places like the United States.
Among other things, the various studies have concluded that private insurance companies operating in competitive compensation systems tend to
- provide lower benefit rates to injured workers
- put a much lower priority on rehabilitation of injured workers
- charge higher premiums for many employers - in fact, under some private systems, employers in high risk industries find it almost impossible to get coverage.
In addition, in competitive systems there are often no formal appeal procedures for workers who are not satisfied with decisions made by the private insurance companies. A worker's only recourse is often to hire a lawyer - at great expense - and attempt to fight it out in the court system.
Aside from all of these problems with private insurance systems, Cormack says privatization would undermine the Meredith Principle - which has acted as the cornerstone of Canada's workers' compensation system for more than 80 years.
According to the Meredith principle, individual injured workers give up their right to sue their employers in exchange for a guarantee of fair compensation. But Cormack points out that under most private compensation schemes, workers retain their right to sue. This exposes employers to much higher levels of financial liability and greatly increases costs for individual workers as they pursue their claims.
"It's a lose-lose scenario for workers and employers," says Cormack. "When you look at the systems that exist in the United States, it's clear that the interests of working people in Alberta would not be well-served by introducing a market-model for workers' compensation in the province. Privatization would mean lower benefits and fewer opportunities for rehabilitation for most workers; higher premiums for many employers; and reduced accountability to the public. With these facts in mind, I find it hard to understand how anyone could support privatization."
For more information call:
Audrey Cormack, AFL President: 483-3021 (wk) 499-6530 (cell) 428-9367 (hm)
Gil McGowan, Director of Communications: 483-3021 (wk)
EDMONTON - The Alberta government is not doing nearly enough to protect workers - especially young workers, women and immigrants - from abuse and unfair treatment in the workplace, says the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"Over the past few years, the number of employment standards complaints filed with the government has jumped by 50 percent - from 4,951 in 1993 to 7,405 in 1998," says AFL Secretary Treasurer Les Steel. "These numbers tell a disturbing story. It's clear that Albertans are not getting the kind of protection they deserve in the workplace."
Steels comments came in response to a proposal made earlier today by the New Democrat Opposition regarding the establishment of an independent office to advocate on behalf of workers who have been unfairly treated by their employers.
In a news conference, ND labour critic Raj Pannu said a Workers' Advocate is needed to assist in resolving individual complaints and, more importantly, to pressure the government into putting a higher priority on investigating complaints and enforcing its own employment standards rules.
"The sad truth is that the current government often turns a blind eye on employers who mistreat their workers," says Steel. "Alberta's Employment Standards rules are not that bad - the problem is they are not aggressively enforced."
Steel says the ND proposal would be an important step in the right direction - but he says it would only be part of the solution. If the government really wants to "clean up its act" on employment standards, he says it would need to take a number of other steps.
For example, Steel says more inspectors should be hired to investigate complaints. This is especially important considering that the Labour department's workforce was nearly cut in half as a result of the Klein budget cuts. Steel also says the government should move away from it's current "complaint driven" system for investigation. Too often, problem employers go undetected and unpunished because employees are too afraid to complain. What's needed, says Steel, is a system in which government investigators can launch their own independent investigations and spot checks.
Finally, Steel says the government has to get serious about levying substantial fines against employers who consistently ignore the rights of their workers. He says that a "big stick" is the only thing that problem employers understand.
"In the end, what's really needed is for this government to make a strong commitment to protecting the rights of working people," says Steel. "Establishing a Workers' Advocate office would be an important step in the right direction."
For further information contact:
Les Steel, AFL Secretary Treasurer @ 483-3021 (wk) / 499-4135 (cell)
EDMONTON - Working people in Alberta are being short-changed by a plan announced earlier today to re-organize government departments, says the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. Audrey Cormack says Premier Klein's plan to establish a new Human Resources and Employment department is "a slap in the face for working people."
"The Premier can go on as much as he likes about stream-lining government and preparing Albertans for the new millennium," says Cormack. "But the bottom line is that the concerns of working people are going to get lost in the shuffle within this new super-department."
According to the plan unveiled by Klein this afternoon, the new Human Resources and Employment department will take responsibility for issues previously handled by the Labour department, the Family and Social Services Department and the Career Development branch of the Economic Development department.
Cormack says the new "super department" will put labour programs in the awkward position of having to compete for resources with programs from the family and social services side of the department.
"There are more than one and half million Albertans who work for a living," says Cormack. "Workplace issues like health and safety and the administration of the Labour Code and the Employment Standards Code are so important that they clearly deserve to be handled in their own separate department."
Cormack says the only rationale given by the Premier to justify the re-organization is that it meshes with the government's promises about putting a higher priority on education and training. But Cormack says there is a lot more to labour issues than training.
"We in the labour movement support efforts to improve training for Albertans - in fact, we've been urging the government to invest more in education and apprenticeships for years," says Cormack.
"But the labour department isn't just about preparing people for work. It's also about promoting health and safety. It's about making sure workers know their rights. It's about protecting those rights in the workplace. And it's about making sure employers know and uphold the law. We're afraid that these issues are not going to get the attention they deserve in the new department."
For more information call:
Audrey Cormack, AFL President @ 483-3021(wk)/499-6530(cell)/428-9367(hm)
On Wednesday, April 28, Alberta workers will be marking the 4th International Day of Mourning in their worksites and at special ceremonies.
The Alberta Federation of Labour, in conjunction with the Edmonton and District Labour Council and the Alberta Building Trades Council, are organizing a ceremony to mark the day:
Wednesday, April 28 - 7:00 pm at City Hall
The event mixes cultural performances with speakers and a candle lighting to commemorate Day of Mourning. Strong visual images make up an important piece of the ceremony. A representative of the City will read out the official proclamation.
"Around the world, a worker is killed every 30 seconds," says Audrey Cormack, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour. "Here in Alberta, we lose two workers every week to workplace accidents or occupational disease. And that is just the official statistics. The real numbers are likely much higher."
"Even a single death is not tolerable in this day and age," says Cormack. "We need to make the public aware of the scourge of work-related death so we can work together to wipe it out." Raising the profile of the issue is why the International Day of Mourning was created. Across Alberta, tens of thousands of workers will be marking the day at their local worksite. Many workplaces will respect a minute of silence. Others will wear black armbands, or hold a short lunch hour event, or fly flags at half-mast.
"Interest in Day of Mourning is growing," says Cormack. "More Alberta workers are participating this year than ever before." Day of Mourning actually began in Canada, first proclaimed by Parliament in 1986. It became the International Day of Mourning in 1996 and is now commemorated in over 70 countries worldwide.
"This day is as much about a commitment to safer workplaces as it is about remembering those who were killed. We want this day to remind everyone of the need for safe workplaces." Cormack concludes.
For further information contact:
Audrey Cormack, President @ 499-6530 (cell)
Jason Foster, Executive Director @ 483-3021 (work)