Cabinet is quietly restricting health and safety coverage for 800,000 Canadian workers.
The labour department in an obscure notice proposes to redefine workplace “danger” under the Canada Labour Code, repealing provisions that covered long-term illness from environmental hazards and other perils.
“It seems like a sneaky and subversive way to gut the Code,” said MP Pat Martin, New Democrat public works critic. “I’m an old union rep; you explain to me how dumbing down the health and safety provisions of the Canada Labour Code is in the best interests of Canadians.”
Labour Minister Kellie Leitch did not comment.
The amendments were inserted on the 176th page of a 309-page omnibus budget bill yesterday introduced in the Commons.
The current Labour Code occupational health and safety provision, sec. 122.1, states: “‘Danger’ means any existing or potential hazard or condition or any current or future activity that could reasonably be expected to cause injury or illness to a person exposed to it before the hazard or condition can be corrected, or the activity altered, whether or not the injury or illness occurs immediately after the exposure to the hazard, condition or activity, and includes any exposure to a hazardous substance that is likely to result in a chronic illness, in disease or in damage to the reproductive system.”
Under the omnibus Bill C-4, the entire definition is replaced with a single line: “‘Danger’ means any hazard, condition or activity that could reasonably be expected to be an imminent or serious threat to the life or health of a person exposed to it before the hazard or condition can be corrected or the activity altered.”
The labour department would not take Blacklock’s questions.
“All jurisprudence associated with the old Code definition is stripped away,” said Martin, MP for Winnipeg Centre. “Is it only unsafe if an anvil falls on my head? Or is it also unsafe if I’m exposed to chemical soup over time and end up with brain cancer as a result of exposure? These are distinctions that have been tossed out the window.”
A Toronto labour attorney, James McDonald of Sack Goldblatt Mitchell LLP, said the amendment appeared far-reaching and must be “carefully examined”.
“The clear intent of the amendment is to reduce the occasions when workers will be able to exercise their right to refuse to perform unsafe work,” said McDonald; “Without having reviewed the entire Code and all the proposed amendments to the Code in this bill, it is clear there will be many a situation that was a danger to an employee before this bill is passed, which will no longer be a danger to the employee after this bill is passed as far as this Government and employers are concerned.”
The labour department estimates 800,000 employees are subject to the Labour Code, including employees of most Crown corporations and federally-regulated industries like railways, marine shipping, airports, pipelines, uranium mining and broadcasting.
MP Kevin Lamoureux, Liberal Deputy House Leader, protested the method of amending federal labour law through little-noticed insertions in a budget bill.
“This is anti-democratic,” said Lamoureux, MP for Winnipeg North; “Why was it brought through the back door of an omnibus bill? Incorporating substantial changes in labour legislation in this way is just wrong.”
Other federally-regulated industries subject to the Labour Code include banking, telephone and cable systems, canals, tunnels, grain elevators, feed and seed mills, select fisheries and First Nations businesses.
“Workers in all these industries should be concerned in terms of this change of scope,” said Lamoureux. “This is significant.”
By Tom Korski