April 28 marks the 30th anniversary of the annual Day of Mourning, a global day of remembrance for thousands of workers who have been killed, injured or sickened at work. Across Canada (and in more than 80 countries worldwide) workers, families of victims of unsafe workplaces, labour and union representatives, politicians, and others will gather to pay their respects. The Canadian flag on Parliament Hill will fly at half-mast; mourners will light candles and wear black armbands; and politicians will offer public pronouncements about the importance of workplace safety.
However, something very unsettling happens each year following this day of reflection. For most everyone, except the committed few who struggle daily for safe workplaces, the promise that things will change is followed by relative silence and inaction. Talk is cheap when the body count continues to rise. Roughly 1,000 workers are killed each year in Canada as a result of a workplace incident or illness, and the number of injured and sick continues to climb. In 2012, over 245,000 workers in Canada missed work due to an injury they suffered on the job. We can and should be doing more to end the killing and bloodshed.
For one, governments at all levels -- elected to protect our safety and security -- should ensure that negligent employers are held to account for injuring and/or killing workers. The Criminal Code of Canada already contains legislation that criminalizes organizations who fail to "take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of workers and the public." Commonly referred to as the 'Westray Bill', the law was introduced following the killing of 26 workers in an explosion at the Westray mine in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, in 1992, a disaster caused by dangerous and illegal working conditions.
The problem, however, is that there have been only a handful of charges, two convictions and one guilty plea since the Westray bill's enactment more than 10 years ago -- a record that hardly inspires claims of getting tough on corporate killers. Several factors are commonly cited to help explain this. For one, law enforcement officers do not know about the law and Crown prosecutors often decide to enforce provincial health and safety rules instead of proceeding criminally. The fact that our governments continue to sit idly by as the Westray bill falls into a state of virtual disuse speaks volumes to the priorities accorded to workplace safety. Surely, as we have seen time and time again in the context of traditional street crimes, if the federal and provincial governments were really interested in this issue, then politicians of all stripes would be clamouring to remedy the matter as quickly as possible.
The impunity enjoyed by corporations and powerful corporate actors who injure and kill workers must end. Yes, corporations provide us with much-needed employment (even if this is increasingly precarious and low-paying work), but this hardly gives them the moral authority to needlessly sacrifice the safety of workers in the pursuit of profits. It's high-time that both the federal and provincial governments work together to ensure the law is either adequately enforced, or else amended accordingly.
Of course, enforcing the criminal law will not on its own bring an end to the violence. All of us could help by, for example, banishing the language of "accidents" from our lexicon when describing workplace injury and death. More often than not, these incidents are "foreseeable and preventable", to borrow a term from Westray Inquiry report. Calling them accidents only blames the "clumsy" or "lazy" worker while obscuring the fact that corporations often fail at living up to their legal responsibilities.
In addition to properly enforcing the Westray bill, governments should stop kowtowing to corporations by referring to regulations as if they were four-letter words. Rhetoric espousing that regulations are costly and burdensome to business only serves to downplay further the importance of having government oversight of workplaces to ensure that they are operating in a safe manner. Finally, we should stop union-bashing. While unions are far from perfect -- something that union officials themselves acknowledge -- the reality is that the union shops are the safest workplaces; they help embolden workers to realize their right to safe work.
On this Day of Mourning let's at the least hold our elected officials to account when they say that they are serious about workers' safety. When they make this claim, our collective response should be: prove it.
Cowritten by Steven Bittle, Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminology, University of Ottawa, and author of "Still Dying for a Living: Corporate Criminal Liability after the Westray Mine Disaster"
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