CAQ and bosses combine to gut Quebec’s workplace health and safety

After a year of debate, the Quebec government of François Legault is implementing legislation which the Parti communiste du Québec (PCQ) calls “a real demolition of the occupational health and safety regime won by workers.” 

Bill 59, An Act to modernize the occupational health and safety regime was introduced in October 2020 and adopted by the National Assembly on September 30. All opposition parties voted against while only the ruling Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) and independent member Guy Ouellette voted in favour.

Under the pretext of updating workplace health and safety laws and extending them to cover a greater number of workers, the Legault government subjected the system to the demands of employers who have pressed for years for it to be scrapped. The Conseil du patronat du Québec (CPQ, Quebec Council of Employers) established reform of occupational health and safety as a priority in its 2018-2021 action plan. The CPQ specifically committed itself to promoting “rehabilitation measures aimed at a return to work or retention in the labor market” and “real management of the prevention of occupational injuries by the environment by allowing companies to organize the means prevention in a way that is suited to their activities.”

The PCQ warned for many months that the CPQ’s action plan meant it “seeks to abolish all independence of the risk prevention and repair system, to match it to the needs of the employers and to control it as much as possible.” Bill 59 delivers on this agenda in spades.

Workers have three basic rights in the area of workplace health and safety: the right to participate, the right to know and the right to refuse. These rights are interconnected, and CAQ’s overhaul undermines (directly or indirectly) every one of them.

Among its sweeping reforms, the new law removes the requirement for employers to disclose a list of hazardous materials in the workplace, limits multiple site employers to only a single health and safety committee with one worker representative and reduces time off for health and safety prevention to one quarter of the previous amount. It weakens the role of the worker’s attending physician and increases the power of doctors hired by either the employer or the Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST, Quebec’s workplace health and safety agency). Employers receive increased powers to force sick or injured workers back to work, even if they are still receiving treatment, and compensation can be cut off for workers over the age of 55. A range of occupational diseases and illnesses (including hearing loss, mental illness and some forms of cancer) now face more restrictive criteria to be eligible for health and safety compensation or are excluded altogether and there are new restrictions on medical assistance like drug costs, prostheses and orthoses. 

Under the new legislation, women are left as one of the least protected groups of people in the workforce. The Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ, Quebec Federation of Labour) warns, for example, that the legislation’s introduction of “risk classifications” for job sectors combined with corresponding staggered levels of prevention are a source of inequality that will greatly limit access to health prevention mechanisms for some groups. “Since the prevention mechanisms will not apply in the same way depending on the level of risk established by the CNESST, certain groups working in low-level sectors will be penalized. This will be the case for 75 percent of women active in the labor market. This bill thus maintains systemic discrimination against women. Prevention mechanisms must apply to everyone and in the same way.”

This is particularly concerning since a study that CNESST itself released in March indicates that rates of serious workplace injuries among women are increasing three times faster than among men. 

The bill also targets working women and gender diverse workers by making it more difficult for a pregnant worker to qualify for “preventive withdrawal” benefits in cases where the job poses a risk to the worker’s health or that of their unborn child. The process for determining preventive withdrawal will be based on as-yet-unknown protocols and on the advice of a doctor chosen by the employer rather than the worker’s personal physician.

The CAQ’s stated aim of extending health and safety protection to more workers is one that has a lot of support among Quebec’s working class, but Bill 59 uses this pretext to weaken overall protection. The Steelworkers Union says the government’s approach is a race to the bottom. “Quebec’s existing legislative provisions on workplace health and safety prevention cover less than 12 percent of workers in the province. Steelworkers and Quebec’s labour movement have been advocating for these measures to be extended to all workplaces. Instead, Bill 59 proposes to weaken existing safeguards while also gutting other workplace health and safety provisions.”

Faced with such a sweeping attack on workers’ rights, the labour movement in Quebec mobilized resistance. The FTQ launched a campaign called “Santé à rabais” (“Cut-rate health”) and a group of 60 trade unionists, researchers, lawyers, teachers and doctors issued an open letter denouncing the reform and calling it a “historic step backwards” for women. 

The PCQ calls for mass opposition to the legislation to force its repeal. “The only interest of the employers is to reduce their production costs and that the maintenance of adequate standards of health and safety at work hinders the maximization of profit. Armed with this conclusion, we know that it is only through struggle – in particular the trade union and its independent and mass political action – that we will be able to conquer our right to really work in health.”

In addition to defeating Bill 59, the Party is calling for “real reform” of occupational health and safety mechanisms. This includes ending the control and inclusion of employers in the prevention system, removing profit and efficiency consideration so that health and safety mechanism operates in the exclusive interest of workers, ensuring that all workers have access to substantial and effective prevention mechanisms, maintaining strict independence of occupational physicians from employers and providing full compensation to all injured or sick workers including self-employed and domestic workers for the full range of occupational diseases and sicknesses. 

The PCQ also calls for compensation to fully cover the worker’s salary and deductions and for the prevention and compensation systems to be fully funded by employers.  

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