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Ontario’s Ministry of Labour Says Workers Can’t Refuse Work Until COVID-19 Appears In Workplace

Ontario’s Ministry of Labour contradicts Doug Ford’s advice to workers

Ontario’s Ministry of Labour operates according to a different interpretation of the rules on work refusals than the one publicly spelled out by Doug Ford.

Back in March, at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, Ontario’s Premier advised workers that if their workplace “is not safe, you can walk off the job.”

It turns out that Ford’s Ministry of Labour has a completely different interpretation of how work refusals rules work — according to CBC News, there have been nearly 300 work refusals in Ontario between January and June 2020 but the ministry only upheld one single case.

In a statement to PressProgress, Ontario’s Ministry of Labour said public health guidelines are only guidelines and workers can’t refuse work simply because an employer is not practicing social distancing or provides unhygienic workspaces.

“Orders are not issued if a business does not follow the guidelines,” a ministry spokesperson said. “They provide advice and suggestions only for businesses for when they reopen.”

The Ministry explained that all work refusals must meet a basic set of criteria, including: “Does the hazard exist in the workplace?”

“With some COVID-19 related work refusals, COVID-19 was not present in the workplace hence the event was investigated as a complaint.”

“For a work refusal to occur, the hazard must be present at the time of the work refusal,” the ministry spokesperson clarified. “Work refusal must be based on an actual endangerment, not a theoretical circumstance or something that may occur at some other time.”

The Ministry of Labour told PressProgress some investigations into COVID-19 work refusals could take up to a number of months: “Some have taken days while others are still ongoing and may take months to complete.”

Ministry of Labour statement on work refusals

McMaster University labour studies professor Stephanie Premji said it appears the Ministry of Labour is interpreting the law to mean workers can only refuse to work after a confirmed case of COVID-19 appears in their workplace.

“The Ministry of Labour is stating that if the risk is not immediate (i.e. no cases in the workplace) then the refusal is treated as a complaint (i.e. not urgent),” Premji told PressProgress.

“We know that imminent and visible risks tend to be treated more seriously than risks that we can’t see or might lead to health problems down the line, and I suspect this is partly what’s at play here,” Premji noted.

“The fact that none of the work refusals have been upheld indicates a too stringent interpretation of the right to refuse.”

Ken Bondy,  Unifor national representative for health, safety and environment, told PressProgress that “none of the work refusal actions taken by Unifor members have been supported by an inspector.”

Following a work refusal — if the issue is not resolved — the ministry’s inspectors “decide whether the circumstance cited by the worker are likely to endanger the worker or another person.” If not, the worker is directed to return to work and no changes by the employer are required.

Bondy told PressProgress many of his unions’ refusals were not upheld because it did not meet the ministry’s criteria for for “likely to endanger.”

“We are continuing to find the work refusals not being supported,” Bondy said. “The report summarized with ‘the circumstances reported do not meet the conditions of Section 43(3). No further Ministry action is required’.”

Premji said the Ministry of Labour’s interpretation raises interesting questions, especially considering the province’s Occupational Health and Safety legislation requires employers to take all reasonable measures to protect the health and safety of workers.

“It’s interesting that one can be ticketed for violating physical distancing in a park or public square yet there are no consequences for employers who fail to provide for physical distancing in the workplace,” Premji noted.

 

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