Two trade union advocates who are calling for a 14-day suspension of work at Ontario’s construction sites say they are confident the sector can weed out the bad actors, retool its health and safety practices to deal with COVID-19 concerns and find a way to ensure workers feel safe on jobsites.
The Ontario Construction Consortium (OCC), representing 10,000 members in the Carpenters and Painters unions, issued a statement March 24 — a day after the construction sector was designated an essential service by Premier Doug Ford — that called for a moratorium on work at the sites for two weeks while the sector works on boosting health and safety.
“It is very worrisome,” said Phil Gillies, former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister who became the OCC’s founding executive director in 2018.
“We heard points of view from all over the place. Certainly, some people are concerned about health considerations and others are concerned about losing pay for two weeks.
“We ultimately came down on the side of protecting the health and safety of workers and their families. We represent over 10,000 workers and overall these people are very, very concerned.”
Mike Yorke, president of the Carpenters District Council of Ontario, prefaced his comments by saying the Carpenters play an important role in meeting Ontario’s infrastructure needs.
“But when our members go to work, we want them to work under safe conditions,” he said. “In many cases that is not what is being done. The lunchroom facilities are a mess. Washrooms are not appropriate. Often there is no hand sanitizer.
“The pinch points are elevators — how can we practice proper social distancing? Many of the employers we are on the phone with constantly, they are implementing staggered start and finish times and we think that is an appropriate step.”
Gillies said the OCC has heard those and other complaints from workers, including portable toilets not being serviced, hand sanitizers gone by noon — possibly stolen due to their scarcity — and lack of proper monitoring of workers entering sites due to multiple entrances.
The 14-day period would be used for all stakeholders to evaluate workplace health and safety protocol, with inspectors visiting large sites and making orders, and owners, contractors, unions and workers all working cooperatively to improve practices, Gillies and Yorke explained.
“I don’t think we can make the sector completely safe in two weeks but I think we can improve things a lot,” said Gillies. “With proper protective equipment wherever needed, and bottled water. That would also allow for Ministry of Labour inspectors to get to all sites. We know they are trying, they are out there, but we know there is no way they have inspected all of the good-sized construction sites in the province.”
“I believe so,” said Yorke, asked whether sufficient progress at jobsites was possible.
“I know some employers are implementing those measures as early as this week. We are monitoring it on a daily basis. As the premier said, the bad actors have got to get into line. There are lot of good employers doing what they can and they are working with us to implement proper procedures.”
The industry has a good history of collaboration to solve problems, Yorke said, and it can do it again to get the sector to where it has to be in the present circumstances.
“There is no intent on the part of the unions to be obstructionist,” said Gillies. “But what is paramount is they want their members to be safe and their families to be safe.”
Yorke concluded: “We want to set the benchmark where people say, I can work safely and I can go home to my family at the end of the day.”
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