Spotlight: Toronto Workers' Health & Safety Legal Clinic
Posted on: Monday, December 21/09
One evening in 1994, bartender Sharon Moore refused to serve alcohol to a male customer. A few evenings earlier, the customer had forcefully poured a beer down the throat of one of Ms. Moore’s off-duty female co-workers. Ms. Moore suggested the customer be barred. She was fired on the spot by the owner of the bar, but immediately contacted the Ministry of Labour and spoke to an inspector.
The Toronto Workers’ Health and Safety Legal Clinic became involved and filed a complaint on Ms. Moore’s behalf against her former employer with the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB), alleging that she was fired for complaining about a workplace hazard (i.e. the customer) and for refusing work she believed to be unsafe. The Occupational Health and Safety Act prohibits employers from discharging workers who assert their rights under the Act.
The OLRB ruled in favour of Ms. Moore and found that a customer can be a danger under the Act. In follow-up meetings with the Ministry of Labour, the Clinic and other worker-side health and safety advocates sought to expand the grounds or reasons for refusing unsafe work to include violent or abusive people. In 1995, the Ministry was unwilling to listen. Following even more tragic cases, the Ministry started listening to these concerns.
The journey appears to be reaching an end. The Clinic made written submissions to the Minister of Labour and to the Standing Committee considering Bill 168, the act that will incorporate workplace violence and workplace harassment into the Occupational Health and Safety Act. It is hoped that the Bill will be passed soon.
With the introduction of Bill 168, the Clinic hopes to see some progress after years of pressure on the Ministry of Labour to recognize the occupational health and safety hazards of harassment and violence in the workplace.
Funded by Legal Aid Ontario, the Toronto Workers’ Health and Safety Legal Clinic provides workers with information about their workplace health and safety rights and legal representation where required. They also provide summary advice and representation in other areas of workplace law such as employment standards, wrongful dismissal, human rights, Canada Pension Plan Disability, employment insurance sick benefit and WSIB issues. Although their services are intended for workers who don’t have the protection of union membership, they also provide information to unionized workers, their unions and organizations.
The clinic has two lawyers, a community legal worker and an office manager, as well as help from volunteers. Their activities are controlled by a volunteer Board of Directors elected by their membership from the community they serve. In addition to individual advocacy, they undertake community education and outreach programs aimed at unorganized immigrant workers, and engage in law reform initiatives.
Members of the public tend to find out about the clinic when they have an injury, a WSIB matter, or an unpaid overtime or other wage issues, thanks to word of mouth referrals from other clients. Clients also learn about the clinic though its extensive community education program as well as from other clinics or by finding the clinic website. Their recently revitalized website, www.workers-safety.ca, has led to a growth of inquiries.
As well, the clinic publishes a newsletter which is also available on their website.
Many of the clinic’s 150 open case work files deal with worker’s compensation. A common scenario: Injured worker returns to modified duties after permanent injuries, and is compelled to work in an unsafe manner outside of his or her physical restrictions, causing re-injury, and is cut off from worker’s compensation for refusing the modified duties. In these cases, there are often WSIB, human rights and occupational health and safety issues.
The clinic also frequently assists employees dealing with safety issues such as abusive or violent supervisors, customers or patients, similar to Ms. Moore’s case.
Lately, the clinic has noticed other changes at workplaces. As businesses try to cut costs by using more temporary workers, there are now many more cases where clients employed as temps are exploited. In fear of being fired, these workers find it difficult to raise concerns about employment standards and safety with their employers. The clinic is working on the problem with temporary placement agencies, and the Ministry of Labour has put out a consultation paper on the issue.
Clinic Director, Linda Vannucci, is most proud of the Women of Inspiration. Assisted by Injured Workers’ Consultants and the clinic, the group was originally formed by a small group of women injured at work. The Women of Inspiration group gives them a chance to tell their stories. At monthly meetings they connect, give moral support, share ideas and talk about what is taking place in their own cases and tribunals. They push for law reform by meeting with Ministers of Labour and senior officials with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.
The Toronto Workers’ Health and Safety Legal Clinic also works with other clinics, such as Industrial Accident Victims Group of Ontario (IAVGO) and Centre For Spanish Speaking Peoples (CSSP). Clinic staff regularly participate on the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) Health and Safety Committee, as well as the OFL WSIB Committee.
The clinic has published A Workers’ Guide, a plain language guide to The Occupational Health and Safety Act.
Their community legal worker provides education in several areas of workplace law to groups, schools and organizations.
In 2006 farm workers became included in the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Clinic workers have in the past gone to southwestern Ontario to speak to non-resident migrant workers. Justicia for Migrant Farm Workers (J4MW) invited the clinic to get involved in farm workers rights, and they have now met with Ministry of Labour officials.
This year, the clinic received Law Foundation of Ontario funding for an articling student for rural settings and linguistic minorities. They will share the student with IAVGO and Centre for Spanish Speaking People. The articling student will continue with this outreach.
Overall, the clinic is happy to report that the provincial government and the Ministry of Labour seem to be taking more steps to improve laws than in the past. According to the Clinic Director, “It’s rewarding that they’ve taken some much needed first steps concerning the issues of violence and harassment at work and temporary agencies. Government seems to be listening more than in the past.”