Demanding safer workplaces

Last week I had the opportunity to meet and listen to a key note presentation from Ken Lewenza, the national president for the Canadian Auto Workers Union (CAW), addressing the Canadian Air Traffic Control Association, CAW Local 5454 at the Triennial convention in Saskatoon. For those who have not seen Ken speak before, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone as engaging or passionate as he is.

At a time when the Labour Movement is continuously besmirched by popular media, blamed for outsourcing many manufacturing jobs, accused of greed, and for the most part misunderstood or misrepresented to many Canadians, Ken carries the torch for the fight for better working conditions and opportunities for Canadian workers. He also acknowledges the struggles of workers on the world stage from the human rights violations which happen every day to the atrocities such as the fatal explosion at the fertiliser plant in West, Texas.  The workers’ movement involves every worker around the world, their families, their communities, and our economy.  In his talk, Ken highlighted that the reason he continues to be motivated against so many naysayers, is that was that instead of asking “Why does that person have a benefit that I don’t have (you could think of a pension or higher wage)”, we should be asking “How do we get these rights for all workers?”

For me, this paradigm shift was critical. Realizing that the labour movement is not criticized because they are working so hard to provide the best conditions for their members, but because the rest of the workers in the community, this country, and around the world, don’t have someone who is standing up for them to ask for what they deserve as well.

This week, we are witnessing one of the most devastating workplace safety disasters globally – the warehouse collapse in Bangladesh. The death toll is already over 350 people, mostly young women working for pennies an hour, and even as I type this, hope is fading for another 900 who are still trapped in the rubble. This tragedy, much like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911,reminds us of the importance of workplace safety and although we can take reactionary steps to inevitably try and prevent another such heartbreaking fatal incident, we already have the information that could have prevented this disaster. One could argue that the consumers have the opportunity to influence the provision of better working conditions by uniting together to boycott certain bad workplace practices. But note, this takes an extreme amount of effort on the consumer to become informed and to inform others around them. I am in support of banding together as consumers. We must also band together and demand that our employers do not overlook safety in our very workplaces. As workers, we are put at risk every day by unsafe or inadequate safety procedures (both at risk in the physical sense, as well as the psychological sense when we look at bullying or stress in the workplace), and although one could argue that we are compensated for that risk, the idea of losing one’s life while at work is never acceptable and should be avoided at all costs.

Over the past year we have seen many collective actions to confront the inequities that we face within our communities. It has become apparent that we do have a collective voice. So, whether you are a student who sits squarely in red and the Quebec movement was particularly inspiring, or if you witness the inequities in your communities and identify with the 99% of the Occupy movement, or you stand united with your brothers & sisters of the labour movement it is time that we stand together, as human beings. We all feel compassion, we all have humility, and we all need to provide for our families. We cannot continue to be idle (Idle no more), we cannot allow this to happen. Together we need to be asking the same question – how can we rally to get the things that we deserve, that we need, and that we have every right to ask for. Our voices are stronger together, it is time to start a movement as a human race – we all deserve fair and safe working conditions.


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