A group of about 30 workers gathered in Chilliwack Central Park on Sunday to stand up for those who have fallen on the job.
April 28 is the National Workers’ Day of Mourning, with events being held around the country that focus on improving workplace safety regulations. Several unions were represented at the local event, which included several speakers, a moment of silence, breakfast, and a call to action.
Al Bieksa, president of the United Steel Workers Local 2009, spoke to the crowd about what the day means, from its beginnings in the 1984, to its relevance today. Today, more than 100 countries celebrate the day, Bieksa said.
“We know that it’s a day that we mourn for the dead,” he said, mentioning the black armbands worn by most of the crowd. “It’s also a day that we fight for the living.”
It’s up to workers to demand changes to the workplace before these deaths happen, rather than be reactive about it, Bieksa said. Social acceptance can be changed, as was the case with drunk driving and the work that groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving did.
“So how are we doing here in 2019 in the beautiful province of British Columbia? I would suggest to you we’re not doing very good. Last year alone there was 181 workers who died because of their workplace,” he said. “We’re not doing very good. The problem is, we keep on accepting it, these workplace fatalities, as the normal course of going to work every day.”
Legislation is usually reactive, enacted after the death of workers. For example, Grant De Patie’s death after trying to stop someone from stealing less than $13 in gasoline brought about Grant’s Law.
But the speakers at Sunday’s event said it’s up to workers to identify potential problems and fight for change before workplace deaths and injuries. Eventually, people could come to expect safe workplaces, Bieksa said.
“In Canada, it is socially acceptable for people to die in the workplace,” he said, repeating the sentence. “When someone dies in the workplace, they don’t even make the front cover of the news. It’s the cost of doing business.”
He also urged workers to never accept a risk in the workplace, and to never take a shortcut. The event was put together by the Fraser Valley Labour Council. Their president, DJ Pohl, said all workers have a responsibility to make sure they work safely, and pointed out there is legislation already in place to refuse unsafe work.
However, young workers are at the highest risk as they are often unsure of their rights or don’t feel they can speak out, she said. The BC Federation of Labour now has a program called Alive After 5, a young and new worker awareness program that is available for middle and high school presentations.
“Absolutely no one should be dying on the job,” she said. “We need to continue to do better.”