“My Compensation Will End on My 65th Birthday When My Brain Injury Goes Away”: The Revived Sir William Meredith Royal Commission Final Report has been delivered!
Presented to the Joint OFL/ONIWG Workers’ Compensation Conference in June by Robert Storey, the report marks the final stage of a project commemorating the 100th anniversary of Meredith’s original report. Documenting hearings held around the province to record the current state of Ontario’s workers compensation, it also provides analysis of injured workers’ testimony, historical and political context, with recommendations for a way ahead.
Meredith’s Royal Commission (1910-1913), in addition to looking at how international jurisdictions provided for workers injured on the job, held hearings in five southern Ontario cities during which the retired Ontario provincial judge and politician heard 98 witnesses (injured workers, trade unionists, manufacturers, retailers and insurance specialists) speak to they wanted in a new workers’ compensation law. His final 1913 report, balancing the interests of worker, employer and state, set out the principles which Canada’s workers’ compensation boards today declare they still follow.
The unofficial 2013 Revived Commission was initiated and chaired by Robert Storey, Associate Professor and Director of McMaster University’s School of Labour Studies and Dept. of Sociology, and Carolann Elston, a doctoral researcher at the University of Guelph. Storey and Elston set out to ask injured workers the key question :
- just how faithful has Ontario’s system been to Meredith’s principles and purpose of delivering fair compensation that provides injured workers with “full justice, no half-measures”?
Listening to injured workers
In sittings organized with the aid of injured worker groups and legal clinics, they visited eight cities, reaching also into northern Ontario: St. Catharines, Toronto, Hamilton, Little Current on Manitoulin Island, Barrie, North Bay, Thunder Bay and London. While not expecting that their two person, shoe-string travelling show (their words!) would attract government or employer attention, it was – as hoped – embraced by injured workers, their families, and representatives, and reinforced the strength that comes through mutual support. Regrettably it drew less attention from the labour movement, a leading force in the 1913 Commission.
Although it was often emotionally wrenching for injured workers to speak publicly of their experiences (and for those present to hear them), almost 100 injured workers came forward before the co-chair’s wrist injury from transcribing testimony cut short the hearings. The workers and types of injuries suffered portrayed a work environment much different than the one of Meredith’s time, or even of two decades ago. While the Chairs did hear from male factory and construction workers, the majority appearing were women, represented Ontario’s ethnic and racial diversity, and came from a wide range of occupations – reflecting the shift from manufacturing to service economy.
In the increasingly precarious labour market, new work processes and pressures contributed to the most commonly reported injuries – overexertion (with resulting chronic pain invisible also in the Board’s use of the term “sprains and strains”), falls and moving objects, violence and explosions.
“The system is broken”
Although injured workers told of some positive experiences with helpful employers, doctors or WSIB officials, most who spoke were disillusioned and angry to be at the mercy of an adversarial system that “starts from no”, treats them with suspicion and disrespect.
Relationships with Board decision-makers were a source of much frustration in trying to access fair benefits or adequate retraining programs. So too was dealing with a hostile work environment and employers’ claims management practices: pressure to return to work before healing and to not file, aggressive contesting of claims and appeals, inadequate job accommodation.
Among the most controversial and stressful issues brought forward by speakers were the role of doctors and difficulties caused by medical assessment requirements. Struggles over medical reports and claims contributed to worker’s feeling of having no control within a compensation process where cost reductions and the bottom line take priority over their welfare.
The road ahead
Stressing that their recommendations have been raised many times by the injured worker community, the authors highlight the key changes identified at these sittings that need to be made to restore fairness: payment of benefits for as long the injury lasts; elimination of deeming; end to experience rating and counterproductive economic incentives; priority be given to diagnosis and treatment plans of the worker’s family/treating doctor.
The authors see hope for real change when injured workers’ embrace of research in recent years is used to spur thoughtful work and collective action where injured workers are “the prominent voices and actors in their own movement.”
The Commission was a remarkable labour of commitment by the Chairs and of courage by the participants. The report deserves to be widely read and, we hope, acted upon. Discussion are underway with the Ontario Network of Injured Workers groups about the next steps for this new Report.
- Ontario Network of Injured Workers’ Groups. 2013. Platform for Change. (draft revision of 2004 document adopted by ONIWG and OFL in 2004)
- Bedard, Ella. 2013 Oct. 28. “Bringing Awareness About Injured Workers and Fighting for a Just Compensation System.” Rabble.ca (coverage of the 2013 Revived Commission)
- Storey, Robert. 2011 Apr. 18. The “Meredith Principles” – Economic or Humanitarian?: Submission to the WSIB Funding Review