(by Rachel Gnanayutham)
This past week, once again the UN’s annual World Day of Social Justice (February 20th) was observed globally to promote efforts to tackle issues such as poverty, exclusion and unemployment. On this day, many social justice organizations, visionary leaders and individuals reaffirm their commitment to social change and dedication to taking action in promoting the rights and dignity of all human beings equally. As I write this post, I think about what this day invites us to take action upon and follow through every day – to think critically, reaffirm and continue with our work to address the systemic barriers and broken structures we face as a community.
For injured workers, the fight for justice surrounds the call and action to address a broken workers’ compensation system. A signifier of this broken system can be seen in the numbers. From 2009 to 2015, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) cut total benefits to injured workers by nearly $1.16 billion, a 33% reduction over the six-year period. The cuts have been fuelled by a free-market based approach that focuses on minimizing business costs by keeping compensation to injured workers at bare minimums. This agenda is borne painfully by injured workers as they are forced into poverty. A 2015 study found 46% of injured workers with a permanent disability were living at or near the poverty line, with 9% living in deep poverty. WSIB cut benefits to 38% of them despite being unable to return to employment since they were injured.
This year, on World Day of Social Justice there was a special focus on the challenges of social justice and labour migration, laid out as: Workers on the move: the quest for social justice. In the injured worker community, we see that much of the cutbacks and resulting poverty is disproportionately felt by marginalized groups who are economically vulnerable, often due to their immigration status and excluded from entering work that is decent, safe and secure. Many racialized and immigrant workers are stuck in more precarious employment conditions with a greater risk of workplace injuries and exploitation during the process of seeking benefits for the injury.
The fight for the rights of injured workers to be recognized is encompassed in the vision of the Workers’ Compensation is a Right (WCIAR) campaign. The campaign was launched in September 2017 by the Ontario Network of Injured Workers’ Groups (ONIWG), an umbrella organization of injured worker groups in communities throughout the province.
The Workers’ Compensation is a Right campaign has recognized three key demands:
1. No cuts based on phantom jobs
2. Listen to injured workers’ treating healthcare professionals
3.Stop cutting benefits based on pre-existing conditions
All of these demands are directly linked to WSIB cutbacks, which are ultimately routes to poverty, social exclusion and injustice.
The campaign is takes action by organizing injured workers and their allies, educating the general public and pressuring decision markers and politicians to make these needed reforms to a broken workers’ compensation system. Injured workers and allies are speaking out in their communities regarding the issues they are struggling with and the changes required, gathering signatures on our petition, distributing leaflets, and holding informational “know your rights” sessions. Injured workers are also visiting MPPs across Ontario to demand real action.
As the community fights for justice, injured workers remember the historical purpose the system was designed for: a system to support injured workers for as long as their disabilities lasted, so that they would not become a burden to themselves, their families or to society. The system’s founding principles not only recognized the struggles of dealing with a workplace injury, but recognized the value of injured workers and treated them with respect and dignity. Injured workers and allies are fighting with the refusal to accept an unfair workers’ compensation system, to demand for justice for all injured workers and to stand up against austerity.
Indeed, Workers’ Compensation is a Right and a part of the fight for social justice!