Injured Workers and the Austerity Agenda in Ontario

By Bruce Allen

Injured workers, their plight and their issues are rarely if ever considered in relationship to the global austerity agenda and the ongoing fight against it.  Yet what is happening in Ontario reveals there is compelling reason why they should be.

An analysis of what is happening at the WSIB in Ontario lays bare the obvious fact that the trajectory of the changes being made at the WSIB to the overwhelming disadvantage of injured workers parallel the trajectory of the austerity agenda involving a process in which wealth is systematically, brazenly being redistributed away from labour and into the pockets of those who own and control capital.

So how is this evident in Ontario’s workers compensation system?  It is personified in a former bank executive named David Marshall who was hired by Ontario’s Liberal government to eradicate the WSIB’s so called unfunded liability; the projected gap between revenue going into the WSIB from employer premiums paid into the system and the projected benefits to be paid out to injured workers by the WSIB. Significantly this gap was caused by major cuts to the premiums employers pay into  the system.  Yet Marshall’s mandate is not to eliminate the gap by adjusting employer premiums upward but by instituting a multitude of measures slashing the various benefits paid out to injured workers.  I effect injured workers are being made to bear the burden of a crisis created by concerted government efforts over the past two decades to line employers’ pockets by slashing the WSIB premiums they pay.  This exemplifies wealth redistribution in line with the austerity agenda

The logical result is a more lucrative business climate for employers causing declining living standards for injured workers and more widespread poverty among them as well as cuts in WSIB costs via intensified efforts to get injured workers off of benefits and back to work with less and less regard for injured workers’ physical wellbeing particularly by employers.

One could go on at length with examples of how this is unfolding.  It is sufficient to limit onself to touching on one pivotal example.  Namely the dwindling compensation paid to injured workers for permanent injuries.

Workers have gone from having a pre-1990 system of pensions for life to compensate for injuries for life to a very inferior system of Non Economic Loss (NEL) awards worth only a fraction of what the pre-1990 pensions were worth and from there to WSIB Operational Policy changes making it harder to get NEL awards and now to policies making it much harder to get increases in those awards to compensate for significant deterioration in the condition of permanent injuries and finally to unprecedented efforts to reduce the size and cost of NEL awards ostensibly by taking into account non-occupational age related changes in our bodies regardless of whether they were a health problem prior to an injury or not.

Simply stated these changes slash the costs of compensating workers’ for permanent injuries in order to help resolve the fraudulent funding crisis of the compensation system caused by government efforts to cut employer WSIB premiums.

To sum up the obvious implication of this one example of wealth redistribution towards Capital is that the fight for just compensation for injured workers must be more than integral to the fight against the austerity agenda.  It must be front and centre in that fight.  In waging it we clearly must fight to win.