By Merrill O’Donnell – BCBT Workers’ Advocate

Reprehensible behaviour

The pullout of the B.C. business community from the Workers’ Compensation Review in August was a disheartening, if not totally unexpected, action by a group of so-called business leaders who are used to getting their way in a province led by a Liberal government whose modus operandi was to serve the interests of capital by selling workers short. With the election of the NDP government, the desires of the business community are not being fulfilled as promptly and seamlessly as they were under the Liberals. Such is the nature of social democracy, the ideological school of thought the NDP is representative of. It’s not the ideal solution for ensuring equity in a structurally inequitable economic system (i.e., capitalism), but it’s far better than what the BC Liberals foisted upon British Columbians for 17 agonizing years.

But now the business community is crying foul and all the usual suspects have expressed their profound dismay with how the government has handled the WCB Review. “We can no longer lend any credibility to the review by participating in a process which we believe lacks independence, impartiality and balance,” states the letter from 46 business organizations announcing their refusal to participate. “We just want a fair and independent process,” said Doug Alley, managing director of the Employers’ Forum.

“We are willing to participate in a balanced and impartial process to review the system; however, the writing has been on the wall from the very beginning that the review lacked  objectivity,” cried Richard Truscott, B.C. and Alberta vice president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. And, of course, the BC Chamber of Commerce echoed the concerns of their paymasters: “when it comes to the current WorkSafeBC review, we are not seeing… [a] balanced, fair, independent approach.”

The response from the business community is disingenuous, indicative of a highly selective amnesia, and characteristic of an oft-repeated, true-to-form focus on profit instead of workers’ health and safety. But before fleshing out the real reasons for their response, let me provide some background for those who didn’t follow the WCB Review.

After almost two decades of the labour movement pounding on the government’s table (the B.C. Liberal government’s table for 17 years, and the B.C. NDP’s table since they got elected), pleading for changes to the WCB laws, policies and procedures, Minister of Labour Harry Bains decided to review the WCB system. As a result, in March 2019, he appointed Janet Patterson, a retired labour lawyer with an unrivalled expertise in workers’ compensation matters, to undertake a “focused review” of the WCB system. Fundamental to this review was a province wide public consultation process where Patterson met one-on-one with injured workers, employers, advocates and many others in 14 cities over a period of three months. All of the 20-minute interviews were recorded with interviewees given free rein to express their views–positive or negative– on the WCB system and how it could be improved. Then, in August, Patterson sent out a list of “selected issues” upon which she was seeking further feedback. This letter triggered the pullout of the business community. Their stated reasons for pulling out was that the “selected issues” completely altered the scope of the “focused review” to a comprehensive examination of all aspects of the workers’ compensation system. Balderdash! Given that Patterson had to submit her complete report to the minister by Sept. 30, it would have been impossible to undertake a comprehensive review of all aspects of the WCB system!

So, what is the business community’s real beef? Simply this: Business is not getting its way and it doesn’t like it. And what is their prime concern? Profit.

This is a good time to remind the business community that the BC Liberals made changes to the WCB system without any concern for independence, impartiality or balance. Business didn’t protest when their chosen government promulgated legislation and policies that eliminated injured workers’ pensions for life, drastically lowered wage loss benefits, eviscerated the medical evaluation process and reoriented the vision and culture of the board to serve the interests of capital instead of workers. And have they forgotten that it was Alan Winter,  from the big downtown employer-side law firm, who made the recommendations to the Liberal government back in 2001 which gave birth to Bills 49 and 63 which decimated the WCB system? Have they forgotten that it was the same Alan Winter who was retained by the Employers’ Coordinating Group (consisting of many of the same organizations involved in the recent pullout) who were plugging for “business-friendly” changes during the Royal Commission on Workers’ Compensation reform back in 1996? Fact is, a leading business-friendly lawyer rewrote the Workers’ Compensation Act in 2002, and the business community ate it up like cotton candy. Independence? Impartiality? Balance? Give your head a shake!

Let no one make the mistake that the society in which we live translates into an equitable social order. Nothing could be further from the truth. The foundation of our society, like all preceding societies, is economic, not political. Capitalism rules. And capitalism does not create equity and balance in society; it creates opposing classes–business on one side and labour on the other. Governments in this economic system try to balance these opposing forces, but they will invariably lean to the side of business or labour. Their ideological character dictates who they favour–capital or labour. The BC Liberals clearly favour business. Now, the B.C. NDP government, who support labour more, may provide a little relief to injured workers by making long overdue changes to the WCB system.

The fact that the business community has failed to realize the pressing need for these changes, and has pulled out of the WCB Review process, is a dark mark against them. Workers’ health and safety–and their very lives–hang in the balance of this WCB Review and other more comprehensive reviews that will hopefully follow. It is reprehensible that the business community has removed itself from the process.

There is a deep-seated failure on the part of the business community to understand that labour is the source of value. Their inability to realize this was revealed in the very first line of the statement released by the 46 business organizations and associations announcing their pullout from the WCB Review. It reads: “Employers completely fund the workers’ compensation system.” No. That’s a myth. Sure, employers pay premiums into the WCB Accident Fund, which funds the WCB system. But employers’ premiums are paid out of their profits. Those profits are generated by their workers. Fact is, profit has always been the product of workers’ sweat and blood. And it always will be.