Anyone working in Ontario should be protected by basic health and safety laws. In this day and age that ought to be taken for granted.
Unfortunately, as underlined once again by the tragic death last week of a Niagara region high school student at an auto recycling plant, not everyone is covered by provincial laws on workplace safety.
Adam Keunen was just 17 when he was crushed in an accident at the plant, and was taking part in a job co-op program sponsored by his high school near Grimsby. He was looking to get workplace experience that would help him eventually train to be a welder.
As an unpaid co-op student, Keunen was not covered by Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, which mandates such measures as safety training and protective equipment. Neither are those — usually students and recent graduates — taken on by companies as unpaid interns.
The Toronto Star shone a light on this loophole in the law as long ago as last October, when reporter Zoe McKnight revealed that the province’s labour ministry had been warned seven months earlier that the growing number of young co-op students, trainees and unpaid interns was not covered by the workplace safety law. The reason: they don’t meet the legal definition of “worker” because they aren’t paid.
At the time, then-labour minister Yasir Naqvi promised to change the law to make sure co-op students and interns “have all the same rights and protections as other workers.”
A year later, that still hasn’t been done. The Liberal government introduced legislation last December but it died when the legislature was dissolved in May for the provincial election. A new bill has been introduced, but it hasn’t yet been made law.
It isn’t known whether Keunen’s death could have been prevented if he had been covered by safety laws. Ontario workers continue to die on the job despite legal safeguards. But it is known that two other Ontario co-op students — Wayne Affleck and Aaron Murray — have been killed in the past 10 months.
It’s also known that too many Ontario companies continue to break the laws governing internships. As the Star reported this week, an inspection blitz by the labour ministry found that 13 of 31 businesses with intern programs — 42 per cent — broke employment laws by failing to pay minimum wage or not providing vacation or holiday pay.
There’s no excuse for not providing Ontario’s young workers — including those like Adam Keunen who are still under the supervision and protection of their schools — with all the protection the law provides.
The Liberal government should waste no more time and amend the law to make sure these vulnerable workers are covered by Ontario’s workplace safety rules.