Unions call on Quebec to shut down construction sites to protect workers from COVID-19

Construction unions say many sites lack soap and water for handwashing and toilets with running water, and their members often work in close quarters, moving between sites and sharing their tools.

Lack of soap, running water on sites where people share tools, work in close proximity a risk, unions say

Workers at the REM construction site have refused to work, citing concerns about COVID-19. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Two of Quebec's major federations of construction unions have called on the government to shut down every construction site in Quebec, citing concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

FTQ-Construction and the Conseil provincial du Québec des métiers de la construction, representing more than two-thirds of all construction workers in the province, have written to Premier François Legault asking him to "intervene immediately" to protect the workforce.

They say many sites lack soap and water for handwashing and toilets with running water, and their members often work in close quarters, moving frequently between sites and sharing their tools.

"It is currently impossible to meet basic health standards on the vast majority of construction sites in Quebec," Éric Boisjoly, the executive director of FTQ-Construction, said in a statement. "In this context, it is irresponsible to continue the work." 

"Our workers are not guinea pigs and cannot continue to work without any protection."

'What about the rest of us?'

One subcontractor, who CBC is agreeing not to name to protect his livelihood, said he is frustrated with the fact that major construction companies are choosing to push forward with their projects despite the pandemic.

He said it makes no sense to him that all sites weren't shut down at the same time that schools were ordered closed.

"We've got half the population sitting at home, and we've got another big group of [people] that are going around working, touching everything," he said. 

"I feel the sense of responsibility as a boss, as an owner ...  to behave as a human being and not just think about, you know, making money," he said.

The subcontractor is currently working for Broccolini, and he said he's feeling "pressured" to send in his team to the work. If he doesn't, he said, it's his understanding that Broccolini will find a subcontractor willing to do so. 

He also feels the contractor isn't doing enough to make sure the site itself is safe, leaving it up to subcontractors instead.

A Broccolini directive sent to a subcontractor, obtained by CBC, says the company needs "to know your plan of action" for keeping subcontracted employees safe on Broccolini sites.

Broccolini has not yet responded to a request for comment from CBC.

Workers leave REM construction site

On some Quebec construction sites, workers are already taking matters into their own hands.

More than 100 people working on the construction of Montreal's light-rail network (REM) have exercised their right to refuse work this week, saying they don't feel properly protected against the virus.

In an email to Radio-Canada, Véronique Richard, the spokesperson for NOUVLR, the consortium building the REM, said it is taking safety measures, including raising workers' awareness of good hygiene and cleaning toilets on the sites more often.

"We ask for the co-operation of all workers in order to continue to work safely, to respect good practices on our sites and to act collectively to prevent the spread of the disease," Richard said.

Legault initially said that work on construction sites should continue, since workers were not together in confined spaces on a large scale. However, he said that could change in the coming days.

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