Industry Voices: Private workers’ compensation isn’t an option

Journal of Commerce ~ by MERRIL JAMES O’DONNELL   ~ Jan 26, 2016

In a recent Vancouver Sun opinion editorial the executive vice president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) Laura Jones referred to B.C. businesses that pay premiums to the Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) as “customers.” Ms. Jones says she likes to describe businesses as “customers” because it reminds her (read WCB and working class folk) that “there is always the threat of competition if the organization does not perform well”.

In other words, a specter is haunting WCB – the specter of privatization. If the Board fails to provide business with better customer service, they will obtain their insurance from the private sector. This bold utterance from the CFIB reveals an irksome misconception of the basis upon which the board was established in 1917.

Ms. Jones’ comment was sparked by the research findings of the CFIB’s recently released 2015 Small Business Workers’ Compensation Index. Focusing on seven key areas, the study examines 10 provincial WCB systems and ranks them from 0 to 10, 0 being the worst, 10, the best. British Columbia’s WCB system obtained an overall index score of 5.7 putting it in fifth place.

While CFIB’s customer service ranking of 5.7 represents the perspective of small business. It’s no secret that the labour movement isn’t enamoured with WCB.

The labour movement doesn’t protest the CFIB’s customer service ranking although our evaluation is based on different factors.

What we do protest, however, is Ms. Jones’ suggestion that WCB can be replaced by private insurers. On that matter she’s dead wrong. WCB was created as a result of a mutual understanding between business, labour and the state. The agreement came about as a result of myriad social, economic, political and legal realities.

As every labour history buff knows, the mid-1800s to mid-1900s were interesting and highly provocative times for working people, the business community and the state all over the world. The Paris Commune of 1871, the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 come to mind. A lot was happening in British Columbia, too.

In the late 1800s workers in British Columbia were being injured and killed in droves. Workers’ efforts to fight back by suing their employers were stymied by the judicial system. But, at the turn of the century, employers were confronted with a number of precedent-setting court decisions that undermined their previous defences.

As a result, injured workers who took their employers to court had a better chance of winning. Naturally, the number of law suits grew. And labour unions, aware of the judicial changes, provided workers with financial resources thereby increasing their numbers and their chances of success.

Making matters worse, B.C.’s economy was recessionary prone and businesses were vulnerable to financial instability if injured workers took them to court. Oftentimes, even if the employer won the case, the legal costs sunk the business – the classic pyhric victory.

This confluence of events put workers’ protection and compensation back on the B.C. Legislature’s agenda. Two pesky socialist MLAs introduced the Workmen’s Compensation Act in 1902.

A landmark case followed in 1912 sending shockwaves reverberating through the business community. Worker litigants increased significantly putting more and more pressure on businesses. Thus arose the notion from business, labour and the state that financial security for all parties could only come about through compromise. From that understanding arose the tripartite agreement of creating a publicly funded WCB system.

The notion of “private insurers”, as Ms. Jones threatens in her article, was never part of the agreement. It never was and it never will be.

Merrill James O’Donnell is a workers’ advocate for the B.C. Building Trades Council. Send comments or questions to

Jan 26, 2016