Martha Villeda digs into her purse and pulls out a well-worn copy of Ontario’s Occupational Health & Safety Act
. Like Villeda herself, it’s been through more than a few battles.
Villeda has been a member of her workplace health and safety committee for 12 years and a certified member for eight, remarkable when you consider she moved to Canada in 1990 unable to speak a word of English.
Today, the member of United Steelworkers Union Local 8694 is proud to call herself an activist. With her husband and three children she fled her native El Salvador in the midst of a civil war. Her mother, a teacher and union activist, instilled in her children a strong social conscience. “You were expected to use your skills to benefit others,” Villeda says, who was studying physiotherapy before she fled El Salvador. “We were taught you had to speak up for those who can’t or won’t speak for themselves.”
In those first early years through union and employer-paid courses Villeda learned English, often attending classes after a shift at work. From there she took other union courses especially in health and safety. “I had never worked in a factory before and now I saw co-workers who’d lost fingers because machine guards were missing. I was scared but I knew intuitively things could be better,” she says.
Having left a politically unstable homeland, she cherishes the fundamental worker rights bestowed by the Act
. “I love the law,” says Villeda. “Ontario workers have good basic health and safety rights. So I was shocked when I found many workers didn’t know their rights and were often afraid to ask questions.” Villeda takes every opportunity to explain those rights and to encourage workers to exercise them.
Working with the joint committee at Faurecia, an auto parts manufacturer in Mississauga, Villeda has helped make health and safety a priority. She also credits her local union for encouraging her and allowing her opportunities to get involved, which she has. She learned computer software and used it to organize their chemical inventory and material safety data sheets. A regular review of the information, now easily accessible, means the committee is making better choices like substituting one harsh solvent with a safer, water-soluble product.
Villeda is also using her physiotherapy background to help identify risk factors for musculoskeletal disorders and fought for a pilot project to introduce hydraulic lift tables at some workstations.
Recognized by the Brampton-Mississauga Labour Council for her health and safety activism, Villeda is prouder still of her latest accomplishment, becoming a WHSC-qualified instructor. “To be able to communicate now in English on an issue I am so passionate about is a thrill for me. I am grateful to give back to others in this way.”
Nancy Hutchison is health and safety coordinator for USW District 6 and is glad to have Villeda serve on its health, safety and compensation committee. She admires Villeda’s strength and fearlessness. “I’ve seen Martha at work, she will not be intimidated. She doesn’t back down and won’t take no for an answer. She knows the law so well she can quote it by heart. She is tenacious when it comes to health and safety. Our union is all the stronger for having activists like Martha.”