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BC security company calls workplace safety claims 'defamatory'

BC's largest security company has filed a defamation lawsuit against a union representing locked out security guards. Commissionaires BC said workplace safety claims made by the union were "defamatory and not supported by fact."

But a Work Safe BC report released this week concludes that Commissionaires BC did not complete a sufficient workplace violence risk assessment for security guards contracted out to Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) centres in Vancouver.

Though guards had identified their safety concerns to Commissionaires BC and had made requests for personal protective equipment, the report found "their request does not appear to have been investigated by their employer."

Union guards were responsible for the transfer of immigration detainees. Commissionaires BC has said guards were assigned to low-risk detainees only, such as families.

But locked out worker Cliff Skelton argued that was no longer the case.

"I would say that's historical," claimed Skelton. "What we're seeing now is the majority of detainees that come to us are guys who are held in prisons, guys who have criminal antecedents."

Rob Hellenius, union local president and former guard supervisor, kept an ad hoc database of interactions between contracted guards and immigration detainees. He recorded over 1500 interactions between March and October 2008.

According to Hellenius's records, 350 interactions involved detainees marked "violent", 166 marked as "escape risks", and 58 marked as “having severe drug addiction issues.”

Hellenius claimed protective equipment was available at the work site, but contracted guards weren't allowed to use it.

"CBSA had some 50 protective vests in surplus in a storage room, but we weren't allowed to wear them," alleged Hellenius. "A CBSA manager actually told me that she didn't want us to have vests because she wanted us to be more warm and cuddly looking. She didn't want us to look intimidating."

Commissionaires BC locked out the union guards at the beginning of December when guards arrived to work in jeans as part of an on-job strike action.

The Work Safe BC report includes an order for Commissionaires BC to complete a workplace risk assessment at all company sites.

Commissionaires BC spokesperson Susan Wright said the company does not agree with Work Safe's findings.

"We're in the process of requesting a review of the order by the review division of Work Safe BC," said Wright. "We disagree with the whole process of the investigation, and with the conclusion they reached."

Wright said the company already does "risk assessments of work sites to ensure our employees are in safe working conditions. We confer with them, we involve them in employee surveys, we have information meetings with them. These are our employees. We care about our employees."

Wright said she could not respond to other comments made by the union due to the ongoing lawsuit.

Commissionaires BC has said it will not try to renew its contract with CBSA when it expires in March. CBSA has since replaced the locked out union workers with guards from Genesis Security.

Even if the union guards do not return to the CBSA work site, Cliff Skelton claimed Genesis guards will face the same risks he did.

“I'm telling you now: someone is going to get hurt there," said Skelton. "The circumstances are ripe for it. Saying that nothing's happened to date is basically saying 'We will react to this when something happens.' That is a terrible thing to say."

A CBSA spokesperson said the agency had no comment on the issue.

Sean Casey reports for The Hook.

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