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Guest Worker Contract Dubious Alleges Union Lawyer

Costa Rican digging Vancouver tunnel testifies firm promised far less pay than official documents reflect.

By Tom Sandborn 27 Oct 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Tom Sandborn is a regular contributor to The Tyee with a focus on labour and health care issues.

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Tunnel project near False Creek. Photo Tom Sandborn

The lawyer for the union representing Latin American workers imported to dig a tunnel under False Creek in Vancouver has raised the possibility that immigration and contract documents for at least one of those workers was tampered with by an employer.

The suggestion, raised Wednesday at a hearing of the B.C. Labour Relations Board and yet to be proven, is the latest twist in the ongoing dispute between an Italian subcontractor on the Canada Line project and the union that organized tunnelers brought to Canada on federal work permits.

The Italian firm is SELI Tecnologie. The LRB session was considering a complaint of unfair labour practices laid against SELI by the Construction and Specialized Workers Union local 1611, which organized the workers in June.

One of those workers, Luis Retes, testified Wednesday that his contract submitted into evidence by SELI didn’t match his original understanding of what he was to be paid. Retes said that when he was hired in Costa Rica he was told he would receive $1,100 US per month plus housing and transport.

SELI submitted to the hearing a contract dated soon after Retes’ arrival in Vancouver promising, on the front page, payment of $20,000 US net per year, plus housing, food and travel, and bearing Retes’ signature on another page.

Neither Retes nor any of the other workers were being paid anything approaching that amount until after the union intervened.

Retes testified that he never saw the figure of $20,000 on the contract. He said he was paid $1,100 per month upon arrival and only saw increases in that salary after the Canadian union went public with charges that he and other Costa Rican workers were being exploited on the tunnel job.

Staple marks

"There may well have been a front page changed on this document," said local 1611 lawyer Kevin Blakely.

"Is my learned friend suggesting this document was fraudulently procured?" demanded SELI lawyer Craig Munroe.

"I anticipate that will be established," replied Blakely. "I have looked at the originals and there are signs of multiple staple marks."

Blakely later told The Tyee that the front page of the contract original showed two staple marks, while the back page showed evidence of four staples. "This suggests the current front page wasn't there the first time the back page was stapled."

The other suggestion of document tampering arose in testimony about the forms submitted by SELI in its application to bring Costa Rican workers to Vancouver using a federal work permit for "intra-company transfer."

The documents as submitted to the LRB hearing by the company indicated that Mr. Retes would be paid $50,500 a year for his work in Canada, a figure the Costa Rican worker testified he had never been offered.

Retes told the hearing that although he recognized his signature on the bottom of the immigration form, he never saw the higher salary figure that appears on the immigration form.

He further testified that wages went up after he and his work mates were contacted by local 1611. Retes told the LRB hearing that he did not remember exactly the increased amount he received in June, because his wages were directly deposited in a bank account. He did say that a bank statement introduced into evidence that indicated he had received $2,431 Canadian that month was probably correct.

‘Everything looks ok’

The principle contractor on the project is SNC Lavalin, a Canadian company that participates in the contract through a joint venture called Intransit B.C.

The other two companies involved in the joint venture are the Investment Management Corporation of B.C. and the Caisse de Depot et Placements de Quebec.

A spokesman for Intransit B.C., Steve Crombie, insisted that his employer was not directly responsible for the challenged documents.

"SELI is a subcontractor," he told the Tyee. “We weren't involved in any immigration applications, but we have no reason to believe they did anything improper. As far as we can see, everything looks OK. If there is any problem, I'd assume the authorities would act."

On Sunday, Oct. 22, the tunnel workers held a strike vote that failed to pass.

“If the employees think they are being mistreated,” Crombie said, “they could have voted for a strike last Sunday night, and they didn’t.”

Low pay, long hours

Wednesday's testimony at the LRB is the latest act in a controversy playing out on the edge of False Creek since spring.

In May, local trade union officials learned that SELI Tecnologie had secured government permission to bring nearly 60 specialized workers into Canada to drill the underwater tunnel.

Local unionized tunnel workers had done site preparation work on the project. Union officials claim a Canadian crew could have been trained to continue the job using the specialized tunnel drilling machines, but SELI decided instead to go with foreign workers who would work for less.

By June, nearly 60 offshore workers were on the Canada Line tunnel site, working 11 to 12 hours a day, six days a week for a lump sum monthly pay cheque that reportedly worked out to less than $5 an hour. This pay, which included no bonus payments for hours of overtime and is below B.C.'s minimum wage, was being paid for work Canadian unionized workers would normally do at between $25 and $30 an hour, plus overtime.

The Latin American tunnel workers were not happy with what they were being paid, especially as they learned how their wages compared with B.C.'s minimum wage and the prevailing rates for their skilled labour in the local market. Union organizers met with the workers off site over the early summer, and by the end of June a majority of the workers on the job had voted to join Local 1611 of the Construction and Specialized Workers Union (Labourers).

Wednesday's LRB session heard testimony from Retes that his pay for the first five 12-hour shifts he worked in April came to only $188, well below the B.C. minimum wage. SELI spokesmen have told the LRB that the April and June payments were not full wages for the time worked those months. They were merely advances, they say, against full payment to come later.

Local 1161 has lodged a series of unfair labour practices complaints against SELI still awaiting Board rulings.

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