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Canada Line Tunnellers Axed

Union claims laid-off workers punished for labour activism.

By Tom Sandborn 6 Mar 2008 |

Tom Sandborn is a contributing editor to The Tyee with a focus on labour and health policy issues.

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Canada Line train.

On the day the second of twin Canada Line tunnels under False Creek finally reached daylight, a dozen of the men who dug it were laid off and must prepare to leave the country. That according to the union that has fought for more than a year to represent foreign guest workers on the project.

The union claims most of the laid off workers were among the most militant in pushing for union representation for their Costa Rican crew, and there is still work they could do on the project.

"This situation stinks," said Mark Olsen, business manager for local 1611 of the Construction and Specialized Workers Union (Labourers) "We are looking into whether we can grieve it."

'We were punished'

On Sunday, March 2, the massive 440 tonne tunnel-boring machine that had been grinding out excavations beneath False Creek for the Canada Line broke through into the open air near the future site of the line's planned Waterfront station. Premier Gordon Campbell was on hand "to congratulate all of the workers for their hard work and dedication, and for completing this critical phase of the Canada Line without a single lost-time injury or accident."

But just after the ceremony, tunnelling subcontractor SLCP-SELI Joint Venture group told 12 workers they would receive lay off notices on Monday, and reportedly gave each a bonus payment of $20 and memorial medal. The laid off workers were all told, according to their union, that they would need to be on a plane back to Costa Rica by next week, even though more than a month of work remains disassembling the tunnel boring machine and preparing it for shipment to a new project in Russia.

"Of course we were punished for supporting the union," said Martin Serrano, a 28-year-old Costa Rican grout pump operator who was among the dozen handed pink slips.

The premier was unable to comment on the fate of the laid off workers, nor were representatives of SLCP-SELI or Intransit BC, the joint venture carrying out the entire Canada Line project.

'Problems' with guest worker program

"This is just another example of the problems associated with guest worker programs," said Olsen. "The government allows employers to bring in workers and there is little to no enforcement to see their minimal rights are protected. If this keeps up, we could see the Site C dam built by foreign workers getting paid the minimum wage."

The laid off workers were not included in a celebratory dinner laid on by the employer for those remaining on the project, union lawyer Kevin Blakely told The Tyee. "It's what we expected from this employer, frankly, but it is still remarkable that they were so eager to punish these workers for standing up for their rights that they couldn't even wait a day or two after the completion ceremony to lay them off," he said.

Local 1611's efforts to organize Canada Line foreign guest workers have produced a string of controversies, including contested votes, anti-union petitions, accusations of intimidation and document tampering, Labour Relations Board disputes and Human Rights Tribunal complaints over the past year and a half.

In a decision tabled by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal last November, the tribunal found that the company asked the workers to sign a petition, in "an attempt to intimidate and coerce individual members of the complainant group to withdraw their support for the union to represent them in this complaint." SLCP-SELI has sought a judicial review of this finding.

'We were all proud'

The Canada Line tunnellers were brought to Canada under a federal program that allows employers to import workers in situations where they claim they have been unable to secure Canadian residents for needed job openings. Proponents of the programs say they help build the Canadian economy, while critics suggest the programs distort labour supply and demand relations in favour of the employer, drive down Canadian wages and leave the foreign workers vulnerable to exploitation.

"There has been a big increase in the number of workers brought in under these programs," Sauder School of Business professor emeritus Mark Thompson told The Tyee. "The number of guest workers in Canada has gone up from 100,000 to 125,000 from 2006 to 2007, and the numbers for this year are going to be even higher. While I can see the argument, for example, for bringing in trained nurses from overseas, in situations where they will be relatively well paid, when I see desk clerks and food servers and labourers included, I have to wonder if this won't drive wages down. Canadian workers have reason to be worried. Labour isn't adequately represented in this process"

"At the ceremony," said tunneller Serrano, "we received some recognition. We were all proud. We came to do a job and we succeeded in spite of the obstacles in our way. Then, after the ceremony they sent us back over where we got bonus for completion, $20, and were told to come back tomorrow to get our lay off notices."

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