Union trash talks Winnipeg’s newest private garbage collectors

The union has long opposed privatization for lower wages and poorer benefits.

There are concerns around the use of so-called cheap labour to fulfill Winnipeg’s multi-million-dollar garbage collection contract, thanks to an investigation sparked by APTN Investigates.

A union official says low-paid day workers, many of whom are Indigenous men, are picking up the majority of household trash.

“I raised the APTN report (with city council) numerous times,” said Gord Delbridge, president of Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 500.

“I told (them) that if you continue to proceed down this path – knowing full well what’s taken place in the way some of these people are being exploited – you should all be ashamed of yourselves.”

City council says it is privatizing residential garbage pick-up to reduce labour costs and save money.

Its first deal, with was for five years, went to Emterra Environmental, that relied on temporary workers to drive trucks and empty garbage bins.

That reliance and the related problems were exposed in the 2016 APTN Investigates’ documentary Hurting for Work.

Reporter Melissa Ridgen interviewed garbage truck drivers and workers who said they weren’t properly trained, equipped or paid more than minimum wage. They said they lined up for work every day and were often hurt on the job.

Ridgen revealed Manitoba Workplace Safety and Health issued numerous stop work and improvement orders to Emterra during the life of the contract – many related to worker injuries.

That deal expired last fall and council awarded a new, seven-year contract to Miller Waste Systems Inc. and Green for Life Environmental Inc. – two Ontario firms. The contract prevents them from speaking to the media. They did not respond to calls from APTN.

Delbridge said the union, which represents 4,600 Winnipeg civic workers, has long opposed privatization for lower wages and poorer benefits.

He said “Indigenous people were exploited” under the Emterra deal and alleged it’s still happening with the new contractors, who are allowed to hire day labour as long as it’s less than 50 per cent of the workforce.

“I think 50 per cent is absolutely, ridiculously high, in terms of setting a limit on the use of day labour,” said John Hutton, director of the John Howard Society in Winnipeg.

“If somebody is using up to 50 per cent of the workforce from day labour they’re abusing that system.”

The John Howard Society helps men with criminal records find employment and upgrade their education and skills. Many of whom are young Indigenous men, Hutton said, and use day labour opportunities to find work.

But that doesn’t mean a company earning millions from the city should take advantage of them said Hutton.

“If a company needs people every day it knows what it needs are and it should be employing these individuals and giving full benefits available to an employee,” he said.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives confirmed many of APTN’s findings in the report ‘Trashed: How Outsourcing Municipal Solid Waste Collection Kicks Workers to the Curb’ released last month.

“What we did find by speaking to the workers themselves was a pretty consistent story about the labour experiences, the working conditions they were experiencing when they were going through the temporary help agencies,” said Ellen Smirl, who authored the report.

Smirl said the majority of drivers and workers interviewed “wanted to have full-time, permanent work.”

Coun. Brian Mayes (St. Vital) said nothing prevented unions from organizing the private garbage collectors.

He also said council “was very aware” of the APTN report and the issues it raised. He said that was something that led to the hiring cap in the contract.

“We did take a lot of heat from labour about that,” he said, noting he voted in favour of the new contractors.

Mayes said the contract is valued at $25-million this year and increases by $1-million per year in each of the next three years.

Online Journalist / Winnipeg

Award-winning reporter Kathleen Martens covers western and northern Canada for aptnnews.ca. A veteran of the Brandon Sun, Sun Media and APTN Investigates, she is based in APTN’s head office, specializing in stories about property, women’s rights and community.