An interesting story is developing out of the University of Alberta. A group of janitors employed by Bee Clean Building Maintenance (which is under contract with the university) has taken a number of steps to protest what it believes is unfair treatment:
1. The employees, with the assistance of the Service Employees International Union, has filed civil suit against Bee Clean for over $42,000 in unpaid wages.
2. The SEIU has filed an unfair labour practices complaint with the Alberta Labour Relations Board alleging Bee Clean has violated the provisions of the Labour Relations Code precluding employer interference with the formation and administration of a trade union.
Some of these workers are temporary foreign workers. They allege that the employer has threatened to send them home if they persist in forming a union. They also assert a worker was terminated for supporting coworkers who are temporary foreign workers. Bee Clean has not yet responded publicly.
The janitors are backed by a fairly saavy campaign more typical of the Justice of Janitors campaign in the US. The Los Angeles Justice of Janitors campaign was the basis of the 2000 film Bread and Roses.
Temporary foreign workers (TFWs) routinely face violations of basic employment right. In 2009, 74% of employers employing TFWs inspected by the province were found to be in violation of the Employment Standards Code. Half of these violations were for not paying workers properly. In a bizarre bit of spin, Employment and immigration Minister called these stats good news:
"They know what their rights are, they know what their privileges are as Alberta employees and they're making complaints that are valid."
So why then have the janitors chosen civil action over seeking payment for unpaid wages through the Employment Standards Code process? A part of the issue may be the limited reach of employment standards. Section 90 only allows employment standards complaints to go back six months from the date the order for back pay was issued on.
Practically what the means is that an employee files a complaint. It takes awhile for the complaint to be investigated and an order issued. A cagey employer will correct the illegal behavior when the complaint is filed and then stall the investigation. This stalls the issuance of an order (which crystallizes the six-month retrospective period) and thereby reduces the owed backpay by dragging out the proceedings.
The 2005 review of the Employment Standards Code identified this as an issue to be fixed by crystallizing the six-month period on the date of complaint. Despite spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in staff time and on consultants (including yours truly) the government shelved the recommendations from the review and this issue never got addressed.
-- Bob Barnetson