Health Minister Adrian Dix and Mental Health Minister Judy Darcy wait to introduce bill repealing measures that allow seniors care home operators to get out of union contracts, Nov. 8, 2018. Darcy headed the Hospital Employees’ Union during a long court battle with the B.C. government. (Twitter)

B.C. VIEWS: Seniors home worker discrimination finally ending

Health Minister Adrian Dix righting a serious wrong

This column has been hard on the B.C. NDP government’s favours to big labour in recent weeks.

Their union monopoly on public construction is a discriminatory sell-out that will be costing taxpayers for years to come, and the likely elimination of secret ballot votes is another bid to protect unions that are dwindling away in today’s global economy.

But this week I’ll offer my appreciation to Health Minister Adrian Dix, who has won a battle he has been fighting for more than a decade, restoring union successor rights for employees of senior care homes and related jobs. This is to end “contract flipping,” where one contractor takes over from another and gets out from under the union agreement, usually with the Hospital Employees’ Union or the B.C. Government Employees’ Union.

Here’s how BCGEU president Stephanie Smith explained the problem that has plagued one of the lowest-wage, female-dominated employment groups in the province since 2002:

“The practice of contract flipping typically involves mass layoffs and forces workers to re-apply for jobs that they have, in many cases, already been performing for years. When this occurs, existing collective agreements and union representation are not carried over, and contracts offered by the new service provider typically offer lower wages, reduced benefits and weakened rights for employees. In short, contract flipping is a strategy for suppressing wages and weakening employee rights in the workplace.”

Dix introduced legislation last week to repeal two provisions that survived the B.C. Liberal government’s long court battle with the HEU, making employees “second class citizens” as contract-flipping continued into this year.

“There are care homes such as Inglewood on the North Shore and Nanaimo Seniors Village that have seen their contracts flipped multiple times,” Dix said. “In other words, work is contracted out, the workers come together, they organize a union, they negotiate with the employer, in this case the contractor. Then the contractor is changed, salaries are reduced and they have to go through the process again and again and again.”

I recall the bitter debate when this move was made by a newly elected Gordon Campbell government with an overwhelming mandate, the NDP reduced to two East Vancouver seats. One B.C. Liberal MLA noted that under generous contracts signed with the previous NDP government, an HEU employee was entitled to a paid day off to take his or her dog to the veterinarian.

No one at that time anticipated the repeated use of contract flipping in senior care homes, just as no one anticipated the sale of Retirement Concepts, a Vancouver-based chain of contract care homes, to a state-linked Chinese company that’s acquiring prime real estate around the world.

What the Campbell government should have seen coming was that this crackdown on a ballooning health care budget came at the worst possible time for senior care. Baby boomers are stepping down, and breaking down, in huge numbers, and there aren’t enough people who will take care of them under the working conditions they face.

Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie put numbers to it in B.C.’s first comprehensive survey of seniors homes last year. It showed that most don’t meet the province’s standard of just over three hours care per resident, per day. Help in the bathroom is one of the biggest shortages, and Dix estimates that another 900 care aides are needed to reach the standard.

Not enough people are willing to do this job, and long-term workers are retiring themselves.

Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press Media. Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca


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