Foreign Canada Line workers win human rights case

Posted by admin on Dec 4th, 2008

By Kelly Sinoski, Vancouver Sun.December 4, 2008
A group of temporary foreign workers who complained of substandard pay and housing while working on the Canada Line have won a discrimination suit against their employer. The BC Human Rights Tribunal on Wednesday ordered SELI Canada, SCNP-SELI Joint Venture and SNC Lavalin Constructors (Pacific) Inc. to pay each complainant – all Latin Americans – $10,000 as compensation for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect. “While the feelings and the self-respect of the Latin Americans was impacted, this case is primarily about dignity,” the tribunal said in its written ruling, released Wednesday. “For two years the respondents’ treatment of the [workers] conveyed to them the message that they were worth less and less worthy than other employees, because they were Latin American.”

The 38 workers – from Colombia, Ecuador and Costa Rica – have gone back to Latin America, but are said to be “overwhelmed” and happy by the decision, according to a friend of group, Enrique Aguilar. Many of them are now out of work.

The human rights complaint, lodged by the union in August 2006, claimed the companies discriminated against the workers on the basis of country of origin by paying domestic workers between $20 and $25 an hour, and paying Latin Americans the equivalent of $14 per hour for the same tasks.

The workers had operated the tunnel-boring machine used to dig under downtown Vancouver from southeast False Creek to the Waterfront terminus as part of the $2-billion project, which will link Vancouver and Richmond.

Besides being paid substantially less than their European counterparts, the workers lived at the 2400 Motel on Kingsway while the Europeans were housed in upscale False Creek condos close to the job site. They were also given meal vouchers and were made to account for any reimbursements received rather than receiving a monthly allowance.

As foreign workers on temporary work permits who did not speak English, they were reliant on their employer and “uniquely vulnerable,” the tribunal said.

“So long as they continued to work on the Canada Line project, they were unable to escape the discriminatory treatment that pervaded every aspect of the working and leisure lives.”

Labour officials and the Construction and Specialized Workers Union Local 1611 , which had represented the workers, called it a precedent-setting and historic decision but conceded it may be difficult to get the company to pay up.

A spokesman for the company said Wednesday the joint venture would seek a judicial review of the decision, which will prolong the case further.

“That’s certainly going to be a problem; the system itself doesn’t ensure we’re going to be able to collect,” said Charles Gordon, legal counsel for the CSWU on the case.

“These are large companies working on public projects in B.C. They have the means to pay and we have the enforcement mechanisms to make them pay.”

If it isn’t paid, he said, the union will go to court. But, he added: “[The workers] have declared this a moral victory even if they can’t get the money itself.”

Peter Gall, lawyer for Heenan-Blaikie which represented the joint venture, said Wednesday the joint venture did nothing wrong and the ruling could have a huge effect on international workers.

He noted that SELI is a well-known and respected company, which has worked around the world using foreign labour. He said the reason the Europeans were paid more was because they were hired on their current rates in the EU. The Latin Americans, he said, were paid the same rate as their Canadian counterparts.

He denounced claims that some of the Latin Americans were paid $3.77 was an “out-and-out lie.” And, he added, only the senior people – including one Brazilian who worked in Europe – were housed in the condos. At least a dozen Europeans also lived at the 2400 Motel.

“[SELI] worked all around the world, never having a problem and all of a sudden there’s an onslaught in B.C.”

SELI is involved in another joint venture that has pitched a proposal to complete the twin tunnels for the North Shore water filtration plant. Three consortiums are vying for the job, which had originally been given to Bilfinger Berger.

But B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair said the provincial government should think twice before giving the company any more money – or contracts – until it has paid the workers.

“This is bad for all of B.C.,” he said.

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