By Daniel Tseghay
On October 18th, federal government workers held rallies across British Columbia because many of them are not being paid for their labour. They demonstrated in Vancouver, Victoria, Nanaimo, Chilliwack, Summerland, and Prince Rupert to raise attention to the Phoenix pay system, in place since February of 2016.
The computerized system was initially proposed – with warnings from critics – during Stephen Harper’s administration but finalized during Justin Trudeau’s. It currently affects about half of the 300,000 people working for Canada’s largest employer.
“If you can’t do something this simple it really calls into question if you can operate the gears of government,” says Garth Mullins, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, Local 301, in an interview with Rankandfile.ca. “Only a failed state can’t pay its workers.”
Mullins spoke at the Vancouver rally. His local represents about 13,000 people across the country – consisting of archivists, economists, sociologists, technical workers, and translators, among others – about 75% of them have been affected by the pay system.
Workers are either not getting paid the right amount, not being paid at all, or, if they’re paid more, wages will be deducted without notice. “I have a union member who had to get a job at a bar after work,” says Mullins. “There are people losing their daycare spot, their housing, and going to the food bank.”
There have been workers who negotiated a new collective agreement and got an increase, only for workers to have that exact increase removed from their pay cheque. Mullins notes worker who was at the rally who had their name changed in the system “so their cheque maybe went to a random different individual.”
Mullins points out that this problem is part of the trend toward privatization. “They were taking big chunks of that infrastructure, the backbone of any workplace, like the email system, and privatizing it,” says Mullins. “They gave a big contract for paying everybody to IBM. That allowed them to fire 3,000 people whose job it was to look after this.”
“The thing to remember about this system is that the people who made the decisions actually aren’t subject to them. The Members of Parliament, the senior management, and the bosses don’t get paid this way.”
Mullins believes the system should be scrapped entirely and they should re-hire unionized Human Resource workers.
The shift toward privatization and cuts to benefits, Mullins says, have been a long-standing project of employers and the government. Failing to take real action on this now may only inspire more labour exploitation. “They look and say ‘wow we’re not really paying people properly and they’re still going to work – we can still run all the public services. If we can not pay people and still keep going what else can we do?’,” says Mullins. “Really how hard can it be to keep cutting benefits and even smash unions if they can’t raise a challenge to this most fundamental thing?”
But Mullins is also hopeful. The coordinated rallies across the province were an important step in the right direction.
“I think that the solution will not come through negotiations,” says Mullins. “This will keep going on unless we bring some real rank and file militancy to bear. Walk outs aand strikes, therein lies the solution. How can we organize people so they feel empowered and emboldened to walk off the job when they’re not paid instead of people feeling on their own and economically vulnerable and frightened to take that kind of action.”