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Anxious times for rising numbers of BC temporary workers

[ ?posts_id=2968776&dest=-1] For the past six months, Mehernosh Panthaki has been earning 40 per cent less than his fellow construction…

By Daniel Guillemette , in Business Feature story , on December 10, 2009 Tags: , , , , ,

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For the past six months, Mehernosh Panthaki has been earning 40 per cent less than his fellow construction workers at Woodward’s, a marquee housing and commercial project in downtown Vancouver.  When the project opens in January, he will be out of a job.

Panthaki, 32, a temporary worker who emigrated from Mumbai, India, two years ago, is one of a growing number of people in British Columbia who work one short-term full-time job after another, with less pay and benefits than their permanent counterparts who perform similar tasks.

The number of temporary workers in BC increased 44 per cent to 205,700 in 2007 from a decade earlier. They now account for 11.2 per cent of the provincial workforce.

This means that more BC workers are in increasingly insecure labour situations. A recent study from the University of British Columbia found that almost half of Canadian temporary workers find themselves unemployed for at least two months when a position ends.

Marnee Klintworth, a temporary worker with Best Personnel Inc., prepares to direct traffic in front of the Woodward’s construction on Hastings Street.
Marnee Klintworth, a temporary worker with Best Personnel, prepares to direct traffic at Woodward’s construction

Sylvia Fuller, a sociology professor at UBC who completed the study, said an additional 20 per cent of temporary workers move into another temporary position rather than find permanent work.

“It’s designed to exploit people,” said Raj Chouhan, the provincial NDP Labour critic, about temporary work.  “There should have been an effort by the government to encourage some industries to create full or part-time positions.”

For critics like Fuller and Chouhan, these findings are a counterpoint to BC’s history as a labour-friendly province.  Fuller said the province needs to follow the lead of other governments and create legislation targeting temporary workers for protection.

‘Diddly squat’

In contrast to BC, other governments are finding new ways to address temporary work and provide benefits for temporary workers that are equal to full-time employees.

In November, Ontario enacted laws providing statutory and termination pay to temporary workers, while Britain announced it will enact a 2008 EU directive providing equal benefits to temporary workers.  When the legislation becomes effective in 2011, temporary workers will receive equal benefits to permanent employees after 12 weeks at an assignment, and Britain will also hire inspectors to check on companies that try to circumvent the rules.

In BC, temporary agencies and employers are not compelled to provide additional benefits to temporary workers beyond the regulations of the Employment Standards Act.  No legislative changes are currently being considered, said Gordon Williams, communications director for BC’s Ministry of Labour.

“There’s no rules,” said Joseph Seminarerio, branch manager of Vancouver-based WorkForce Temporary Services Ltd.  “In the temp business, unfortunately, it is as low as you go.  If you don’t work one day if you’re sick, you get diddly squat.”

While WorkForce provides Seminarerio’s permanent staff of three with “basic” extended medical coverage, no coverage is provided for the 80 temporary workers they regularly employ.

According to Statistics Canada’s most recent labour survey, 84 per cent of Canadian temporary workers have no extended medical coverage and 88 per cent are without pension plans, as opposed to 31 per cent and 51 per cent for permanent workers, respectively.

Less hiring, fewer benefits

The NDP’s Chouhan said the lack of regulatory protection has encouraged companies to use more temporary workers during the recession, instead of hiring workers and providing additional benefits.

“We have had a very robust economy for many, many years, still these people are struggling,” he said.  “Now when the economy has hit the bottom, it has become worse.”

Nina Nixon, director of corporate services for ITC Construction Group, which manages the Woodward’s site, said ITC has used more temporary workers this year because of the recession.  There are currently 25 on site at Woodward’s.

Construction Workers at Woodward's
A number of temporary workers are on site at at Woodward's

Although the company often hires temporary workers who stay with the company for months at a time, Nixon said economic conditions this year have not been right to add more full-time staff.

“A lot of businesses are very cautious about taking on new full-time employees,” said Jock Finlayson, executive vice president of the Business Council of British Columbia.

Employing temporary workers is “a lower risk approach to increasing labour,” he said.

Low expectations

Michael Weislein, a temporary worker at Woodward’s for the past six months, has little expectation of being hired into a permanent position, even when ITC begins two new projects in January.

“For whatever reason, they keep paying the temp place to keep getting you back,” he said.

A former carpenter for 20 years, Weislein, 51, has worked through a temporary agency for the past year and a half.

Despite the full-time hours, he recently had to move into a single room occupancy suite near Main and Terminal to save money.

“It’s not the kind of place I’m used to living in,” he said.  “It is just one room.”

For his part, Panthaki has stopped searching for permanent jobs to move on to and is hoping to land an apprenticeship as an electrician.  He said his life as a temporary worker has been difficult.

“You have to do a lot of cutbacks,” he said.