Yukon union leaders say changes are needed to prevent contractors on government projects from paying workers too little or refusing to pay overtime.
Jeff Sloychuk, a representative for the Yukon Carpenters Union Local 2499, said there’s not enough enforcement of the territory’s Employment Standards Act, and contractors in violation only get caught if an employee makes a formal complaint.
“The way it works now is it’s all reactive,” he said.
Sloychuk believes the Yukon government should have an officer do random checks of contractors’ pay stubs while a project is ongoing.
The issue first made headlines in December, when local media reported that B.C.-based Pitt Meadows Plumbing and Mechanical Ltd. was trying to hire a plumber to work on the Whistle Bend continuing care facility for wages below the Yukon’s fair wage schedule.
The fair wage schedule sets out the minimum rates that tradespeople and other workers on Yukon government jobs must be paid.
Sloychuk said that wasn’t an isolated incident.
“It’s pretty well every job with certain employers,” he said. “(Workers) will take the job at a lower rate than they should because they’re hungry for work.”
Steve Svensson, a local Red Seal carpenter, said workers should refuse to accept lower wages if they can.
He said he tried to get work on a Whitehorse construction site last summer with Alberta-based Johnston Builders, and the person he spoke with offered him a labourer’s rate of $23 an hour instead of a carpenter’s rate of $32.
“I almost fell over backwards,” he said. “But I just walked away.”
He said the company later hired him on as a superintendent at the proper rate, and he takes no issue with the owners. Johnston Builders did not respond to a request for comment.
But Svensson said some workers he knows will take lower wages without putting up a fight.
“They look at me, like, ‘Hey, you don’t pay my mortgage,’” he said.
Marc Gagne, business manager of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 310, said the problem seems to rest more with Outside contractors, while local companies tend to play by the rules.
Aside from wage issues, he said, some contractors refuse to pay overtime, even when their employees are working 12-hour shifts.
“It seems to be more and more rampant across the board,” he said. “It’s really sad to hear.”
Gagne said Outside companies may be more likely to offer lower wages because they have “no obligation to people.”
Sloychuk said Yukon workers tend to know their rights, and many Yukon tradespeople are unionized. But workers from B.C. and Alberta that come up to work with Outside contractors may be less aware of the Yukon’s employment standards, even though they are also supposed to be paid according to the fair wage schedule.
“The employees likely don’t even know that there is such a thing as a fair wage,” said Larry Turner, president of the Yukon Contractors Association.
Turner, who also runs Grey Wolf Builders, said many local contractors end up paying more than the rates in the fair wage schedule to attract good workers.
“I know for myself, I can’t pay as low as the fair wage schedule and get people.”
Gagne said that makes it harder for local contractors to compete for government jobs, because they can’t bid as low.
Still, it’s not quite true that Outside contractors are the only ones that violate employment standards.
The Whitehorse law library keeps records of all complaints that are appealed to the Yukon’s employment standards board. In the last three years, the News was only able to find records of one contractor that had been paying its workers too little. In 2014, the board ruled that Whitehorse-based Norcope Enterprises had underpaid some of its employees during work on the Whistle Bend subdivision two years earlier.
But it’s hard to know which other contractors are subject to complaints, because only those that reach the appeal stage are made public.
Shane Hickey, the Yukon government’s director of employment standards, said the office might only receive one to five complaints related to the fair wage schedule in a year, out of a total of 75 to 120 formal complaints.
“The proportion of the fair wage complaints is not the bulk of our work,” he said.
Still, he said anyone with concerns should contact the employment standards office. He said the office also plans to follow up with employers to make sure they’re aware of the fair wage schedule.
Hickey also said some spot checks of contractors’ payroll information have been carried out.
But NDP MLA Kate White said those audits need to be formalized. She also argued that there are no consequences for contractors who don’t follow the rules.
“If someone drinks and drives, they can lose their licence,” she said. “But in this case, you can be a repeat offender and nothing happens.”
Gagne said another solution would be to put more of an emphasis on a company’s safety training or contribution to the local economy when evaluating bids, instead of just focusing on the lowest cost. He believes that would allow better-quality contractors who are more likely to follow the rules to win more bids.
Sloychuk agreed. “In the Yukon, we sort of allow anybody to bid anything, and that’s where you end up with some odd little operations formed to come up here and do work.”
Contact Maura Forrest at firstname.lastname@example.org