Powell River - Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons is hoping to meet with local management from Paper Excellence, as Unifor continues to make its concerns about practices at the company’s Howe Sound Pulp and Paper mill public.
In a letter to Coast Reporter, Scott Doherty, executive assistant to Unifor’s national president, claimed there are 190 outstanding health and safety investigations, and continuing issues around contracting out work Unifor says laid-off members should be called back to do.
“Our union has bent over backwards to find compromises and improve a worsening situation at the mill. Improving health and safety is a basic element of good management and clearly, we need the community’s help,” Doherty said.
When contacted for more details, Doherty also told Coast Reporter the union has similar concerns about the Paper Excellence operation in Mackenzie, and to a lesser degree Chetwynd (production there was suspended last September, but the company says it hopes to restart this year).
“There are a number of accident investigations that haven’t been followed through with – some of a serious nature, others just the regular kind of investigations that need to take place for minor incidents,” he said. “The investigations haven’t been completed [or] the recommendations out of the investigations haven’t been implemented.”
Doherty said “the employer has made it clear that they’d like to downsize further to get their costs in control, and we certainly are concerned about that – both on the management side and the hourly side – that there aren’t enough people to get the work done on a regular basis.”
As for the contract work being done at Howe Sound, Doherty said, “The concern is there are contractors doing work that our members on layoff could be doing, and that contracting out has expanded. The other concern is that in these times when we continue to feel pressure in this industry, where there’s an opportunity for the employer to save money by not contracting out work, that’s not necessarily happening.”
Doherty downplayed the idea that the contract jobs are going to temporary foreign workers. “I know there were some temporary foreign workers that did come in at one time. There is a company that Paper Excellence is tied to that runs the contracting out at the mill … From our perspective that would be a secondary issue from the fact that we believe that contractors shouldn’t be on site doing our [members’] work at all,” he said.
Simons, for his part, said he’s hoping to meet soon with local management at the mill.
“I’ve heard from representatives of Unifor who have been very concerned about everything surrounding the [paper side] shutdown, and obviously questions around safety need to be addressed, in my view. It troubles me that these kind of issues are being put aside, even if just temporarily.”
The provincial government was front and centre when the closure of the mill’s paper operation was announced last summer, working with local governments and others, and Simons said it still has a role to play.
“In communities where the public has invested massively in the infrastructure of these industries – to the tune of $37 million in the last five years – there’s some social contract that I think is being ignored if, in fact, people are not being properly treated once they’ve been laid off,” said Simons.
“I’m going to be writing to the minister responsible again to ensure that all necessary steps are being taken to make sure those directly impacted by the layoffs are the first to benefit from any work that comes up at the mill,” he added.
Doherty acknowledged that it’s unusual for a union to be so public about these sorts of issues, but said in this case Unifor felt it needed to take that step.
“This has expanded beyond the normal labour relations discussions that have taken place. There are other issues at play and we want to make sure all the stakeholders – the community, the governments, everybody – are aware of the fact that we believe things need to change.”
Paper Excellence director of corporate communications Kathy Cloutier said the company stands by the comments in a May 17 statement to Coast Reporter: “Paper Excellence continues to follow its negotiated collective agreements and processes already agreed, to settle our differences. This is the case currently, and there are several arbitrations ongoing to resolve the matters.”
That statement also said the company is “positioning our mills with a more reasonable overall labour cost that allows us to compete longer term,” a strategy it claims would lead to better job security for remaining employees.