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Rob Shaw: The privatization of health-care services jobs was harmful then and would be now

Cora Mojica clearly remembers the moment when she found out her food prep job at Vancouver General Hospital was being repatriated from a private company back into government.
VGH Jim Pattison Pav - rk
Vancouver General Hospital

Cora Mojica clearly remembers the moment when she found out her food prep job at Vancouver General Hospital was being repatriated from a private company back into government.

It was 2018, and she watched wide-eyed as Health Minister Adrian Dix introduced legislation that repealed the privatization of jobs like hers in housekeeping and food services back into local health authorities, restoring pensions, benefits and wages cut by the previous government almost two decades ago.

“I was just not able to control my emotions,” Mojica, 68, recalled in an interview. “I cried and I said, ‘Thank God, at least this dream is really coming true.’”

Mojica and others shared their stories at the legislature recently to celebrate the four-year anniversary of Bill 47, the Health Sector Statutes Repeal Act. So far, more than 4,600 workers have been rehired back into health authorities.

New Democrats consider this legislation one of their finer moments in government. And they are right.

The original law, crafted by BC Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell in the early 2000s, was one of the more mean-spirited bills to ever pass the floor of the legislative assembly.

It sought to find savings in the public health-care system by mass firing almost 8,000 people, awarding contracts to private companies to clean hospitals and prepare food, and then allowing those companies to rehire the displaced workers at significantly reduced wages and benefits.

Most lost their pensions, their seniority and, in many cases, their careers. Their salaries dropped from an average of $19 an hour, to almost $10.

In short: The move saved government money, at the cost of actual people. That human calculus was wrong then, and it remains wrong today.

The harm was also very real. It mainly affected women, people of colour and immigrants – some of the most vulnerable members of society – who then became caught up in the for-profit machinery of private contractors. They were treated like disposable bodies, and given low-paid on-call work that forced many to seek out second and third jobs to support their families.

“I work with mostly immigrants and I want to say on behalf of all of us, thank you for listening to us,” housekeeper Clarissa Hicap, who was privatized in 2003, told politicians at the legislature last week.

“The first thing we have noticed working for the health authorities is the big improvement in our wages and benefits.”

Darcy Leeworthy, a food services worker at Royal Jubilee Hospital for 17 years, described the immense drop in morale when people were privatized to work for a company he said “treated the workers with minimal respect.”

“Private sector wages were very low with large workloads, training was minimal, which made it difficult to get new hires,” he said.

“Most years we worked at essential service levels, which increased the huge fatigue factor, with possibility of mistakes in patient dietary requirements. This, in turn, made this become a transient job. People did not stay. We had long-term employees that were there because they were dedicated to the patients’ needs.”

The Hospital Employees’ Union (HEU) ran an almost 20-year campaign to fight the privatization, and reorganize their members back into unions inside large multinational companies.

“Let's be frank: These privatization policies were clearly, clearly discriminatory in their impact,” said Meena Brisard, the HEU’s secretary-business manager.

“It was women and racialized workers who paid the price. And over many years, these workers organized, they bargained and they campaigned for justice and for economic security. When contracts were flipped, they reorganized and bargained again.”

Contract flipping was another odious byproduct of the previous BC Liberal government’s health-care reforms. It allowed private companies in the field of seniors’ care and other health-care services to lay off employees en masse and hire them back again into the exact same jobs at lower wages.

Some employees went through this multiple times – getting a contract only to be fired and rehired for less pay, their lives repeatedly upturned into uncertainty by a private pro-profit care home looking to save a few dollars at their expense.

Dix ended that practice with legislation in 2018 as well.

The current version of the BC Liberals, to their credit, did not oppose either reversal bill from their perch in opposition four years ago.

But New Democrats did note recent comments from leader Kevin Falcon, who was a minister in the Campbell government when the workers were privatized, and who in July questioned if the repatriation was really important.

“The government likes to go around saying they've increased the health-care employees by 30 per cent – well, the problem is they're not the ones we need working in the hospitals as nurses and doctors,” Falcon said July 28 on CKNW with host Jas Johal.

“Yes, they're bringing back the food services and having government employees cook all the food, etc., and moving it away from the private-sector delivery. To me, those are the wrong priorities. We ought to be focusing on making sure that we've got proper nurses, care aides, allied workers and physicians in our system to make sure we're looking after folks.”

It’s hard to imagine Falcon ever seriously reconsidering this boondoggle, should he one day win government. Even the BC Liberals, champions of free enterprise, know deep down that the private health-care sector took advantage of British Columbian immigrants, women and minorities.

Mojica, who immigrated to Canada from the Philippines and worked as a nanny to get her visa, said after the tears of knowing she and her colleagues would return to health authorities, she’s been busy pressuring government to repatriate even more of the original 8,000 workers.

Dix has worked with Mojica for years on the campaign, including during his time in opposition. He said stories like hers highlight the good that can be done by passionate advocacy.

“This is what fighting for justice as a citizen, as a worker, is all about,” he said to the crowd of workers at the ceremony.

“This is your victory, not my victory. Your victory, and the victory of the people of B.C.
“I'm so proud of you today. So proud to celebrate this anniversary.”

He paused during his speech to add:

“And I would say also, finally, and most importantly, as I say gratitude: We did it, Cora.”

Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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