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An Ottawa Citizen news story sparked anxious phone calls and e-mails, and had everyone from civil service managers, staffing agency employees and receptionists at government departments wondering about their jobs.

Public Works Minister Michael Fortier had decided the government did not need to work with hundreds of temporary staffing agencies across the country when only seven would do, the story read. After a few days, however, the Conservative government did an about-turn and decided to shelve the plan.

The plan,” explained the Citizen, “is part of a general strategy of centralizing procurement, buying everything in bulk to try to get better deals.” So, if seven agencies could offer more for less than 141 staffing agencies in Ottawa alone, then more power to the government. But the government had withdrawn the plan because of “the outcry (of staffing agencies across the country) at the prospect of being put out of business.”

Hold on, wrote the Citizen, “the minister’s responsibility is to the taxpayers who foot the bills, not to the vendors who send them. The government reportedly makes up 80 per cent of the temporary-worker market in Ottawa. If so, it has power in the market and an obligation to use it.”

There is irony in temp agencies’ objecting to being treated as disposable,” continued the editorial. “disposability is the most important service they provide: an official cover for bringing in staff who ‘can be got rid of’ with relative ease. Because laying off public servants is so difficult, hiring them is difficult too, so managers find a reasonable degree of flexibility by finding legal ways around the rules.”

For this flexibility, the federal government pays well. Too well, complained the Citizen: “The government pays $30 an hour for labour but actually gets a $15-an-hour worker with the temp agency taking the difference.” Some “temporary” workers languish in the same job for years without benefits or job security. While saying every company, or government, often needs short-term and temporary employees, the newspaper pinned the problem where it rightfully belonged – on the government itself.

Mr. Fortier should fix the government’s undue reliance on temporary labour before changing the system for buying it.”