Privatization of Winnipeg’s solid waste collection has put vulnerable workers in dangerous, unstable and low-paid jobs with inadequate protection and training.

Research by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that between 2012 and 2017, a significant proportion of daily collections was being done by workers hired through temporary help agencies on a day-to-day basis. The majority of these precarious workers were First Nation or Métis.

The study, Trashed: How Outsourcing Municipal Solid Waste Collection Kicks Workers to the Curb, looks at the track record of Emterra, the company contracted to collect most of Winnipeg’s solid waste from 2012 until last October.

The report highlights how public funds subsidized an arrangement that exploited and endangered vulnerable people and calls on the City of Winnipeg to instead be a leader in creating good jobs that train people who face barriers to employment.

Both the city and the province should focus on helping marginalized workers enter the labour force, including by creating well-supported solid waste jobs, as part of their plans to implement the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In 2005, the city contracted out all its solid waste collection. Until then, the work had been split between a contractor and in-house workers, members of CUPE 500. In 2013, CUPE 500 organized Emterra drivers and swampers (the workers who pick up waste and load it into the trucks).

However, in a drive to cut costs, Emterra subcontracted the majority of collection to third parties who relied on temporary workers instead of full-time employees to perform swamping duties.

Trashed documents a dramatic drop in wages and working conditions under the privatized, sub-contracted scheme, and found many of the subcontracted workers were living in poverty. As temporary workers, they had little to no control over their schedules, and didn’t know from one day to the next if they would have work.

Report author Ellen Smirl interviewed 20 precarious solid waste workers and reviewed provincial safety records. While the workers described numerous hazards and violations, they also said they were frightened to report injuries or unsafe conditions. One worker described being penalized after speaking up.

Even with the threat of retaliation, the report uncovers 22 “stop work” orders issued by Manitoba Workplace Safety and Health, for violations that put workers’ safety – and lives – at risk.

In 2017, the city switched contractors, without properly studying the potential of in-house delivery to improve labour standards and maximize how public funds were being spent. The new companies can still exploit workers by using subcontracting.

“Part of the problem when you outsource work is we have very little control over what the contractors are doing, and at the end of the day, their bottom line is profit, not providing service,” CUPE 500 president Gord Delbridge told the media.

CUPE 500 continues to fight to bring this service back in house. Earlier this month, the city decided to use in-house workers to collect waste from multi-family residences like apartment buildings and condos. The pilot project gets underway in 2020.