rabble blogs are the personal pages of some of Canada's most insightful progressive activists and commentators. All opinions belong to the writer; however, writers are expected to adhere to our guidelines. We welcome new bloggers -- contact us for details.

Winnipeg should consider benefits of in-house waste collection

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca for as little as $5 per month!

Photo: Dano/flickr

This fall Winnipeg City Council will determine the future of waste and recycling collection in our city. Current contracts with Emterra Environmental and Progressive Waste Services will expire in 2017. At least eight private companies have expressed interest in putting forward a proposal, and it will be up to council to select from the various applicants. While garbage is generally not a "sexy" topic, there are many reasons why the public should be paying attention.

Winnipeg has been struck by years of garbage woes. Emterra Environmental in particular has been the focus of many complaints when it comes to quality, from toppled trash bins to missed pickup. But problems go deeper than poor service. According to a 2015 CTV Winnipeg report, the City was investigating Emterra's safety practices. Between 2012 and the time of the report, the company had 118 claims with the Workers Compensation Board. In the report Emterra defended its record, saying it qualifies for the lowest WCB premiums.

With 118 claims in less than three years, it's not clear how Emterra keeps its WCB premiums so low. Further, because its business model includes the use of private contractors who do their own hiring, would workers who are injured while on the private contractors' payroll show up on WCB records as Emterra employees?

Emterra does not have a good record with Manitoba's Workplace Safety and Health Branch. According to the Branch's website, nine stop work orders were issued between April 22, 2015 and June 15, 2016. Contraventions range from lack of personal protective equipment, a serious incident involving an equipment inspection and safe work procedures.

CTV claimed that every day Emterra hires between two and 20 "swampers" -- people who work collecting garbage. They are hired through a company that specialized in day labourers -- EZ Workforce. The practice of using day labour is a prime example of precarious work: temporary to an extreme, backbreaking and poorly-paid with no benefits.

These sorts of labour practices often arise when private contractors compete to be the lowest-cost provider. When workers are hired at minimum wage, one day at a time, and are pushed to work as fast as possible, we shouldn't be surprised when workers are injured, garbage ends up on the street, that bins are broken or that houses get missed. Winnipeg can do better.

As councillors think about how to improve service and ensure workers are treated properly, they should be considering the evidence showing that contracting out of government services does not always result in saving money. To meet an acceptable standard of due diligence, the City should do its own costing to see if it could do garbage collection for a competitive cost.

When earlier this year the City of Winnipeg put out a call for interested parties, The Request for Proposals itself states that:
"[. . . ] the City will have no obligation to award a Contract where: (c) the prices are materially in excess of the City's cost to perform the Work, or a significant portion thereof, with its own forces."

The only way councillors will truly know if cost savings and quality improvements are achievable by operating the service in-house is if the City does its own costing. This has not been done, despite the growing nation-wide trend in the re-municipalization of city services.

A new Columbia Institute report, "Back in House," cites lower costs and improved quality of service as the main reasons for "insourcing" work that has been previously outsourced to the private sector. This insourcing trend is seen in both the U.K. and U.S., and the Columbia report details 15 Canadian examples of partial or full insourcing decisions for services ranging from waste water treatment, snow removal and road and sidewalk repair. Cities like Port Moody, B.C., Conception Bay South, Newfoundland, St. John, New Brunswick and Sherbrook, Quebec have all recently insourced all or part of their solid waste collection. In each case costs have come down and where service was a problem, its quality improved.

The City of Ottawa, similar in size to Winnipeg, provides an interesting case study of how successful insourcing can be.

In 2011, Ottawa brought garbage collection back in-house after finding that municipal workers could do the job better and more economically. As a result of insourcing this service, the city has saved over $677,000 over the term of the municpal contracts.

The City of Toronto recently grappled with whether or not to contract out areas of the city that still operated with public garbage collection services. Toronto's waste service is currently 50 per cent contracted out.

The Toronto experience found that contracting out garbage collection does not necessarily mean reduced costs, resulting in Council's decision to maintain the service areas operated by public workers.

Winnipeg city councillors reviewing the upcoming proposals need to take a step back and consider the best way to provide solid waste pick-up services to Winnipeggers. There is a good chance that councillors will find, as so many other municipalities have, that City ownership and responsibility over garbage collection is the best way to ensure quality services and cost savings to the taxpayer.

Lynne Fernandez holds the Errol Black Chair in Labour Issues at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, MB. This article was first published in the Winnipeg Free Press Sept. 13, 2016.

Photo: Dano/flickr

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.