Amid austerity measures, some provinces' public services are in trouble

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Premier Jason Kenney at a news briefing in July. Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

In Alberta, it started with provincial parks. The trend towards the privatization of public services -- and the loss of public service jobs -- has only snowballed since.

Last Monday, hospital workers in Alberta walked off the job in a wildcat strike, after Alberta Health Services announced it would be laying off 11,000 public positions so their roles could be filled by private contractors. On Thursday, more rallies were held across the province.

In the midst of a pandemic that has resulted in widespread economic crisis, Alberta is not the only province undertaking austerity measures in response. This is a roundup of the recent steps from provincial governments that indicate they are moving towards more privatization of public services.

When public services are privatized, and public service workers are laid off as a result, the layoffs are often presented by the government as being temporary. Soon, they say, those workers will be picked up by the private sector and regain employment.

However, the concern for public service workers is a resulting erosion of their working conditions. The same jobs in the private sector may not have the same level of pay, job security and opportunity for advancement, and workers may have to fight for union representation in the first place.

Advocates for strong social services like health care and education argue that neither of these services should be commodified. When they are, wealth disparities dictate who gets care and who gets a better education.

Alberta takes steps towards privatizing health care 

Alberta leads Canadian provinces and territories in its pursuit of privatization, and its October announcement that it was laying off up to 11,000 hospital workers has led to worker resistance and criticism from the province's doctors. (One Calgary physician even set up a grassroots political organization against health-care privatization).

Affected workers include those working in housekeeping, food services, laundry and laboratories. The Alberta government claims that these roles are not being eliminated, but instead transferred from public positions to ones filled by private contractors.

Those who had been listening to Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) president Guy Smith would have seen this coming: he'd been talking about preparing his members for strike action since the summer, in the wake of provincial legislation that he said restricted workers' rights.

At that time, he told rabble.ca that if his members decided to take strike action, AUPE would support them. Smith denies that the wildcat strikes were organized by union leadership and says they were worker-motivated.

The wildcat strike was deemed illegal by the Alberta Labour Relations Board shortly after it began, and workers returned to work last Tuesday. According to the CBC, Alberta's Finance Minister Travis Toews said workers could face fines, suspensions or even be fired for their participation in the walkouts.

When the 11,000 layoffs were initially announced, Trudy Thomson, the vice-president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA) told rabble.ca that privatization of lab workers is something that's already been tried, tested and found to not work.

In that interview, Thomson said when laboratories become privatized, they lack the cohesiveness needed to communicate well amongst each other. Workers also lose their seniority if they move from one private company to another, meaning their job options and chances for promotions become more limited.

This past summer, Alberta Bill 30 was also criticized as opening the door to further privatization of health care. The Health Statutes Amendment Act was an omnibus bill that passed at the end of July.

The Huffington Post wondered whether that legislation would allow for American-style health care to infiltrate Alberta. Ultimately, Bill 30 does allow for the government to contract more private clinics as a way of reducing wait times, including for surgeries.

Alberta government actions raise concerns about privatization of education

On September 1, the word "public" was removed from the names of all of Alberta's school boards, with no clear reasoning initially presented for the decision.

This move stoked concerns that Jason Kenney's United Conservative Party (UCP) could be taking steps towards further privatization of education in the province, though his Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said that was not the case.

Earlier in the year, the UCP's Choice in Education Act also raised eyebrows for public education workers and advocates.

That legislation, also known as Bill 15, relaxed rules and requirements for charter schools to operate and allowed for home schooling to go on unsupervised by public school boards. The changes drew criticism from the Alberta Teachers' Association, who were cited by the Calgary Herald as saying the province should be focused on improving public education instead.

Unions fear privatization of public services, including child care, in Manitoba 

After the Manitoba government's throne speech in October, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Manitoba released a statement expressing alarm at indications of privatization on a variety of files, including child care, long-term care homes and liquor sales.

In that speech, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said that his government would be offering a new funding model for the province's child-care services, one that would offer parents more choice.

In its statement, CUPE expressed concern that:

"this government is going to move further in the direction of private-for-profit child care under the guise of "choice," while letting the non-profit child care centres continue to struggle under the combined challenges of inadequate funding and COVID-related challenges."

Pallister has also expressed interest in privatizing liquor sales, drawing ire from the union that represents employees at the province's Liquor Marts. 

And, over the summer, Pallister expressed an intention to cut public service jobs by 25 per cent, according to the Manitoba Government and General Employees Union (MGEU). The union avoided such layoffs by instead agreeing that workers would take five unpaid days vacation, saving the province $9.5 million.

Ontario's private sector has stepped in to fill gaps in COVID-19 health care 

In Ontario, private medical clinics were offering a for-profit option for those who did not want to wait for their COVID-19 test result through the public system, including one diagnostics service offering home testing visits in Toronto.

On September 24, the Ontario Health Coalition -- an advocacy group for public health care -- released a statement condemning the practice, arguing that single-tier health care must be protected.

"The idea that the wealthy would buy their way to the front of the queue in a pandemic … is abhorrent," said Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, in the statement.

In an October 5 article from The Globe and Mail, a spokesperson for the Ontario minister of health said the practice is "not permitted," and the minister has apparently barred the sale of government swabs to private clinics.

But the overall response from the province on this practice "remains muted," writes Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom. The aforementioned mobile diagnostics service is no longer offering at-home testing for individuals, but appears to still be conducting rushed testing for businesses. 

As long as private testing continues, there will be fewer resources available for the public system to work down it's own ongoing backlog.

Dr. Tony Mazzulli, microbiologist in chief at the Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, told Global News that staffing shortages at laboratories are a chronic and critical problem throughout the pandemic.

According to Global's reporting, lab workers have been in short supply in the province since 2007.

Chelsea Nash is rabble's labour beat reporter for 2020. To contact her with story leads, email chelsea[at]rabble.ca.

Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

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