Cleaners push for promised opportunities at billion dollar project


TREATING WORKERS LIKE SHIT IS NOT UNUSUAL. Doing that when you depend on them to keep you safe is brainless. But that hasn’t stopped Dexterra. And that’s why 40 industrial janitors who work for them at the 40-billion dollar LNG Canada project in Kitimat, B.C. are set to strike.

The LNG Canada project is a Covid-19 hotspot, with an outbreak in November 2020 and another in December.

The industrial janitors provide an essential service at the site, spending 10 or 11 hours a day cleaning and sanitizing the buildings where 54 people tested positive for the novel coronavirus on December 4.

Yet the workers say Dexterra, a sub-contractor on the project with a $700 million contract, has failed to provide adequate PPE and expects them to travel in crowded vans to worksites, where they work long days hauling heavy loads, often in foul weather.

In addition, the pandemic has increased workloads. Yet, Dexterra leaves the department chronically understaffed. Workers say they are regularly given workloads requiring two or three people. Some are driven to skip breaks in an effort to keep up.

On top of all that, the workers are paid just $17.50 per hour—well below a living wage in B.C.—all the while surrounded by building trades who earn more than twice what the janitors do.

People are scared

“People are scared. People are terrified,” industrial janitor Dawit Birru told The Tyee. “Some people have underlying conditions, right? And then some of our people are older. They have families. Even if you’re young, you go back home to your grandparents, to your fathers, to your mothers.

“It’s scary.”

“What’s even scarier is we didn’t even know about the outbreak until it came out on the news,” Birru says. “We’re supposed to be the frontline workers. The least you could do is tell us so we’re extra prepared, so that we know while we’re walking into the situation. They did not tell us at all.

“What hurts the most is, everybody’s getting paid well — everybody except us.”

“I have eight buildings that I clean myself,” Sherry says about her daily workload. “I can handle it. Not everybody can, now that the weather’s changing and we have to haul water from the wash car outside to the training rooms so we can mop the floors.”

Sherry says when she started in the spring, she was handed a single mask — one she says was donated to the company—and told to hang onto it.

“We were told not to lose it. If you did lose it, it was basically you could go to town and buy some disposables,” she says. “I just started buying my own.”

The employer finally started to provide face masks about the time the government of B.C. mandated wearing masks in indoor workspaces.

Workers vote for a union

The janitors voted to unionize with Unite Here Local 40 in June. In December they voted 84% in favour of a strike for a first contract.

Unite Here says Dexterra refuses to supply important COVID-19 information, such as the number of tests, positive cases and isolations at the site.

“When we reached out to Dexterra on that, they were like, ‘No, we have no intention of sharing any of that information with you,’” says Robert Demand, executive director with Unite Here Local 40.

“Many of the janitors are First Nations who came to LNG because of promises of good jobs. But LNG Canada broke that promise. British Columbians, particularly Indigenous workers, deserve more from this $40 billion project,” said janitor, Gary Hill.

“True reconciliation means providing jobs that pay a living wage,” says Hill.

“We’ve been trying to negotiate in good faith with Dexterra since June,” says Hill, “but they’ve left us with no other option than to consider a strike.”

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