Priced Right

Who, if anyone, is getting the shaft in wrangling over Canada Line Construction?

Canada Line

Who, if anyone, is getting the shaft in wrangling over Canada Line Construction?

What is the price of dignity? Well, according to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, $10,000. For those keeping score, that also happens to be the outlay for a green Hermès Birkin bag with gold hardware, a base model 2008 Kia Rio, or – according to a Craigslist ad at the time of writing – a used Port McNeil tugboat, name of Gabriola.

This nebulous valuation of human pride and prejudice was announced by the tribunal on Dec. 3, 2008, in the case of 38 international workers, represented by the Construction and Specialized Workers’ Union Local 1611 (CSWU), which filed a complaint against the engineering firms SNC Lavalin and SELI. The two companies are responsible for building the $1.9-billion Canada Line, which is set to open this coming November, connecting downtown Vancouver to Richmond and the Vancouver International Airport.

The complaint was that, on the Canada Line, the 38 Latin Americans (“dark-skinned foreign nationals from some of the poorest regions in the world,” according to their union) were paid less than the 22 European workers. The tribunal judged the pay differential unjust and ordered $2.4 million in retroactive equalizations. And the contentious part: each Latin American worker would receive an additional $10,000 for “insult to dignity.”

The Vancouver Sun’s Ian Mulgrew is a good index for many people’s evolving feelings about the case; in a caustic and exclamation-point-laden December column, he charted an emotional journey from sorrow that the “sad-eyed guys from Costa Rica, Ecuador and Colombia were getting screwed” to anger at being “hoodwinked by the spin” engineered by the CSWU.

The pay-equity story is, surprisingly, an example of the system performing pretty much as it should. In this corner you have the Latin American workers, whose wages and cost of living at home are considerably lower than ours. In another corner you have the Canadian workers, whose wages and cost of living are something like yours and mine. And in a third corner are the Europeans, whose at-home wages and cost of living are higher than both of the above. (The fourth corner, of course, is crowded with union officials, lawyers, judges and other vested onlookers.)

The question is, How do you pay fairly different people from different places?

For insight into how multinational employment works in the engineering biz, we consult Sharon Batchelor, the human resources manager of Klohn Crippen Berger, a medium-sized environmental engineering competitor of SNC-Lavalin whose 350 employees are split between Vancouver (its headquarters), Calgary, Peru and Australia. At any one time, according to Batchelor, five per cent of the Klohn Crippen Berger workforce is moving between its various offices. “Each location has its own pay scale,” she says plainly. “And when people move between offices, it’s covered by a separate agreement with the company” at the time of the move. If you go from a lower wage to a higher wage, you get paid at the higher rate; if you go from higher to lower, you stay at the higher rate.

No big problem. All rather dignified. And in the case of importing labour, the company has little room to negotiate, anyway: “If we don’t pay market rate for lower-priced labour imports,” Batchelor says, “the Canadian government won’t give our workers visas.”

In the case of the Canada Line, the “logic that doesn’t make sense,” according to Brian Bemmels, chair of organization behaviour and human resources at UBC’s Sauder School of Business, is “the human rights tribunal’s saying that any international workers you bring in should all be paid the same wage,” regardless of country (and economy) of origin.

The core calculus contains an inherent apples-and-oranges problem, but from no vantage does one perplexing fact disappear. While the union argued that the Latin American workers were paid “significantly less” than the Europeans (which they were), the Latin Americans made about the same as the Canadian workers on the project.

SFU business ethics professor Mark Wexler asks the obvious question: Ahem, what about the Canadians? Of the three groups, he says, “we’re the ones who should have our nose out of joint.” It’s hard to disagree. Although the Latin Americans had a human rights complaint lodged on their behalf, Wexler acknowledges that, yes, it is probably the Canadians who suffered the injury to dignity. That opinion is theoretical, though; the good professor has a more concrete problem with the tribunal’s ruling: “I always feel uncomfortable when there’s a price tag attached to dignity.”