October 11, 2023

LUIS DIEGO-BRENES STILL REMEMBERS the party he and his co-workers threw when they finally received their backdated pay for building the Canada Line extension connecting Richmond and Vancouver.

“Of course, we were there with our whole families, our wives,” Diego-Brenes said through translator Joe Barrett.

Barrett, who had retired by the time of the party in 2013, also remembers it well. He’d stepped far beyond his role as a researcher for the BC Building Trades (BCBT) to help the Costa Rican workers get justice for pay discrimination against them.

In this special 25th anniversary issue, Tradetalk is looking back at major labour stories we’ve covered over the past quarter century. Organizing temporary foreign workers (TFWs) on the Canada Line is certainly one of the most memorable.

For Barrett, the story began on a May afternoon in 2006, when a union business representative, Craig McIntosh, came into his office with a worker. Construction was underway on the Canada Line under False Creek, and McIntosh said they were working beside a crew of dozens of Latin Americans who were making only $12,000 per year for 60-hour work weeks, or the equivalent of about $4 per hour. At the same time, their European co-workers were making $80,000 to $90,000, according to the spring 2008 edition of Tradetalk.

So the three of them talked to Wayne Peppard, then executive director of BCBT.

“Wayne Peppard said, ‘Look, take off work a little bit early, get down there and see if you can talk to anybody’,” Barrett said.

So Barrett, a former Spanish teacher, later called out to the workers through the chain link fence at the edge of the worksite.

“Three of them came running over, and we had a conversation for about 15 minutes before they had to run off and catch their minibus,” Barrett said.

“And in that conversation, I learned that, yes, indeed, they were making $1,000 (per month). They loved Vancouver, the work conditions were great compared to where they were in Costa Rica.”

The workers thought the $1,000 monthly wage was a lot of money, but they quickly learned it wouldn’t go far in a place like Vancouver.

That began a nearly seven year struggle for the Costa Rican workers.

“There’s a lot of drama in this thing,” Barrett said.

In the early days of June 2006, the BC Building Trades held a press conference “and this became huge news.”

With the press conference held near the worksite, reporters were able to see the workers leaving to get lunch, and with the help of an interpreter, a worker’s voice was broadcast on TV spreading the story further.

The day of the press conference was the first time Diego-Brenes found out he was being paid less than his co-workers carrying out the same labour.

“We felt discriminated against,”

Diego-Brenes said. “We were doing the same work, and we were working beside each other. But it wasn’t just the salary. It was where they were being put up. They had much better accommodation and food.”

Construction and Specialized Workers’ Union (CSWU) Local 1611 (now LiUNA 1611) filed union cards on June 11, and the workers voted 37-22 in favour of unionizing, marking the first time in Canadian construction history that temporary foreign workers voted to unionize. This was but one of the history making moments in the saga.

The employer, SELI, an Italian firm that was subcontracted by the primary contractor, SNC Lavalin, quickly raised the workers’ wages after certification — a common union-busting tactic intended to buy off workers and kill a union drive.

But the workers and their union continued to push for equal pay.

SELI claimed the $1,000-a-month rate was in fact a clerical error, but workers said that was the pay offered to them when they were enticed to travel to Vancouver in the first place.

The Labour Relations Board (LRB) wasn’t friendly to unions at the time, stacked with BC Liberal appointees, Barrett noted, and they found little luck following that route.

When the union complained that the company altered the workers’ contracts after the union got involved, the LRB adjudicator called their evidence “collateral” and dismissed it. The B.C. Supreme Court agreed with the union on appeal, but the B.C. Court of Appeal ultimately sided with SELI.

“They just didn’t dig quite as deep as the judge at the B.C. Supreme Court had,” Barrett said of the higher court ruling.

Instead, the workers found justice through the Human Rights Tribunal (HRT).

Their complaint — that the workers were discriminated against based on their country of origin — was heard over 23 days, at the time the longest hearing in the HRT’s history, Barrett noted.

And in that time, there were several interim decisions. Those included an order for the company to stop contacting workers for anything but work-related issues, finding it had intimidated them.

“One of the key witnesses … testified that one of the bosses, managers, spoke to him right at the front, where the TBM [tunnel-boring machine] machine was moving forward, and he said, ‘Anthony, you’ve always been such a good worker. Why? Why won’t you sign the petition?’” Barrett said, noting that worker was one of only a couple who didn’t sign the petition that asked for the HRT case to be dropped.

“It was basically, ‘Yeah, you’ve got a great future with us, Anthony.’”

The implication, he said, was that the great future was in jeopardy if he didn’t sign the petition.

“That testimony was enough to convince the tribunal chair,” Barrett said.

Ultimately, in December 2008, the tribunal ruled for the workers, disagreeing with SELI’s argument that underpaying the Costa Rican workers was consistent with “international compensation practices.”

The ruling was another historical moment in this case: it was the largest payout order in the HRT’s history at the time, at about $2.5 million collectively. That included back pay to compensate the workers comparably to their co-workers and another $10,000 each for injury to dignity.

SELI’s court challenge to that decision lasted another four years until the workers voted unanimously to accept a December 2012 settlement agreement rather than continue the fight in court. It ended with an average cheque of $35,000 per worker, or over $1 million collectively.

“There were a few who weren’t on board, but the majority of us were. We knew that we would get the benefits of the union,” Diego-Brenes said of the process.

“Because the union was always in contact with us, we really felt trust, a bond, with them,” he added. “I had faith. I never lost my faith.… I always knew that they would come through.”

By Dustin Godfrey