About 40 temporary foreign workers from Latin America have finally been paid the tens-of-thousands-of-dollars they were each owed for building the Canada Line rapid transit link between Vancouver and Richmond, B.C.
The payout brings to an end a five-year-long battle between SELI Canada, SNC Lavalin and the workers, whom the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ruled in 2008 were discriminated against in wages, accommodation, meals and expenses when compared to their European colleagues.
Lee Loftus, president of the B.C. Building Trades Council, said the settlement sends an important message to employers.
"If they think that there is going to be benefits to bring in workers from outside of Canada, exploit them at every level, whether it's through wages, or through economizations or with the threat of deportation, that the human rights tribunals and the courts in Canada will say, 'foul,' and make the awards as full benefits," he said.
The workers were brought in on temporary visas and were employed with others in boring a tunnel that forms a major part of the transit line linking Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., and Vancouver.
But the Labourers' Union, also known as the Construction and Specialized Workers' Union, launched a complaint with the tribunal and named the Canada Line builders, SELI Canada, SNCP-SELI Joint Venture and SNC Lavalin, as respondents.
The tribunal ruled foreign workers were treated differently, noting European workers were paid an average wage roughly twice the base net salary of the Latin American workers.
The tribunal ordered the companies to pay the workers the difference between the salary paid to them and the salary paid to others, as well as the difference in paid expenses and $10,000 each worker for injury to their dignity.
Charles Gordon, legal counsel for the unions, said the workers were skilled, noting one was the pilot of a boring machine and two others were foremen.
"They were brought to Canada specifically because they had expertise in operating this piece of equipment," he said. "They had just finished a job in Costa Rica doing the same thing."
He said the tribunal awarded about $2.4 million to the workers, which climbed to about $2.5 million with interest, but the workers and the companies reached a negotiated deal in December.
Gordon said the workers unanimously voted in favour of the deal, resolving the litigation.
A delegation from the union travelled to Costa Rica in January and presented the cheques to the workers, he added.
"We would have been court for at least another two years, I would estimate, had we continued to litigate on that," Gordon said. "The union was satisfied that the offer was a reasonable offer and clearly the workers felt that way, too, because they unanimously endorsed it."