Government scraps plan to privatize hospital food services

In a major about-face just months before the provincial election, the Gallant Liberals have cancelled their negotiations to privatize food services in New Brunswick hospitals.

Task force to recommend how to make food services more efficient

Health Minister Benoît Bourque said health authorities will use recommendations from a joint government-union task force to make food services less expensive. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

In a major about-face months before the provincial election, the Gallant Liberals have cancelled their negotiations to privatize food services in New Brunswick hospitals.

Instead, health authorities will use recommendations from a joint government-union task force to make food services more efficient and less expensive, Health Minister Benoît Bourque said.

"Yes, Sodexo would have brought that forward, but we also realized there are other ways of bringing that forward and collaborating with that committee, collaborating with the union, we were able to arrive at that conclusion," Bourque told reporters.

"We feel confident that we will be able to provide that kind of standardized service."

Standardizing services

Bourque denied the announcement was meant to relieve a political headache for the Liberals ahead of the Sept. 24 election.

"If it's in a coincidence, it's because of the timeline that's been happening, and this is the timeline."

The Canadian Union of Public Employees harshly criticized the government's contract with Medavie, signed at the end of 2017, to privatize management of the extramural care program.

But Wednesday, Norma Robinson, president of CUPE Local 1252, which represents hospital workers, joined Bourque for the announcement. She thanked the government "for giving us this opportunity to move forward."

Bourque said the task force identified how there were different food services across the province's hospitals, and how standardization could save money.

He also said CUPE had agreed to show "flexibility" on that standardization in their next contract negotiations, though he and Robinson could not say whether the number of jobs would be reduced or how much money might be saved.

"We need to be able to move forward and have those types of meetings and see what that means," Robinson said.

Promised savings

The announcement is a reversal from early 2017, when the Liberals selected a company to negotiate with: Sodexo, the global food-services giant.

The company would have taken over running food and laundry services but would have retained public-sector employees.

At the time, the government said the potential deal would include guaranteed savings of $7.9 million per year.

But last September, about a year before the provincial election, the Liberals orchestrated a rapprochement with the labour movement when they agreed to set up a joint working group to look at a range of issues.

A year to work out plan

That led to several pro-union moves, including legislation guaranteeing a first contract for newly formed unions.

The Liberals also signed a new five-year contract with the New Brunswick Teachers Federation that guarantees a minimum number of teacher positions, even if school enrolment continues to drop.

The province's two regional health authorities have a year to develop a plan on how to implement the ideas the task force developed.

About the Author

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.