Like many workers at Toronto's Pearson International Airport, Vesna Jelic puts together a patchwork of shifts to boost her meagre paycheque as a security worker doing gate patrol or keeping on eye on waiting planes on the tarmac.

"My salary is very sad," Jelic told CBC Toronto in an interview.

"It's $12.10. You cannot survive on that paycheque. So everybody has to take extra shifts. So when they offer me extra shifts, even if it's late at night, I will stay." 

There is no way to know for sure what hours people are putting in at Canada's largest airport. But union leaders say long hours and low wages pose risks for workers as well as for the public and may be partly responsible for an increase in accidents "airside," which means on the Pearson tarmac in the vicinity of the planes.

Number of crashes on tarmac rose in 2016

CBC Toronto has learned that there was a significant increase in collisions on the tarmac at Pearson in 2016.

Baggage cart rollover Toronto airport

A 24-year-old man died in April 2016 after being thrown from a baggage cart at Toronto Pearson. Union leaders say employee turnover rates as high as 160 per cent among baggage handlers contributes to an increase in accidents on the Pearson tarmac. (CBC)

Information from the safety management committee with the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) shows that in 2016 airside accidents went up by 53 per cent.

Any collision airside, from a baggage cart bumping into a ramp or an accident resulting in a death, must be reported to the Canada Transportation Safety Board.

In April 2016, Ian Henry Pervez, 24, on the job for only nine months, died after the luggage cart that he was driving rolled over and ejected him onto the tarmac. An earlier version of this story said Pervez was crushed by a second vehicle.

In an email to CBC, Peter Fitzpatrick, corporate communications manager at Air Canada, said an investigation into the single vehicle accident has not yet been completed and it is unknown whether fatigue was a factor.

Ian Henry Pervez

Ian Henry Pervez, 24, died at Toronto International Pearson Airport after he was thrown from a luggage cart he was driving. (Facebook)

Sean Smith, a long-time ticket agent and co-ordinator of Unifor Local 2002, which represents many airport workers, says low wages force many airport workers like Jelic to cobble together different jobs and shifts and work long hours to make ends meet.

"Increasingly," says Smith, "people are looking for ways out. So there's less and less people like me who started here and stay here all their life. Like. I'm third-generation airport. I don't know if there's going to be more of that in the future."

'Jurisdictional black hole'

Added to the long work hours is the difficult commute many workers face, relying on patchy transit connections to get to overnight shifts at the airport, thanks in part to the many jurisdictions with oversight at Pearson.

TTC airport express bus

Passengers and airport workers cross paths at the bus stop for the TTC's 192 Airport Rocket at Terminal One. The bus is part of a patchwork of difficult transit connections at Pearson. (Mary Wiens/CBC)

Bordered by three municipalities and ruled by both provincial and federal legislation, Smith calls the airport a "jurisdictional black hole" when it comes to both public transit and labour laws.

Every worker connected with aviation operations, from security workers to luggage handlers to flight crews, is ruled by the federal Canada Transportation Act; while retail workers fall under provincial legislation.

Added to that is the fact that workers are represented by six major unions — UNIFOR, Teamsters, CUPE, IAM, SEIU, PSAC, as well as separate pilot associations.

Community pushed to 'breaking point'

Smith says he's seen airport jobs go from full-time with good wages to a patchwork of part-time employment.

"We're a community that's hurting," he said. "We've been pushed to the breaking point. When it takes so long to come to work, and where there's instability and contracts keep flipping all the time, families are being pushed to the breaking point."

UNIFOR

UNIFOR banners at one of the rallies to protest sub-contracting at Pearson. UNIFOR represents about 4,500 workers at Pearson, one of more than half a dozen unions that form the Toronto Airport Workers Council. (Toronto Airport Workers Council)

Smith says the problems can't be solved by any one union, company or by the airport authority on its own.

"It has to be a community response," Smith said.  

The GTAA has responded by forming the Toronto Airport Workers Council (TAWC), a joint working group including union leaders, which meets regularly to discuss airport-wide issues, including transit and work conditions.

"The airport is like a small city," said Hillary Marshall, vice president of Stakeholder Relations and Communications for the GTAA, whose 300-plus employers, all with different collective agreements, defy simple solutions.

As "the integrator of all those employers," Marshall says the airport agency is taking the lead to find solutions.

"Last year, we heard loud and clear from workers that contracts and working conditions are a problem."

A community response

The GTAA has undertaken a study of the demographics of the workforce, "looking at who the workers are, what they're being paid," said Marshall. 

Pearson protest

On May Day, 2015, wheelchair assistants at Pearson protest a contract flip that forced them to reapply for their own jobs. (Toronto Airport Workers Council)

A second study is also underway looking at the best practices of other large international airports, all of which face similar complexities.

A third initiative was recently launched to try to reduce the number of airside collisions by working with unions, employers and workers to ask for ideas to improve safety.

A separate minimum wage 

Steven Tufts, an associate professor at York University's geography department who works with labour unions and represents workers on the TAWC, says the solution starts with setting a new minimum wage for all airport workers.

"We want to make it a bottom line that to do business at the airport, the airport minimum wage is $15."

Tufts says other international airport hubs recognize the risks of contract flipping and high employee turnover for airport operations.

Steven Tufts

Steven Tufts, who represents workers on the Toronto Airport Workers Council, says a $15 minimum wage would help end the competition among sub-contractors for service contracts at Pearson. It's a practise known as contract-flipping. (Supplied)

American cities like Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York with LaGuardia International, have seen baggage handlers and flight attendants fight successfully for higher pay.

At the Los Angeles International Airport, a living wage ordinance requires contractors who take over a contract to retain employees who've worked at least 12 months at $15 an hour.

Tufts says a higher minimum wage would help control contract-flipping at Pearson, among sub-contractors hired by the GTAA or airline carriers to handle security and baggage and refueling operations.

Workers forced to reapply for jobs

Sub-contractors routinely require workers to reapply for jobs when they take over a contract, returning them to a base salary of about $12.

At least two of those sub-contractors, according to one union leader, have an employee turnover rate of 160 per cent, which leads to "new hires training new hires, Tufts said."

He says an incident during a recent winter storm highlights the risks of poor training and long hours for airport operations.

On Dec. 8, 2016 a snowplow operator, followed by two other snowplows, made a wrong lane change as an Air Canada flight from St. John's touched down at Pearson, activating an alarm from Air Traffic Control. The first snowplow stopped well short of the runway, 850 metres from the plane.

"We do know that once a worker gets [a security pass], they can work anywhere in the airport and they can work at multiple jobs, Tufts told CBC Toronto.

We've heard about people working two full-time jobs. High turnover from low-wage jobs is a real problem."

Pearson plane

Ever since 9-11, no plane is allowed to sit unattended on the tarmac. Security worker Vesna Jelnic says the cleaners who look after the airplanes are often working two or three jobs. (Greater Toronto Airports Authority)

As a security officer overseeing cleaning crews on the tarmac, Jelic hears many of those stories from the cleaners when they arrive to work on waiting planes before the next flight crew takes over.

"They come in and they look so tired, They all work two jobs." Jelic said.

"Some of them work three jobs. So when I complain, I feel very guilty."

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said Ian Henry Pervez, 24, died after he was thrown from a luggage cart and crushed under another vehicle. In fact, he died after the luggage cart that he was driving rolled over and ejected him onto the tarmac. It was a single vehicle accident.
    Feb 18, 2017 10:26 AM ET