Workers at Welcome Place at risk of lockout without labour agreement

Employees at Manitoba’s Interfaith Immigration Centre (MIIC) — also known as Welcome Place — are at risk of being locked out this week, which would leave some Manitoba refugees without essential services. 

Manitoba refugees could be left without services as of Tuesday

Welcome Place employees don't have a labour agreement, and are at risk of being locked out on Tuesday after months of bargaining with CUPE. (Walther Bernier/CBC)

Employees at Manitoba's Interfaith Immigration Centre (MIIC) — also known as Welcome Place — still don't have a labour agreement, and will be locked out on Tuesday. This would leave some Manitoba refugees without essential services. 

This comes after months of collective bargaining between Welcome Place and CUPE, the union representing the employees. Welcome Place has come to an agreement on wages and other monetary issues raised during collective agreement bargaining, but have yet to agree on concessions the union says do not impact the organization's funding. 

"It will be devastating — to be honest — with the community that we serve. For example, I worked with refugee claimants who will need to submit their forms on time," said Nasra Hassan, who has worked at Welcome Place since 2016. 

"If they're not able to submit those forms on time or they get letters from immigration and have to submit them on time. If they missed the deadline … their cases might be considered abandoned." 

Nasra Hassan has worked for Welcome Place since 2016, and she's worried how the lockout will impact Manitoba refugees. (CBC)

At the beginning of the pandemic, Welcome Place laid off several employees. Hassan estimated that there were around 50 staff before the pandemic, and now there are 18. 

CUPE notes that of the employees that remained at Welcome Place, many of them have "accepted layoffs and reclassified jobs and wages" to ensure the organization can keep its doors open. 

Staff have seen their wages reduced 12.5 per cent on average, according to a CUPE press release. 

During bargaining, CUPE tried to negotiate with the employer to extend the possibility of recalling staff laid off during the pandemic — a request denied by Welcome Place. 

"We lost a huge number of staff that we've been working with for so many years, and some of them having so many years experience working in the refugee sector," said Hassan. 

"We still have the same number of clients coming to our doors and we are still serving them … nobody really complained about the caseload that they have, even if it was tripled, because the job that you're doing, you're meeting with people … you're making a difference." 

Staff holiday concerns

A concern that came out of collective bargaining was around staff holidays. The majority of staff at Welcome Place are themselves refugees, and in the past they would bank their holidays and take a longer leave to visit family overseas. 

Welcome Place has instead introduced a concession that would limit how many consecutive days an employee can take off.

"I can speak for myself, I'm originally from Somalia, although I cannot go back to Somalia, the majority of my family are in Kenya. So having every at least three years, or four years, being able to go back to my country and visit family, that can impact even how I perform my job," said Hassan, whose only family she has in Winnipeg is her husband. 

Hassan says trips to visit family balance out the weight of the work at Welcome Place.

"The kind of work that we do, it really impacts your daily life, you listen to stories of torture and persecution of people, and that can be very damaging to your health, like mental health in the long run," she said. 

"Being able to have a vacation of three weeks and four weeks and going back to your family and relatives ... you kind of reboot yourself."

Other concessions the employer has introduced would end maternity top-up and wellness days currently offered to employees.

'Really quite bewildering'

CUPE says the concessions brought forward by the employer are unique, since they have no bearing on the funding of Welcome Place.

"I can certainly tell you, I've been servicing CUPE members for about two decades now and I have never seen anything like this come across my desk," said Scott Clark, National Servicing Representative for CUPE.

"It's really quite bewildering, frankly, the approach that they're taking … in my mind, [it's] unprecedented, especially within the sector," Clark said.

"We feel that this is an employer that's trying to be ideological and trying to strip this collective agreement down to its bare bones."

Even though Hassan is at risk of being locked out of her job this week, she and other employees are mostly worried about their clients.

"I think what's most worrisome to me is if the lockout happens, where will these people go to seek assistance, especially with refugee claimants?" said Hassan, who noted there are limited places for refugees to get help with their claims. 

CBC reached out to Welcome Place for comment, and they declined an interview. The organization said they hope to reach an agreement with the union.