New Brunswick

Origin of plan to privatize hospital food, cleaning services debated

A public-sector union leader is backing up the Progressive Conservatives in a battle over who first raised the idea of privatizing the management of hospital food and cleaning services.

Liberals say they picked up where Tories left off, but CUPE backs up PC's contention they dropped idea

Norma Robinson, the president of CUPE Local 1252, predicts poorer quality food and “deaths from hospital-based infections” if some hospital services are privatized. (CBC)

A public-sector union leader is backing up the Progressive Conservatives in a battle over who first raised the idea of privatizing the management of hospital food and cleaning services.

The PC opposition has come out against a Liberal plan to let Sodexo, a global food-services company, take over the running of food and cleaning services in the province's hospitals.

The Liberals say they're following through on a process the PCs themselves launched when they were in government between 2010 and 2014.

What Ted Flemming told us at the time, when he was the health minister, was there were no cost savings here.- Norma Robinson, CUPE Local 1252 president

But Norma Robinson, the president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 1252, which represents many non-clinical hospital workers, says she remembers the Tories abandoning the privatization plan.

"What Ted Flemming told us at the time, when he was the health minister, was there were no cost savings here," Robinson said.

Ted Flemming dropped the idea of privatizing hospital food and cleaning services after realizing there were no cost savings, says CUPE. (CBC)
That's because Sodexo was looking for a guaranteed profit level from the contract.

"The government could not commit to that without knowing what that was going to look like in a year's time," Robinson said.

She also said the union was told the cost savings weren't a sure thing.

Cost reduction of $7.9M

Health Minister Victor Boudreau said Monday the contract the Liberals are negotiating with Sodexo will guarantee reduced costs of at least $7.9 million.

"That obviously is an attractive part of this contract," he said.

The PCs issued a request for proposals in July 2013 and Boudreau said Sodexo was chosen to negotiate with in January 2014. He suggested the PCs shelved the plan for a while because they were worried it would hurt their re-election campaign later that year.

Progressive Conservative MLA Brian Macdonald says the Liberal government should back off its negotiations with Sodexo to take over food and cleaning services in hospitals.
PC health critic Brian Macdonald released a statement last week saying the Liberals should back off the plan to sign a contract with Sodexo. He said the Tories "want to restart the conversation" and see if unionized workers can offer better service at a lower cost.

Robinson said that's consistent with a PC decision in 2014 to shelve the Sodexo contract.

"I think that goes right back to their original position: leave it in the public sector, let the people in the system who are competent and able to do their jobs see if there can be efficiencies found," she said.

"You can say the previous government brought it forward, but they also put it to bed by not going forward with it."

Boudreau disputes PC shelved plan

Boudreau says his impression is the PCs never put the privatization plan on hold because he was briefed on it as "something that had been ongoing" when he became health minister in October 2014.

Health Minister Victor Boudreau's impression is the Progressive Conservatives never put a plan to privatize some hospital services. (CBC)
Negotiations were already underway with Sodexo and "that's basically where we took over," Boudreau said.

Macdonald said it's "a very strange defence to say 'You guys started it.'"

The Sodexo contract would see the company take over the management of food and cleaning services, though employees would continue to be unionized workers. The province is now negotiating the terms of the deal.

280 jobs on line

CUPE says the privatization could see 280 jobs cut. Health Minister Victor Boudreau said in 2015 that there would be some job losses when the contract is signed but he hasn't put a number on it.

The minister said Sodexo's experience managing food services in 80 countries means it will be able to offer better-quality meals, even at a lower cost.

"They've obviously figured this out," he said.

The agreement would also cover the management of cleaning services.

Robinson said CUPE members have already been working with the two health authorities to improve cleanliness, including by setting new standards.

Hospital fail audits

Horizon Health promised improvements in 2014 after its three largest hospitals failed cleanliness audits.

"We've already been there," Robinson said. "We already have those things in place. So let's let those policies and procedures move forward and improve on the level of what's being done in the workplace by those working in the system."

The CEO of the Vitalité health network said last week that the authority has been told that the Sodexo agreement is coming, despite a unanimous vote by the Vitalité board last summer that it should continue running food and cleaning services itself.

Robinson said she doubted the PC shelving of the privatization plan had to do with the looming 2014 election. She said Higgs and Flemming were so focused on reducing costs, she doubts they would have backed off for political reasons.

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.