Nfld. & Labrador

Embarrassing privacy breach prompts tighter rules but union says workers have been terminated

A release of confidential employee information by the province's Labour Relations Board has resulted in strict new measures in order to avoid a repeat, but the carpenters union says that has come too late for some employees.

Grieg NL has denied that workers were let go after some employees were in favour of a union

The Labour Relations Board has implemented strict new measures to protect confidential information such as signed union cards following an embarrassing privacy breach involving Local 579 of the carpenters union. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

The startling release of confidential employee information through Newfoundland and Labrador's Labour Relations Board has resulted in strict new measures in order to avoid a repeat, and to help restore trust in the union certification process, CBC News has learned.

The board will no longer accept any form of union membership information in an electronic format, and paper copies of confidential documents like union cards will be reviewed and sealed in the presence of a union official.

Once the information is sealed and stored in a locked location at the board office, it can be accessed only with written authorization from the applicable union.

Once a certification process is complete, confidential documents such as union cards will be destroyed.

Broken trust

These new measures came into force Tuesday, just days after Local 579 of the carpenters union complained that digital copies of union cards signed by workers at the Grieg NL site had been sent to their employer.

The cards, which contained the names and other personal information of workers, were included in correspondence notifying Grieg that the union was seeking to become the bargaining agent for workers at the massive aquaculture construction site on the Burin Peninsula.

The error is a violation of rules stipulating that such information remain confidential in order to protect workers from potential reprisals from their employer.

Meanwhile, the board has still not explained how the mistake occurred.

Union says company terminated workers

On Thursday afternoon, the Newfoundland and Labrador Carpenters Union Local 579 issued a media release saying Grieg NL started terminating workers after the privacy breach.

"These terminations were abrupt, without cause and there was no prior indication of a construction slowdown or lack of work on the construction project," reads the statement.

Earlier this week, Progressive Conservative MHA Jeff Dwyer, whose district of Placentia West-Belluvue includes parts of the Burin Peninsula, hinted some workers were fired after the privacy breach.

Grieg NL has denied this, but union president Mike Williams insisted Thursday, "What we feared would happen as a result of the breach of privacy appears now to be happening."

A massive aquaculture construction project is underway in Marystown, though labour turmoil is now overshadowing the progress being made by Grieg NL and its partners. (Grieg NL)

The union is demanding the Labour Relations Board investigate why workers were terminated just days after the privacy breach, and has filed a complaint against Grieg NL, accusing the company of trying to interfere with efforts to start a union. 

"These layoffs occurred during the statutory freeze period where employers are not permitted to hire, fire, lay off employees or make any changes to work conditions," reads the union statement. 

Labour groups also complained that the breach had broken workers' trust in the union certification process.

"This error in procedure and judgment is unforgivable and an affront to the certification process and workers of our province," said Darin King, executive director of Trades NL. 

King called on the provincial government to take action to restore public confidence in the board, and increase resources at the board to allow it to carry out its mandate "in a proper and professional way."

Board will accept responsibility for mistake

Board chairman David Conway wrote a letter to labour groups, employers and others on Wednesday, acknowledging "a recent action by the board has caused serious concerns to be raised about the integrity of the board's processes and its ability to safeguard personal information."

CBC News has obtained a copy of that letter, and a separate list of policy and procedural changes that board chief executive officer Glenn Branton distributed. 

The board is promising to accept responsibility for its mistake, and co-operate fully with an upcoming investigation by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

"The board and its staff are firmly committed to maintaining the integrity of the board's processes and the integrity of the very important role that the board has within our province," Conway wrote.

"In addition to these interim changes," added Branton, "the board will be conducting a full review of its policies, practices and procedures concerning union membership information over the coming months."

'Position of privileged trust'

Branton said organizations that do business with the board will be consulted during the review, which will also include an assessment of whether the board should hire more staff to carry out its mandate.

Conway said the board "holds a position of privileged trust within the labour relations community" by serving as a representative tribunal made up of an equal number of employee and employer representatives, along with two neutral vice-chairpersons and a neutral chairperson.

"The board and its staff are firmly committed to maintaining the integrity of the board's processes and the integrity of the very important role that the board has within our province," wrote Conway, adding that the board is unable to comment further because of the ongoing certification process in Marystown.

Mike Williams, regional manager of the Atlantic Canada Council of Carpenters, Millwrights and Allied Workers, which includes Local 579 of the carpenters union, was not available for comment Thursday morning.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Terry Roberts is a journalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.

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