Nfld. & Labrador

MP says Muskrat Falls workers still being flown in while locals laid off

Yvonne Jones says qualified Labradorians aren't filling jobs at the hydroelectric project site.

Concerns over qualified Labradorians not filling jobs at hydroelectric project site

Contractors at the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric site have laid off non-essential workers, but some union positions are still being filled by fly-in employees. (Nalcor Energy)

Fears over coronavirus spread have prompted calls to cut down on the number of people flying in and out of Labrador for essential work at the Muskrat Falls site, but according to MP Yvonne Jones, those requests are going unheeded — and there's not much the government can do about it.

Jones said Monday she's been fighting with both companies and unions for years to get more Labradorians hired, but recent layoffs haven't favoured locals.

Instead, qualified Labradorians remain out of work while Newfoundlanders are flown in, she said.

Citing the most recent example, Jones told Labrador Morning that Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union Local 779, which represents employees of contractor Labrador Catering, has the power to designate workers as shop stewards and forepersons.

That designation affords them special privileges to continue working and takes precedence over other agreements, she said.

When pandemic restrictions were implemented in March, the union immediately moved to designate 13 employees in order to avoid layoffs, according to Jones. All of them, she said, were from the island.

"In jobs where they should have been hiring people in Labrador — calling them back to work to be cooks, to be dishwashers, to be cleaners, to be security personnel — they didn't call them," Jones said.

"They gave people from outside of Labrador the designation as a foreman or a shop steward, so they could get in … through the back door."

MP Yvonne Jones says favouritism is keeping Labradorians out of union positions. (Katie Breen/CBC)

About half the workers currently at Muskrat Falls are flown in from Newfoundland, she said, citing information from the Muskrat Falls Employers' Association.

Barb Woolridge, Local 779's business manager, denied Jones's charges.

The union "has never designated workers as shop stewards in order for them to fly in and out of Labrador as essential workers," Woolridge said in a statement, adding that the last shop steward appointed by Local 779 was handed the title in January 2019. 

CBC reviewed correspondence from Woolridge in defence of the union's statement.

Woolridge said the union reached out to Innu members who have hiring priority, but hasn't received a reply.

Union like a 'family business': Jones

The Muskrat Falls site laid off workers March 17 in accordance with public health orders and entered "care and maintenance" mode.

Nalcor Energy said the site's contractors are responsible for deciding which employees continue to work.

"Nalcor received requests from several leaders in Labrador asking that the company reduce the numbers of individuals flying into the Labrador from the island; and, that where Labradorians could fill jobs, in particular in the catering, cleaning and security area, they should," said a statement from the company attributed to CEO Stan Marshall.

"We have advised TradesNL and the Hotel and Restaurants Workers Union 779 that we believe there are some unionized positions that could be filled by Labradorians rather than by workers travelling from the island."

The statement said the energy corporation is having ongoing discussions with TradesNL and is "seeking their co-operation to meet this request."

Jones said there's no legal mechanism to ensure Labrador residents are hired ahead of those living outside the region. She said she wants to see Local 779 investigated, suggesting cronyism at play.

"There's too many question marks around it. It's more like a family business than it's like a union," she said.

"At a time when we're in a pandemic, and we appeal to them, with respect, to say hire back local people — don't go bringing people into our bubble right now, infiltrating those jobs in Labrador when you don't need to be doing it — and they look at you and say, you can't do anything about it?

"To me, that is totally shameful."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Labrador Morning