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11,000 Reasons Why

Landing only days after the UCP government’s refusal to rule out job losses for nearly 800 nurses, the Oct. 13 announcement from the Minister of Health and the CEO of AHS comes as a devastating blow to health-care support workers and Albertans.

Thousands of AHS positions will be outsourced – privatized – to “reduce labour costs.” The cuts, based on recommendations from the self-serving Ernst & Young review released in January will affect nearly 11,000 workers in laboratory services, medical laundry, housekeeping and food services – the very people who have been on the front line of this pandemic, ensuring testing and sanitation under the most challenging conditions.

They are also overwhelmingly female, and many from racialized backgrounds (over 83 per cent of our health services workforce is female, according to statistics from 2015). This is a demographic that has been hit hard by the triple burden of the pandemic-related shutdown, additional unpaid care work and targeted government cuts to the public sector. Not only is there no plan from the Alberta government to address the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women, but the UCP are also doubling and tripling down on women’s economic obstacles.

Minister Tyler Shandro claims there will be no job losses, and this is merely “a change of employers,” but this ignores the reality of outsourcing and privatization.

Past experience from British Columbia, Ontario and the United Kingdom shows that when these positions are outsourced, workers are often laid off, only to be re-hired at lower compensation, reduced benefits, precarious hours, and increased duties. Corners are cut to save time and money, increasing the risk of error, injury and – in the case of housekeeping and laundry – the likelihood of infection.

While 90 per cent of Alberta’s health-care workforce is currently unionized, outsourcing often becomes an opportunity to erode workers’ rights and undermine collective agreements. Minister Shandro claims “collective agreement provisions would be respected,” but neither his ministry nor the private sector have a great track record there.

What is all this devastation and upheaval for? The minister claims it is about cost savings. Yet, despite the Ernst & Young report’s estimate of $1.9 billion annual savings, that number was revised in August to around $800 million. Today, the best guess is around $600 million per year when the entire program of privatization, job loss by attrition, and contracting out is complete. Even this amount – less than a third of what was claimed by Ernst &Young – is illusory. Private sector contracts, while awarded to the lowest bidder, are based on profit margins: cutting wages, benefits and staffing numbers while receiving public tax dollars for lower quality service. Workers are caught in the middle, desperately trying to maintain the standards of care with fewer resources and outdated equipment.

This “transformational change” to Alberta’s health-care system will not benefit Albertans. It will enact a transfer of wealth from health-care workers to private corporations and leave Albertans more at risk during the health crisis of the century.

Rebecca Graff-McRae

Rebecca Graff-McRae completed her undergraduate and doctoral studies at Queen’s University Belfast (PhD Irish Politics, 2006). Her work, which interrogates the role of memory and commemoration in post-conflict transition, has evolved through a Faculty of Arts fellowship at Memorial University Newfoundland and a SSHRC post-doctoral research fellowship at the University of Alberta. She has previously worked with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and Edmonton City Council.

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