They are one group of workers in the federal public service who have fallen victim to the previous government’s efforts to trim the budget. Statistical Survey Operators are amongst the lowest paid, with the least job security. In fact, their employer doesn’t even see them as part of the federal public service workforce.
“SSO workers are employees of the federal government and it’s time they were treated as such,” said PSAC National President Robyn Benson during a speech in front of more than 70 of these workers.
The delegates and observers gathered in Ottawa on Jan. 9 and 10, 2016, to discuss their work issues and strategize for their upcoming round of bargaining with Statistical Survey Operations, the federal government unit responsible for gathering survey data mainly for Statistics Canada.
Lack of respect, dangerous working conditions and precarious work were among the biggest concerns raised by the bargaining conference participants.
Anna Goldfeld, a 21-year veteran interviewer working at SSO’s regional office in Winnipeg, described some of the treatment they typically receive from the employer.
“There’s no consistency in the employer’s treatment of its employees. We don’t have
guaranteed hours. There’s no recognition of years of service or seniority. There’s obvious favouritism going on in the workplace. It all causes low morale among employees.”
Goldfeld was elected to the bargaining team for this round of negotiations. She says that although workers made some significant gains in their last contract, there’s still a lot of improvements needed in the workplace.
“We haven’t reached wage parity with other federal public service workers. We also need more indeterminate employees,” said Goldfeld. “Really, we just want to be treated as public service employees.”
SSO field interviewers don’t have it any easier. Phyllis Allen, who works as a field interviewer in Hamilton and is the president of her local, said interviewers who have more seniority or are indeterminate get the short end of the stick.
“The employer is inclined to hire new people and give them more work hours because it’s much cheaper for the employer,” she said.
Dangerous working conditions for interviewers
Field interviewers also often do their jobs under dangerous working conditions. Mary Anne Walker is familiar with these risks. She has been working as a field interviewer for SSO since 1999 and is the central regional vice-president for the Union of National Employees. She was elected to the bargaining team for the FI group.
“I could tell you a lot of horror stories,” she said. “We work evenings and weekends, around the time you can catch most people at home. We often work in the cold, in the dark and in dangerous neighbourhoods, in areas the employer wouldn’t send their own children. Interviewers have been assaulted, threatened, had people sick their dogs on them and have had their cars damaged.”
Due to the precariousness of their positions at work, most field interviewers are reluctant to refuse dangerous work or file a complaint to the employer.
Allen relates a particular case of sexual harassment that she knows about: “The interviewee opened his door naked and tried to pull in the interviewer for a kiss. But the employee won’t come forward to complain because she’s afraid the employer will take hours away from her.”
Bargaining with a new government
The new federal Liberal government made promises to improve relations between the government and public service workers. That included promises to repeal legislation introduced by the last Conservative government that essentially revoked significant bargaining rights, especially for public service workers.
“We will hold their feet to the fire,” declared Robyn Benson. “The Prime Minister has announced a new era of respect for public service workers. Well, we want to see that at the bargaining table.”