Budget cuts gutting food inspection, other frontline services: unions
By Jason Fekete and Sarah Schmidt, Postmedia News April 12, 2012
Wed, Apr 11: Union leaders are concerned that cuts to food inspector jobs could put public safety at risk. Mike Le Couteur reports.
OTTAWA — Frontline public services and government brain power are expected to take a big hit after thousands of federal civil servants were informed Wednesday that they could lose their jobs — an indication that many cuts won't be so-called back office administrative jobs.
The cuts will erode the safety of food on dinner tables, care for veterans, impact wait times at the border and environmental monitoring, among a number of other services, union leaders warned Wednesday after at least 7,700 federal employees received notices that their jobs will be "affected" by billions of dollars in cuts to programs and services.
All told, the government says 19,200 jobs will be eliminated within the next three years as Ottawa cuts $5.2 billion in program spending. And even though the Conservative government has emphasized the majority of savings will be found in operations with a focus on "back office" administrative jobs, front-line services and programs can't be spared when the scale is this significant, union leaders said.
Not everyone who received notices Wednesday will be laid off; they could be shuffled to different jobs within their unit, be retrained or transferred to another department.
John Gordon is president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents about 150,000 federal public servants. He said Canadians across the country will feel the impact of the pending job cuts.
"The government is rushing these cuts through without telling Canadians what they will mean to public services," he told reporters Wednesday in Ottawa. "Front-line services are going to be impacted by the reductions this government has put forward."
Details trickled out Wednesday about the number of federal employees "affected" by looming job cuts. PSAC alone said 5,561 members at 23 federal departments and agencies were notified their jobs could be affected.
They include 715 people at Health Canada, 689 people at the Department of Agriculture, 483 at the Public Health Agency of Canada, 339 at Citizenship and Immigration — and a staggering 1,137 people at the Canada Border Services Agency.
"I have no idea why there's so many notices at CBSA, in particular, when they're still needing to hire them," Gordon added. "If they were to let all those jobs, these people go, these jobs go, certainly it's going to slow down services."
Gordon also said he's worried that planned layoffs of food-safety inspectors — forecast by PSAC to number up to 100 — will erode the quality of food on Canadian tables.
"Is it going to have an impact on the good quality food being out there to consumers? Certainly it's going to have an impact. We just don't know the detail to which level they're going to be taking those reductions," he said.
Separately, more than 1,500 scientists, veterinarians, engineers, medical doctors and other professional staff at 10 departments or agencies represented by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) also received notices Wednesday, including 344 at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, 156 at Natural Resources Canada and 137 at Environment Canada.
Nearly 700 economists and social-science policy experts represented by the Canadian Association of Professional Employees also received notices.
More notices are expected to be sent out next week and over the next few months, but not all who receive them will lose their jobs.
For example, Health Canada highlighted Wednesday that no more than 150 scientific staff positions will be eliminated at the department, even though 328 members of PIPSC received notices (PIPSC also represents computer services personnel). At the Public Health Agency of Canada, the maximum number of science positions to disappear will be 56, while 75 scientists and other professionals received notices Wednesday.
Postmedia News has learned that of the 516 notices sent to Citizenship and Immigration employees, just 283 will be laid off — 200 immediately, 83 more following job competitions.
The union representing local PSAC employees at the Canadian International Development Agency, meanwhile, estimates that of the 534 staffers who received notices Wednesday, about 300 will lose their jobs.
Some specifics about pending cuts raised safety flags for some union leaders.
The Agriculture Union of PSAC says it has crunched the numbers and estimates the food-safety inspection force at CFIA will shrink by as many as 100 inspectors out of 308 jobs eliminated. This will reverse increases to the inspection force that were put in place in response to the deadly listeriosis outbreak in 2008 and will have an impact on the safety of food purchased by Canadians, union president Bob Kingston said Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the best case scenario suggests that about 40 veterinarians, charged with inspecting and certifying animals and meat products, will be cut from CFIA, according to PIPSC.
Despite these analyses, CFIA president George Da Pont, in an internal memo to staff about coming staff cuts obtained by Postmedia News, maintains the agency's "commitment to food safety remains strong" and "none of what is in the budget will impact the food safety system in any way."
Da Pont, however, acknowledges that pending cuts "means that less emphasis will be placed on grading and quality assurance activities" and the agency "will try to remove or simplify regulatory requirements to decrease industry burden."
Among the confirmed cuts is the Ottawa-based unit responsible for approving meat product labels, which will be dismantled in favour of "downstream enforcement" involving trying to find fraudulent claims after products hit stores shelves, said Kingston.
"After these cuts, Canadians can expect more fraudulent meat labels like we have seen for other products," he said.
In a statement Wednesday, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said no changes would be made that could potentially decrease safeguards or leave people vulnerable in terms of food safety and touted the measures taken under the current government to protect Canadians.
"The Agency will not make any changes that would in any way place the health and safety of Canadians at risk," Ritz said. "In fact, Economic Action Plan 2012 includes an additional $51 million over two years to enhance food safety, building upon the $100 million in last year's budget. Ensuring safe food for Canadian families is CFIA's priority and these changes underscore that commitment. Since 2006, the Harper Government has provided the investments for the CFIA to hire 733 net new inspection staff."
Meanwhile, Transport Canada announced Wednesday it is shutting the Aircraft Services Division in Edmonton, where the department has maintained a fleet of aircraft to be used by pilot-inspectors for training and travelling to northern communities to conduct on-the-ground inspections.
"The bigger picture is that without an airbase in Edmonton, without airplanes for inspectors to do their inspections, we're not getting to the North anymore. We're going to have a lot more difficulty because Edmonton is the gateway to the North," Daniel Slunder, president of the union representing federal pilot-inspectors, said Wednesday.
Opposition parties condemned the cuts to food safety inspectors and border agents, in particular, charging that the reductions threaten the Canadian public's safety.
"To have less (border) inspectors, one would normally conclude that we're going to have more guns and illegal guns and serious drugs on our streets," said NDP MP David Christopherson, a former attorney general for the province of Ontario. "How does this help secure Canadians? In fact, it's the opposite."
Liberal House leader Marc Garneau noted that the 2008 listeriosis outbreak has killed people.
"We can all remember the listeriosis crisis," he said. "We hope that there will not be another crisis before the cuts are reversed."