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Bulldozers at a construction site. // Image from unsplash

Bulldozers at a construction site. // Image from Unsplash

Op-ed: Nothing saved by privatizing infrastructure services

August 26, 2021 — 

The following opinion piece from Jesse Hajer (assistant professor in economics and labour studies at UM and a research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives — Manitoba), Jennifer Keith (owner and lead consultant of JDK & Associates, and in her final year as a PhD student in Native Studies at UM), and Michael Conway (an expert in public infrastructure provision), was published by the Winnipeg Free Press:

For several years, Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government has been pushing hard to reduce the number of government workers, while transferring work and contracts to the private sector. We recently published a report examining privatization and contracting out of design and maintenance of Manitoba’s infrastructure and transportation services, based on interviews with the workers who have been delivering these services.

These workers are responsible for a variety of tasks, such as: highway and bridge maintenance, including snow clearing; capital project planning and delivery; road safety and enforcement, including regulation of trucking; maintenance of the provincial vehicle and equipment fleet; operation of water structures and ferries; and winter roads.

According to workers, the situation is dire. They reported dramatic short-staffing and a refusal by management to fill vacancies, putting public safety at risk. The infrastructure department lost one-third of its staff complement since 2016. Lack of staff was then used to rationalize the selling off of assets, leaving those remaining workers without the equipment needed to do their jobs.

Workers also reported that training offered for employees has also been reduced or eliminated. As one worker put it, “They are just setting us up to fail.” This has led to extremely low levels of morale, high levels of burnout and, despite a strong commitment to public service, workers questioning their future with the province.

A large majority, 72 per cent, believe the proposed and ongoing changes to Manitoba Infrastructure Services’ delivery model and policies will lead to a reduction in the quality of service delivered, and approximately the same amount believe asset quality will be lower after the changes. Seventy-five per cent of workers surveyed questioned the impact these changes would have on public safety, with 55 per cent believing the safety of Manitobans would be compromised.

Worker safety was also a concern, with almost 70 per cent of the workforce feeling worker safety was in jeopardy, and 45 per cent believing it would worsen.

Despite cost savings being the often-noted motivation for contracting out, based on the workers’ experience so far, 73 per cent of workers expect costs to rise, and a similar percentage think the value government gets for taxpayers’ money will decrease. Workers provided many examples of private-sector contractors delivering substandard work, requiring constant policing by government staff and, in many cases, staff having to redo the work.

On average, the workers in our sample had more than 12 years of employment with the province, and a wide array of technical credentials and hands-on experience. Despite this, more than 85 per cent of employees disagreed when asked if they had been consulted on the changes. As one worker put it, decisions were just “jammed down our throats.”

Some even described instances of threatening or bullying behaviour, with one group of workers being told by a senior official, “I’m driving the bus, you either get on it or I’ll run you over.” Instead of consulting its own staff, the government is relying on outside multi-national, for-profit finance and accounting firms with track records of promoting and profiting from privatization.

The negative views of workers are consistent with recent academic studies on the subject. Despite being popular in the 1980s and ‘90s, more recently the pace of contracting out has slowed in response to privatization failures. The returning of contracted out services to public delivery is also increasingly common.

There is now a general consensus that the quality of publicly delivered services often exceeds that of private provision, and more recent studies suggest cost savings now are generally minimal. Manitoba’s reforms, however, appear to be dictated by ideology as opposed to rigorous analysis.

Manitobans, along with public-sector workers, are already paying the price.

The full report “Hard Infrastructure, Hard Times: Worker Perspectives on Privatization and Contracting out of Manitoba Infrastructure” is available now.

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