Valentina Cerka had never felt such cold and isolation as on a frigid February day in 1993, when she first landed in Winnipeg.
She’d just fled Albania and spent two years in a refugee camp. She spoke no English, knew nothing of Canadian law and culture, and carried her seven-month-old son wherever she went.
Cerka managed to start a life in Canada, she said, with the help of a settlement worker — a job she’d get six years later to launch a 22-year career at Welcome Place, a temporary residence and service provider for refugees and other newcomers.
She worked there until Tuesday morning, when the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, which runs the centre, locked her and her co-workers out over a collective-bargaining dispute.
“I am angry. How can I not be angry? I devoted most of my life to this agency,” said Cerka, her words sharp and fervent.
The organization lost a major funding contract about two years ago, said a press release from the council. As a result, it said, it cut more than half of its staff, reducing the number of employees from over 55 to just 23. It also reorganized the organization’s structure which, employees report, resulted in significant pay cuts.
Cerka said she made $10,000 a year less after the restructuring, which included a nominal demotion, as well. Another employee, Fetheya Abdela, said her wages dropped $3 per hour.
Pay decreases averaged 12.5 per cent and went as high as 27.5 per cent, said Scott Clark of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, who represents the locked-out Welcome Place staff.
However, Clark said he believes the main sticking points are not funding problems.
“For example, they were trying to reduce vacation benefits,” he said. “These people are not replaced on vacation, so it’s not a pure cost issue.”
Similarly, the council is pushing to remove “wellness days,” said Clark. For people working with refugees coming from often horrific circumstances, he said, the days off support employees’ good mental health.
Cerka said morale among staff is low.
“We don’t feel like our work is valued. We don’t feel like, as human beings, we’re worth anything…. We’ve been seen now as work machines, like robots,” she said.
With Welcome Place closed, some refugees may find themselves unsure where to go for services, said Cerka.
Abdela echoed that, adding that clients usually stay at the residence for about a year but continue to return for services — help with child tax credits applications, job searches, banking, education and various other things.
“I feel very bad actually,” said the 19-year employee. “Especially with this COVID-19, when the people need more.”
The council said in its release the situation predates the pandemic, but COVID-19 has exacerbated things. It said international travel bans have reduced the number of refugees Welcome Place serves, which makes “service delivery” going forward “more uncertain.” It said clients will continue to be provided with services but did not say who would be providing them.
It also said because the union and the council have been without a contract for more than a year, funding has been more difficult to secure.
Clark said there’s more at play than just dollars and cents.
“Ideology,” he said. “We feel the employer’s taking an unreasonable position here, and we feel it’s really motivated by anti-union, political sentiments and ideology.”
The council has also refused to extend the “recall list,” which would give employees who were laid off the right to any positions that open up, said Clark.
“They’ve just said absolutely not. They’re not willing to entertain it,” he said.
The Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council did not respond to emails or calls and stated in the release it will not speak to anyone not directly involved in negotiations.