Dominion Diamond Mines has refused proposals to help solve issues with employees at Ekati Diamond Mine and intends to layoff 150 workers by the end of September, says the Union of Northern Workers (UNW).

Dominion Diamond Mines intends to layoff 150 workers from Ekati Diamond Mine by the end of September, says the Union of Northern Workers. NNSL file photo

In a communique on Thursday, the union stated Dominion Diamond plans to fill these predominantly entry-level positions with contract workers by Oct. 1.

UNW called the move a “cost cutting mechanism to increase profitability” for the company.

The union believes 80 per cent of jobs on the line belong to Northerners.

Dominion Diamond operates and has a controlling interest in Ekati. The company has cited absenteeism as the main reason for the layoffs.

“Absenteeism has been a concern at the Ekati mine, in general, for several years… We have tried to resolve these issues in various ways, but the problems and associate costs remain at an unacceptable level,” Gaeleen Mcpherson, Dominion Diamond’s vice-president of corporate affairs, wrote in a May 10 letter informing UNW of the company’s plans.

The letter asked for proposals to remedy the situation.

If an agreement is not reached by May 31, stated Macpherson, the decision to proceed with layoffs will be finalized.

The union initially asked for statistical proof of absenteeism and an extension on the May 31 deadline in order to review the data and come up with detailed proposals.

The data UNW received from Dominion Diamond were not detailed enough, and the union was given just one week to review the information, stated Thursday’s communique.

UNW said it submitted proposals to Dominion Diamond on June 8, which included forming a working group to study how other Northern companies deal with absenteeism, and getting an early start on bargaining before the collective agreement expires on May 31, 2019.

“These proposals were out right refused by the employer,” stated the union.

The company also denied a grievance filed by UNW.

That grievance will be referred to the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), stated UNW, with the hope of having arbitration scheduled this summer.

The union also lodged an unfair labour practice complaint with the Canadian Industrial Relations Board and is currently reviewing the board’s response to that complaint.

Union president Todd Parsons did not make himself available for an interview before Friday’s print deadline.

Parsons has stated that even if laid-off workers are able to get contract positions at Ekati, they will lose their benefits, pensions, job protections and will face “drastic pay cuts.”

“This is a typical example of blaming unionized workforce for the employer’s poor management,” Parsons and Local 3050 President Ian Kelly stated on May 16.

“The mines already struggle to meet their northern hiring requirements, and a decision to layoff even more Northerners demonstrates their lack of commitment to our territory and our people.”

All three diamond mines in the territory have non-binding agreements with the government of Northwest Territories that lay out Northern and Indigenous hiring commitments.

Ekati’s 1996 socio-economic agreement contains targets of 62 per cent Northern workers during the initial operation phase, and 72 per cent Northern workers when the mine reaches full operation.

Of its Northern workers, at least 50 per cent are to be Indigenous.

Dominion Diamond reported in April that it is not meeting its Ekati hiring targets.

Drew Williams, a spokesperson for the department of Industry, Tourism and Investment, said that even though there are no penalties for companies that fail to comply, socio-economic agreements are worthwhile.

The agreements help ensure NWT residents and their businesses benefit from diamond mining, Williams said Thursday.

If (the agreements) hadn’t existed, we would have got nothing,” he said.

Dominion Diamond also has separate agreements with Indigenous governments that spell out commitments to specific communities.

These “impact benefit agreements” are private.

Whati Chief Alfonz Nitsiza said the Tlicho government is working with Dominion Diamond to minimize the impact of any layoffs on his community.

We hope they keep Tlicho workers there,” Nitsiza said on Thursday.

We know there will be a great impact, so that’s why we’ve been working and supporting our workers since we heard about (the layoffs).”

Dominion Diamond did provide an interview to Yellowknifer before Friday’s print deadline.

On May 28, Parsons sent a letter to Premier Bob McLeod and minister of Infrastructure, Tourism and Investment Wally Schumann asking for their support.

Parsons wrote that he recently visited Ekati with Chris Aylward, PSAC’s national president, and three Tlicho chiefs including Grand Chief George Mackenzie.

We talked to many members and they are very angry and scared,” states the letter.

When asked whether the premier and minister are declaring their support for the Ekati workers, cabinet spokesperson Charlotte Digness said, “at this time, we will not be commenting on a labour issue involving a third party.”

Dominion Diamond and UNW have agreed to discuss the contracting-out issue next week.

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