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Budget cuts worry federal unions (Veterans Affairs employees especially fearful)

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Budget cuts worry federal unions

February 11, 2012 - 4:34am By PAUL McLEOD Ottawa Bureau

Veterans Affairs employees especially fearful, they say

OTTAWA ? As the 2012 federal budget draws near, employee unions are worried about rumours of up to 20 per cent budget cuts and widespread privatization.

Suspicions are running particularly high at Veterans Affairs Canada, which is already set for a cut of 500 from a total 4,100 employees by 2014-15, according to the Union of Veterans? Affairs Employees.

A further 1,100 employees will be unloaded from the department?s books when Ste. Anne?s Hospital, a veterans facility in Quebec, is handed over to provincial control.

Deeper cuts are expected in this year?s budget. Departments were told to plan for cuts of five to 10 per cent. The tone of recent statements by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has some fearing the targets will be bumped up to between 10 and 20 per cent.

"Even if it?s five to 10 per cent, we can?t sustain that," said Kim Coles, a Union of Veterans? Affairs Employees vice-president.

"Right now, our employees are going full-out permanently, trying to meet service standards."

The department says the cuts will be managed without any decrease in service because of new technology and Canada?s declining veteran population.

The union counters that it is already struggling to meet demand and disputes the notion that the department?s client load of roughly 200,000 is declining.

Coles said the government is trying to cut deeply so the department will have to resort to privatization.

"What we?re seeing, across the board, is they?re setting up for privatization. They?re setting up for us not being able to fulfil our mandate so they?ll have to privatize it out."

The department insists the cuts will be attained through attrition. Jean-Christophe de le Rue, spokesman for Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney, said the government has beefed up service by doubling the number of operational stress injury clinics and creating a veterans ombudsman office.

"We want to be very clear in saying that all current benefits for veterans will be maintained," said de le Rue.

"We are determined to serve our veterans better and faster, and that?s why we are improving our service delivery."

Cole?s view on the government position is blunt: "Right away, we say that?s BS."

The privatization concerns spread beyond the walls of Veterans Affairs. Leadership at the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, which represents 50,000 federal employees such as scientists, engineers and researchers, suspect the Harper government is looking to privatize some services.

"But it?s all hearsay because no official information is coming down the pipe," said institute spokeswoman Debi Daviau.

The government has already started trimming budgets at select departments. All departments were told to submit plans for cuts of five to 10 per cent to the Treasury Board, while some were tasked with finding more savings under the expenditure management review program.

The government is paying Deloitte Inc. $19.8 million to help it fulfil its plan to get to a balanced budget position by 2014. Opposition parties have vocally criticized the almost $90,000-per-day contract.

Daviau said many of the cuts seem ideological, rather than evidence-based. She said cuts to environmental studies, chemical management, air quality management and food inspection could threaten the health and safety of the public.

"Thus far, we?ve seen the tip of the iceberg. What concerns us is the signals of the tip of the iceberg, if they are representative of the rest of the iceberg, are pretty frightening."

( pmcleod@herald.ca)

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