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CUPE blasts federal government over response to ‘unpaid’ flight attendant labour

By Ben Forrest | November 7, 2023

Estimated reading time 5 minutes, 27 seconds.

Fight attendants from Sunwing Airlines at a staff meeting in Toronto in 2018. CUPE alleges flight attendants work an average of 25 hours unpaid each month. Andy Cline Photo

A public-sector union representing thousands of Canadian aviation workers is slamming the federal government over its response to a campaign calling on airlines to compensate flight attendants for allegedly unpaid labour.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) accuses the government of turning a blind eye to unpaid work in the airline sector after its lukewarm response to a petition the union said is signed by over 17,000 Canadians.

“These are not the words of a minister who cares about workers being exploited by billion-dollar companies,” said Wesley Lesosky, president of the CUPE Airline Division.

“But now we know whose side [labour minister Seamus] O’Regan and Prime Minister Trudeau are really on.”

In its petition, CUPE alleges flight attendants work an average of 35 hours unpaid every month for duties including boarding, pre-flight safety checks and ground delays, citing a survey it conducted with over 9,000 workers. The union also said flight attendants are only paid half their hourly rate for Transport Canada-mandated training.

CUPE called on the government to fix legislation and regulations to ensure employees are being paid at their contractual rate — and no less than federal minimum wage — from the moment their work duties begin.

This would include time spent on training, waiting at the worksite to be assigned work, or remaining at the worksite at their employer’s disposal.

In its response to the petition, tabled Nov. 3, 2023, the government acknowledged these concerns and noted all employees in federally regulated workplaces have the right to file a complaint if they believe their employer has contravened provisions of the Canada Labour Code.

“Unionized workers who experience challenging working conditions should also follow the recourse options available in their collective agreement and seek recourse through the grievance process,” the government said in a response attributed to the labour minister and signed by parliamentary secretary Terry Sheehan.

“If a complaint is filed with the Labour Program, all allegations will be rigorously analyzed and investigations will be conducted. The Labour Program will assess whether the collective agreement provides for entitlements that meet the minimum standards of the Code.”

The government said it would continue to work closely with various stakeholders to strengthen federally-regulated workplaces, but made no promises for concrete action.

That response prompted a blistering statement from CUPE, which filed the petition as part of its “Unpaid Work Won’t Fly” campaign. The campaign launched in April 2023 and its petition was presented to the House of Commons by NDP MP Taylor Bachrach on Sept. 21.

“Make no mistake: the federal government has chosen its side and failed to address this critical issue, leaving the door open to potential job action in the future which may have a negative impact on the public,” said Lesosky.

“We hope the government takes the same hands-off approach in the future if this comes to pass during negotiations at the bargaining table.”

CUPE also said it plans to file complaints through the Canada Industrial Relations Board, adding it increases the possibility of job action during future rounds of bargaining.

“We will not accept this reality going forward,” said Lesosky. “We never expected this to be an easy fight, but we know this is just the first of many steps, and we know there’s light at the end of the tunnel. We’re going to end this abusive practice with or without the federal government’s help.”

CUPE said it represents approximately 18,500 flight attendants at nine airlines, including Air Canada, WestJet, Sunwing, Air Transat, Calm Air, Flair Airlines, PAL Airlines, Canadian North and Pivot.

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