Peter Tabuns, the NDP member of provincial Parliament for Toronto-Danforth, has called on the ministry of transportation to cut ties with the company embroiled in the current DriveTest strike.
Serco DES Inc. is locked in a dispute with 550 unionized employees. The workers, who conduct driving tests for the province, have been on strike since August 21.
Ontario contracted out the tests to Serco in 2003 under the Conservative Ernie Eves government. The deal cost $114 million and expires in 2013.
But, in question period at Queen’s Park yesterday, Tabuns said the contract with Serco is up for renewal in February 2010. He asked Minister of Transportation Jim Bradley to ensure the contract is not renewed for another 10 years.
“Contracting out driver testing to Serco has been a disaster from day one and has led directly to the labour conflict that has inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of Ontarians,” Tabuns said.
However, Bradley said he had no intention of interfering with contract negotiations.
“To abrogate the contract in the middle of the contract would cost the taxpayers of Ontario millions upon millions of dollars,” he said. “I know that rather than have those go to legal fees, you would want to ensure that it would go to appropriate programs to assist the people of Ontario.”
Serco is based in the United Kingdom and is responsible for conducting on-road driving tests, vision tests and written tests so people can obtain licences in Ontario. In 2003, testing was contracted out as a way to cut down on wait times.
Government employees originally conducted drivers’ testing through the ministry of transportation.
In a press release issued in 2003, Ontario said it was privatizing the industry to save money for taxpayers and to focus on more important issues, such as education and healthcare.
Seven hundred and fifty employees were affected by the decision. They were offered severance or a chance to work for Serco. But, as the strike stretches into its fourth month, some, such as Tabuns, are questioning whether privatizing was the right thing to do.
Yesterday at question period, Bradley defended the decision: “When the Conservative government established Serco and privatized that portion of the Ministry of Transportation, they believed, probably, that they were doing the right thing,” he said.
Tabuns said he wants the government to reassert public authority over driver testing.
Bradley said the ministry would only look into Serco’s contract, like all contracts with private companies, if it determined it was necessary to do so.
“We evaluate how they’re operating, and we make a decision at the appropriate time, taking into consideration all of the factors that are brought to our attention by anybody and everybody in the province,” he said.
The current DriveTest strike centres around workers’ demand for greater job security. They say employees are hired during the summer and then quickly fired in the winter. The union is also looking for better wages.
A mediator from the Ministry of Labour is working with both sides to facilitate an agreement. They sat down again yesterday in an attempt to resolve the issue. There’s been no word yet on how talks are progressing.
Neither Tabuns nor the Ministry of Transportation were available for comment.