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Winnipeg weighs push for diverse workforce on massive sewage plant upgrade

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The City of Winnipeg is considering signaling to bidders that it wants to see Indigenous workers and other under-represented groups as a key part of the labour supply for the next phase of its $552-million upgrade to the North End sewage plant.

The city’s hiring priorities were not included in previous tender stages for the ongoing project — the biggest in Winnipeg’s history — and many within the community took note of the lack of diversity in the workforce for those stages. At the February 2 meeting of Winnipeg’s Standing Policy Committee on Water and Waste, Riverbank Management and the Environment, the members said they want to consider the new motion as a lesson learned.

“We are trying to signal to the bidders that labour supply is a priority,” said Councillor Brian Mayes of St. Vital, who added that the attempt may run up against trade agreements.

The committee motion notes that the province’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission Call to Action 92, calls on governments to “close the gaps in social, health and economic outcomes” faced by Indigenous peoples.

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Phase 2 funding for this stage of the upgrade project — a new biosolids facility — is not yet confirmed by the federal government.

“We’re trying to get out in front of this, though, so we don’t do this in a panic and not ask these questions,” said Mayes.

The committee had hoped to have a social procurement framework in place before the new stage of the project goes out to tender; however, there isn’t enough time for that option, officials agreed.

Tanya Palson of Manitoba Building Trades, an umbrella organization for 13 trade unions in the province, told the committee that while she supports the motion, it “has about as little teeth as you can get […].” A more intensive approach may include elements such as hiring targets within the tender, she added, which would be part of an eventual social procurement framework.

“This is 1% of the outcome of something like that, but it’s better than nothing,” said Palson. “It will be up to bidders how they want to answer these questions.”

The city isn’t mandating diversity, said Palson, but instead trying to let bidders know the committee’s values, and its concerns about how and where workers are sourced.

“We see this as progress in the city’s approach to planning. This is asking bidders to self-declare what they’re doing,” she added.

Phase 1 of the  sewage plant project included a new power supply and upgrades to headworks facilities, such as new wastewater pumps and improved screening and grit removal. Phase 3 includes the construction of nutrient removal facilities.

Commissioned in 1937, the plant is one of three in Winnipeg. It processes 70% of the city’s wastewater, but must now be upgraded to increase its capacity to treat and manage wastewater and stormwater.

The city’s executive policy committee is set to further explore the labour supply proposal.

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