05/09/2012 08:55 EDT | Updated 07/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Temp workers shouldn't be public service crutch

The layoff of thousands of federal public servants has raised concerns about whether more work in Ottawa will be taken over by temporary staff.

Many temporary help agencies already provide workers to government departments in areas such as professional services, IT and communications.

A Public Service Commission study of temporary workers in the federal public service published in 2009 found that spending on temporary services tripled from 1999-00 to 2008-09. But the study also pointed out that about one in five temporary contracts were for longer than 52 weeks, raising the question over whether the jobs should be considered temporary.

Senator Pierrette Ringuette has complained about the government's practice of hiring so many temporary workers before, and she again raised the issue last week at the Senate Finance Committee.

She asked Treasury Board of Canada officials what directives departments were receiving regarding the hiring of temporary workers while other jobs are being eliminated.

"Deputy heads can fill and hire on contract which they may need to do to fill special needs, so there is no prohibition to that," responded Daphne Meredith, the chief human resources officer with the Treasury Board.

Ringuette said she thinks departments should have clearer rules regarding the hiring of temps while the government cuts 19,200 jobs over the next three years as part of their plan to balance the budget by 2015-16.

"It's not fair. Young people should be able to have some kind of job security," she said. "I think it's a shameful situation for the government of Canada to put all these people into that kind of perspective."

Shaun Côté, 24, said he's leaving his temporary administrative job at Health Canada because of poor pay.

Côté said the federal government pays the agency he works for $13.65 an hour for a job that normally pays $20 an hour, while he was earning minimum wage.

"I'm leaving in a week because I can't even afford to work for the government," said Côté. "I'm making the same wage as someone flipping burgers at McDonalds, you know?"

Agencies blame government for lower wages

Steve Jones, the head of the national association of staffing agencies, said in the long term, the cuts may lead to more work for temp agencies.

But he said it is the federal government, not the agencies, that are driving down the cost of the labour.

"The reality is, over last three years, the procurement model has required government departments to go to the lowest cost supplier," said Jones, who is also president of the People Bank, a division of Design Group Staffing Inc.

"That means when you start lowering prices, you're lowering wages. We don't think that's been effective," he said.

Paul Dewar, the NDP Member of Parliament for Ottawa Centre, said the agencies raise a valid concern. But he questions the whole model of using temporary agencies in the first place.

"They're using temporary help agencies to hire for jobs that were intended to be permanent," said Dewar.