REGINA — Saskatchewan is considering whether to privatize cleaning of government buildings as it looks to save money because of a ballooning deficit.
The Ministry of Central Services says it is exploring whether the private sector could do the cleaning for less.
Deputy minister Richard Murray says a decision to seek bids for cleaning services at about 100 buildings is "purely a business decision."
"We've been considering this for probably a year and a half. We just felt it was the right time to do a thorough assessment, go to market, take a look at the numbers and see if we can achieve some cost savings through the private sector," he said Thursday.
Murray said the average salary for a cleaner is $19.20 an hour.
The province is trying to save money because a big drop in natural resource revenue has pushed the government's deficit for this year to nearly $1 billion.
Premier Brad Wall said in year-end media interviews that public-sector workers will be asked to help tackle the deficit, potentially through wage rollbacks or layoffs.
Murray said Central Services is facing fiscal pressures just like other ministries.
"But if we can better spend taxpayers' dollars on services, achieve savings on this particular service line, I think that's a good thing. The jury's not in on that yet."
The deputy minister said the province won't go ahead with the move if there are no savings.
The Saskatchewan Government and General Employees' Union argues the government has already made a decision. Union president Bob Bymoen said seven workers in Weyburn have already been told they are losing their jobs.
"They just want to get rid of unionized jobs. We don't believe for a moment that this is just an exercise to see what's out there — they're doing it," said Bymoen.
"We're calling them on it. We don't believe them."
Bymoen pointed out that the province has already privatized food delivery in correctional facilities and hospital laundry services.
There have been concerns with both.
Last January, more than 100 inmates at the Regina Correctional Centre refused to take their meal trays because of what they said was bad food. The premier said he was comfortable that inmates are getting good choice and quality.
Last fall, the problem of needles found in clean hospital linens was raised at the legislature. Health Minister Jim Reiter said it was concerning, but added there were few incidents. He also said needles had been found before and after the switch to a private linen company.
Job cuts in the cleaning service would affect 251 workers in 17 communities across Saskatchewan and in the legislature.
Bymoen says cutting jobs of the lowest-paid public servants won't fix the province's economic troubles.
"If these become minimum-wage jobs, the workers will apply for their own jobs at a 40 per cent pay cut," he said.
"For people currently working at what's considered a living wage in Saskatchewan, this puts them at poverty-line wages. We might end up spending more on supporting them through our social safety net.
"It just doesn't make any economic sense."