HALIFAX — A group of black janitors who were fired after they claimed they were victims of racial discrimination have found new jobs, but supporters continue to draw attention to their situation.
Nova Scotia singer-songwriter Joel Plaskett performed at a rally outside the Founders Square office building Thursday, capping a week of pickets protesting the treatment of the black cleaners.
He said he was inspired by speakers at a rally at the downtown building on Monday and decided to write a song with his father, Bill, and community leader Lynn Jones to support the janitors.
"This is an issue I can lend my voice to and sing," Plaskett said in an interview. "We're just trying to make some noise and make the world a more equitable and fair place."
The janitors announced plans to file a complaint with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission last week.
They accused the building's property manager, Armour Group, and an incoming contractor, Deep Down Cleaning Services, of racial discrimination. They said one white cleaner was offered a job by the new contractor while the workers of African descent were all set to lose their jobs at the end of the month.
Yet Rich Abbass, one of the owners of Deep Down Cleaning, called the allegation of racism "totally ridiculous."
"This is just crazy," he said. "People are jumping to conclusions and it's the furthest thing from the truth."
The company has taken over cleaning contracts in the city for 20 years, Abbass said, noting that it hires its own cleaners while the outgoing contractor finds new placements for its cleaners.
Deep Down Cleaning decided to hire the building's day porter — who is white — but opted not to hire the cleaning crew, said Abbass.
"We had no idea the cleaners were black or the day porter was white," Abbass said. "We just had a lot of positive feedback about the day porter, he's well liked at the building, so we offered him a job."
Abbass added that one of the company's owners is black, and about half the staff have ethnic backgrounds.
Meanwhile, the union representing the janitors said Armour Group immediately fired and banned the janitors from the downtown building upon learning of the plan to file a complaint with the human rights commission.
The janitors have all since found new jobs at other buildings in the city through their company, GDI Services.
Still, the workers and their supporters have picketed outside the Founders Square building twice a day this week, chanting "justice for janitors" and waving placards that said Black Workers Matter.
Darius Mirshahi, an organizer with the Service Employees International Union Local 2, said just because the janitors have found new jobs doesn't "let Armour Group off the hook."
He said the workers are now adding what they call Armour Group's "retaliation" against the workers to their human rights complaint.
But Armour Group, the property manager of the historic Hollis Street building, said it honoured its obligation to pay for cleaning services until the end of the month.
The company said it issued a Property Protection Act notice — essentially banning the janitors from the building — out of concerns the media attention could compromise "the maintenance of a safe and respectful workplace for all, including our tenants."
Armour Group added that it terminated its contract with the cleaning contractor over poor cleaning services.
"We were disappointed by our experience with GDI and our supplier relationship," the Armour Group said in an emailed statement Thursday.
"Based on their performance and their responsiveness, and our tenant feedback, we ended the contract," the company said. "We would have anticipated they would take better care of their employees."
Robert Wright, a social worker and sociologist based in Founders Square, questioned the practice of contracting out building services.
"I have good feelings towards the Armour Group as a company, but it's the practice of subcontracting and then turning a blind eye to whatever happens in your building and to the people that work here that I object to," he said. "I think it's important for people who work in buildings like this to not take for granted the people who service them on a daily basis in some of the most humble roles."
Wright said tenants — including the province of Nova Scotia, a major tenant in the building just steps from the provincial legislature — should not allow themselves to be "passive bystanders when these kinds of injustices happen ... because if we do then we're complicit in the injustice."