12/05/2012 03:58 EST | Updated 02/03/2013 05:12 EST

The Changing Face Of Organized Labour In Alberta

Saveeta Prakash is a tiny, kind-eyed mother of two with a quick, generous laugh. Her soft-spoken coworker, Jaswinder Dhillon, is devoted to her daughters, aged 11 and seven.

They're the last people you'd expect to be militant union activists. If you had suggested to them a year ago that they'd be waving placards and protesting outside politicians' offices, they would have been mortified.

But there's no denying that these women represent the new face of organized labour.

"In the beginning it was very uncomfortable," said Jaswinder, who came to Canada from India in 1997. "We were not brought up to be standing on the street, screaming and yelling, but what choice do we have?"

Saveeta and Jaswinder are health-care aides at Monterey Place, a seniors' home in northeast Calgary that has been locked in a bitter labour dispute since last summer. Monterey Place's owner, Triple A Living Communities, locked out its 90 employees on June 26.

"I never thought we'd end up on a picket line," said Saveeta, her voice trailing off in disbelief. "All through negotiations, I kept thinking, 'okay, the time will come and we'll get a deal.'"

The workers have been without a contract since January, 2011. Negotiations with Triple A, a private, for-profit company that owns one other facility in Calgary, have been maddeningly slow.

"It's been delay after delay by management," said Jaswinder, who sits on the workers' bargaining committee.

Employees at Monterey place are among the lowest paid in the continuing care industry in Alberta. Most are classified as part-time so they don't qualify for health benefits. There is no retirement plan at all.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which began representing them in 2011, says there's no excuse for that. Alberta Health Services funds private operators for nursing staff wages and benefits at government rates, but Triple A is among a handful of companies that pay less and pocket the difference.

When the Monterey workers dug in their heels and demanded to be treated fairly, Triple A locked them out. Nearly five months later, they're still being kept from their jobs.

Saveeta came to Canada from Fiji in 1996. Many of her coworkers come from Central America, Africa and across Asia.

The private, for-profit seniors' care industry is booming in Alberta. With our aging population, demand for spaces keeps growing and the government offers heavy subsidies to build, operate and staff new facilities. It's a gold mine that's attracting a vast array of investors -- with varying levels of experience in seniors care, competence and ethical standards.

For many immigrants, especially women, the industry offers an opportunity to enter the workforce. Often, they start out in the kitchen or housekeeping and then advance to the nursing staff as health-care aides and licensed practical nurses.

However, this also offers some employers another opportunity to make their businesses even more profitable -- a workforce that can be exploited because of factors like weak language skills, lack of understanding of labour standards or even ignorance of fundamental Canadian rights.

For some bad actors in the industry, it's not enough to build a business model based on taxpayer handouts. They also have to pick the pockets of their own employees, hoping the workers won't know any better or be too intimidated to speak up.

That ruthless greed is why private seniors care is one of the fastest growing sectors becoming organized in the Alberta labour union movement. Turns out, this workforce of mostly kind, polite, family-oriented women is refusing to stand back and allow their bosses to take advantage of them, just like the miners and textile workers pushed back a century ago.

"Before we didn't have a backbone, but I'm proud of myself for taking this stand," said Jaswinder. With a self-assured chuckle, she added, "Now I'm not scared, not at all. Now I can stand up to anybody."

Say it, sister.