Fed calls Libs' polling outfit on labour regs

I've suffered from all of the hang-ups known, and none is as bad as the telephone.

- Richard Armour, U.S. poet

The B.C. Federation of Labour is demanding an investigation of a B.C. Liberal party telephone-room operation that may have broken Employment Standards Act regulations by denying employees vacation pay and failing to deduct taxes and employment insurance, Workers Compensation Board, or Canada Pension Plan contributions.

And the federation is asking the Employment Standards Branch how it will ensure there is no political interference from Skills Development and Labour Minister Graham Bruce in that investigation, because the employees of Total Impact Communications were phoning voters on Bruce's behalf in his riding of Cowichan-Ladysmith.

There are several developments since the Georgia Straight last week uncovered the controversial provincewide telephone "polling" operation that is costing the Liberals an amount estimated to exceed $1.5 million.

The Straight obtained inside information about the downtown-Vancouver boiler room-style phoning, which costs about $25,000 a day to reach as many as 16,000 voters daily and has been making calls five days a week since as early as December 2004.

After last week's Political Connections column, which outlined the dubious practice of classifying employees as "independent contractors" to avoid vacation pay and employee deductions, there were a number of developments at Total Impact Communications.

Sources said that employees were told last week by "angry" managers that deductions would now be made and vacation pay would be given to them because of the Straight story.

Paladin Security has been hired to patrol the phone room and company offices, and a uniformed guard is stationed at the inside door. Paladin was cited in October 2004 by the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General for violating the Private Investigators and Security Agencies Act of British Columbia by hiring unlicensed employees. The controversial company took over security at Vancouver General Hospital and other facilities when the B.C. Liberal government privatized security services.

Total Impact was apparently unnerved when members of the Telecommunications Workers Union leafleted employees coming in to work on March 17 with a flier that asked if their employer was denying them their rights to vacation pay and to employment-insurance contributions.

Lastly, a former Total Impact Communications employee told the Straight that he didn't receive vacation pay or have taxes or other employee deductions made when he worked there in November 2002, phoning on behalf of right-wing Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum, which raises the question of how long the practice has been going on.

B.C. Federation of Labour President Jim Sinclair told the Straight in an interview that he has written to the director of the Employment Standards Branch to ask for an investigation at Total Impact and how the branch will proceed at arm's length from the minister.

"We want to ensure the Employment Standards Branch is not interfered with by government because the connection is clear: this company is attached physically and politically to the B.C. Liberal party and is phoning directly into Graham Bruce's riding on his behalf," Sinclair said.

"The company that is working for the Liberals can't even follow the watered-down employment standards that the Liberal government has left for workers," he added. At press time, Sinclair had not received a response.

Total Impact phoners recently called Bruce's riding to ask what voters' most "important issues" were and if they would be supporting Bruce in the May 17 provincial election. Those who indicated they would vote Liberal were then asked if they would volunteer, take a lawn sign, or give their e-mail address to get more information.

Several people who previously worked in the Total Impact phone room have given the Straight a detailed account of how the Liberal phoning works. One disgruntled caller said that in some constituencies, half or more of those called hung up on the phoners.

"The hostility is amazing when you say, 'I'm calling on behalf of the B.C. Liberals,'" the phoner recalled. "The bitterness against local candidates is real strong when it comes out. It's not just [Premier Gordon] Campbell. The sense I get from it is betrayal."

But Campbell is the object of the most anger. "One of the comments is that they like the local candidate but, 'I can't stand that fucking Campbell.'"

Total Impact is employing an estimated 200 to 300 callers, with eight-hour shifts of about 80 people calling across the province each weekday. The company is partly owned by J.P. Shason, a Gordon Campbell friend and long-time political backer.

The company also did phoning for the B.C. Liberals in 2001 and for right-wing municipal-election candidates in 2002.

According to one former Total Impact employee, no vacation pay was given, nor were taxes or other deductions made.

"There were no deductions, that's for sure. There was nothing like that," said Kliph Nesteroff, a Vancouver resident and standup comedian who contacted the Straight after seeing last week's column.

Nesteroff says he was told he was working for an "independent polling firm" when he was hired by Total Impact in November 2002 but soon found the calls were to persuade people to vote in that fall's municipal election for Doug McCallum, a provincial Liberal who once tried to win a nomination for the party.

The phone script, Nesteroff said, was rather laughable.

"On [date of election] Doug McCallum wants your support. If elected, he promises to bring many improvements into the community, including drug-sniffing dogs in schools. Can Mr. McCallum count on your support?" were the opening lines, Nesteroff said.

"I recall feeling like I was working for the devil at the time, and now I know I was," he added. -

Bill Tieleman is president of West Star Communications and a regular political commentator on CBC Radio's Early Edition. E-mail him at weststar@telus.net.