The Human Cost of BC Hydro’s Smart Meters

Mike Carter, Chetwynd Echo
 
CHETWYND – As Smart Meter installations continue to face resistance in the Peace Region and across the province, the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union (COPE) 378 is speaking up about the human costs of the $1 billion program, legislated by the Liberal government under the Clean Energy Act.
 
Approximately 400 meter-readers represented by the union, including one in Chetwynd and four in Dawson Creek, have recently received lay-off notices as a direct result of the smart meter installations. If successful in finding related jobs, these workers may have to make significant moves with their families, according to COPE 378 Vice President Gwenne Farrell.
 
“The problem we have to start is this [smart meter program] has not been under the scrutiny of the British Columbia Utilities Commission. As a matter of fact, the liberals specifically removed that scrutiny,” Farrell said.
 
“They should be the ones looking at whether this spend was even necessary.”
 
On April 1, 2003 Accenture took over responsibility for 1600 employees involved in “back office” functions such as meter reading, billing and customer service. 
 
Because of this privatization deal, BC Hydro is refusing to comment on the lay-offs saying that it would not be appropriate  to speak about the employees of another corporation. “We disagree,” said Farrell, “we say that BC Hydro caused this.”
 
“For years [we’ve] exchanged several times with the Minister of Energy and we have been asking to meet to talk about how we can find a just transition for all these workers. They have refused to do that,” Farrell said. “However, Minister Coleman did an interview a while ago on CKNW stating that all of these workers were going to be re-trained and therefore were going to be able to work…that certainly hasn’t happened,” she added.
 
Bob Gammer, Manager of Community Relations for BC Hydro said that the company sympathizes for the workers who have lost their jobs. “Nobody wants to lose their job,” he said, “however, Accenture is creating new positions so not all those who are meter readers right now are going to lose their jobs.” This may not be of much help to these workers since, according to COPE, Accenture is losing many of their contracts with BC Hydro.
 
“Their workforce has significantly shrunk,” Farrell said, “the vast majority of it, as of April 1st of this year, will be simply call centres.”
 
Gammer noted that with the installation of the smart metering system, new non-meter reading related jobs within BC Hydro will be opened up, involving the maintenance and operation of the smart metering system.
 
“We’re talking about [close to] two million pieces of new grid technology and so that’s going to require new technology based jobs to maintain and operate that system. So within BC Hydro itself there will be new positions crated to run the smart metering system that would be [available] to anyone.
 
“For those displaced workers in Accenture, we are giving them the opportunity to apply for positions within BC Hydro that they are qualified for. So, there are going to be opportunities. But still, it’s an impact and there are going to be people who will not be with either BC Hydro or Accenture.”
 
The situation meter readers are put in is a far cry to the job security available to them before 2003.
 
“Prior to when a chunk of BC Hydro was basically given to Accenture in a privatization deal, meter readers used to have a hierarchy they would flow through. They would do meter reading, learn the system then they might go into collections, outside work or they had the option of going into things like drafting, [or] designing work.
 
“For BC Hydro, this meant they had a constant pool of resources to train to go up the system. Now BC Hydro doesn’t have that [and] the meter readers have nowhere to go. It’s the least efficient way they could have done this and BC Hydro had a great opportunity to assist us in finding this just transition for these meter readers that could have been very beneficial for them,” said Farrell.
 
The union also expressed other concerns about the layoffs, saying that in order for these people to find similar work in the field they would have to travel long distances.
 
“These people working in the region, not only do they have limited opportunities within Accenture, even if they were to find one it would mean a significant move for them and their families. For example, our meter reader in Chetwynd –if successful – might have the opportunity to work in somewhere like Vernon or Burnaby.”
 
Accenture did not respond to a request for comment.