Labor

Between a rock and a soft bonus

Linda McQuaig November 24 1980
Labor

Between a rock and a soft bonus

Linda McQuaig November 24 1980

Between a rock and a soft bonus

Labor

For Kevin Wright, death was swift but grisly. Four hundred metres underground, the 24-year-old miner stood in a dark, damp mine shaft manoeuvring a jackhammer over his head. Suddenly the ground above him gave way. A sharp, 70 kg rock landed on his face and chest, cutting him severely. Wright’s death earlier this month came as a shock to his 200 fellow miners at the remote northern Manitoba outpost of Leaf Rapids. And it left union officials in nearby Thompson, Man., even more suspicious of something they’ve long been wary about: the bonus system.

Under the bonus system, which operates in nearly all Canadian hard-rock mines, miners are paid a basic wage plus a bonus if they produce above a specified amount. While companies defend the system as a safe way of motivating miners to work hard, a growing number of union officials are charging that, in the hurry to add to their production tallies, miners end up cutting safety corners, sometimes with tragic results. In Wright’s case, RCMP investigators found that there were no rock bolts—which miners are supposed to install to prop up the ceiling— within 60 metres of the accident site. Union officials say this is unsafe and suspect that Wright and the others in his crew may have been ignoring safety procedures in order to speed up production. “It’s human nature,” says Fred McGee, vice-president of the United Steelworkers in Thompson. “You wave a carrot in a guy’s face and he’s going to chase it.” Unions traditionally have shied away from criticizing the bonus system since most miners like the fact that it allows them to increase their incomes, often to more than $20,000 a year. “It’s next to wife and kids,” confides one union secretary. Yet despite the continuing popularity of the system, unions have been more willing recently to question its merits. “It’s not worth jeopardizing life and limb for,” says Ray Holland, president of the United Mine Workers in Glace Bay, N.S. In Ontario, where mining fatalities jumped from eight to 22 in the past two years, union officials have been surprisingly critical of the bonus system in presentations to the current federal-provincial inquiry into mining safety, which will move from Northern Ontario to Toronto by the end of the month. They argue that under the complex rate system miners essentially are rewarded for the amount of ore they produce, with little reward for performing vital safety functions—like scaling the walls to make sure no loose rock is about to fall. Bruce Campbell, spokesman for the industry-sponsored Mines Accident Prevention Association of Ontario, says the time needed to carry out safety measures is taken into consideration when the rate is set. He also points out that some companies provide small additional incentives for working safely—such as giving an engraved pen to a miner who has completed more than 100 shifts without an accident. But engraved pens pale in comparison with the big sums to be made in bonus payments. “Without shortcuts, some guys would have their incomes cut by $10,000 a year,” says George Smith, a bonus miner who has worked at Sudbury’s Inco mine for 30 years.

While the bonus system can mean bonanza earnings for miners, it also gives the company considerable control over the pay packets its employees take home. Unlike wages, which usually are hammered out in tough labor-management bargaining, bonus rates are set exclusively by the company and can be changed unilaterally. Inco worker Mark Ardiel says the gains many Inco workers made in wage increases after last year’s bitter strike were whittled away when the company reduced certain bonus rates, a charge Inco denies. “We have to work harder now to make the same bonus,” Ardiel maintains.

The most compelling case against the bonus system may be the example of Texasgulf’s mine in Timmins. It’s the only Ontario mine that doesn’t use the bonus system, yet it boasts the best safety record in the province. Miners at Texasgulf take home roughly the same pay as bonus miners elsewhere—except for the really top bonus miners. And Texasgulf officials say they have had no trouble keeping their work force highly motivated. Comments AssistantGeneral Manager Mike Amsden: “That really hasn’t been a problem for us.”

Linda McQuaig