Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Custom Officials’ Slowdowns Cause Long Airport Waits

(Vancouver Sun – Catherine Rolfsen)

Travellers going through customs at Vancouver International Airport today have faced waits of up to two hours because customs officials are deliberately slowing down lines to highlight a contract dispute, a union president said.

“The officers did tell me today [Friday] that they’re working to the full extent of their work description,” said Sue Neumann, customs excise union president responsible for Vancouver’s airport, sea ports and cruise ships. “This is obviously a reaction, this is not normal.”

The union is currently in a contract dispute with the Canada Border Services Agency, but is not in a legal strike position. Instead, individual customs can choose slow down border crossings by following every detail of their job description. Neumann said that this morning, a plane that would normally be processed in 30 to 45 minutes took 90 to 120 minutes.

But CBSA spokeswoman Tracie LeBlanc said any backups today at YVR are “not a work slowdown” but rather due to a convergence of incoming flights.

And Kate Donegani, a spokeswoman for the airport authority, said although “it’s certainly a busy Friday afternoon here,” there’s no indication the crowds are due to work slowdowns by customs officials.

She said unless the Canada Border Services Agency takes seriously the union’s concerns, “I can see this actually escalating and probably spreading out to other areas” such as cruise ships and sea ports. Vehicle border crossings could also be slowed down this weekend, another union official says.

“The union hasn’t directed anyone to take any job action, but I hear that there are several members that are taking matters into their hands and slowing things down,” Dan Leibel, who represents the customs excise union in southern B.C., said today.

Nevertheless, Leibel said border guards, in order to highlight their grievances, could work “by the book” rather than using their experience – meaning they could take a full four minutes rather than the usual 15 seconds to a minute for processing each car. And commercial vehicle inspections, which often take as little as five minutes, could be dragged on for up to eight hours, he said.

Leibel couldn’t say what is planned at specific crossings. “I’ve heard that some officers in some instances are going to let everyone through without charging them duty,” he said.