Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

An RCMP officer walks past the headquarters of SNC Lavalin in Montreal April 13, 2012.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

The engineering and construction giant SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. conducted widespread surveillance of employee e-mails during a critical period of collective bargaining negotiations in late 2021, according to the union that represents these employees.

The accusation, made by the Society of Professional Engineers and Associates (SPEA) – a 1,000-member independent trade union – is now part of two unfair labour practice complaints filed by the union with the Canadian Industrial Relations Board. Both proceedings are still under way.

Companies routinely monitor employee communications on work devices and in fact, electronic workplace surveillance has increased substantially over the past three years in tandem with the pandemic and the rise of remote work. Companies offering workplace surveillance technologies have experienced a sustained surge in demand from employers, according to a recent report from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

But what SPEA is accusing SNC of is the specific targeting of e-mail communications between employees and their union representatives – and some of these exchanges took place during the last round of collective bargaining.

“Our members use their work e-mails to communicate with us all the time. That has been common practice for years at this company. We did not think they would start spying on those communications,” said Denise Coombs, a staff representative at SPEA.

The electronic monitoring of e-mails involves employees of Candu Energy Inc., the nuclear energy company that is a subsidiary of SNC-Lavalin. SPEA represents approximately 900 Candu Energy employees, mostly scientists, engineers and technicians.

On Dec. 1, 2021, several Candu employees reported to the union that when they sent an e-mail to staff members of SPEA or to an SPEA e-mail account, they received an automatic “out of office” response from one of SNC’s labour-relations managers, Dana Duncan. This was despite the fact that Ms. Duncan’s e-mail address was not included in the original e-mail.

At the time, the union was already in bargaining negotiations for a new collective agreement for Candu Energy workers. When it raised this e-mail monitoring with SNC, the union said SNC refused to investigate the issue, and instead focused on questioning why employees used corporate e-mail accounts to communicate with the union.

On Dec. 21, 2021, SNC posted a memo to employees on its internal website noting that any kind of communication they have with the union should be done on their personal accounts and devices, and not on company time.

On the same day, according to the union, SNC sent a letter to SPEA telling them that any employee e-mails sent to SPEA using company accounts would soon be blocked. SPEA subsequently filed an unfair labour practice complaint with the industrial relations board in early 2022, accusing SNC of engaging in unlawful interference with the administration of the union.

Through the course of the board hearings, SPEA made repeated inquiries about e-mail monitoring. SNC ultimately acknowledged to the union that the monitoring had been happening since January, 2019.

“We became aware that they had also been monitoring e-mails for years and this went on during bargaining in late 2021,” Ms. Coombs said. SNC and SPEA reached a new collective agreement for Candu Energy workers in June, 2022.

In an e-mailed statement to The Globe, SNC-Lavalin spokesperson Laurence Myre Leroux said the company monitored employee e-mails between 2019 and early 2022 as part of an internal audit related to a complaint it received from an employee in the fall of 2021 about “inappropriate” e-mails sent by another employee. The audit, according to Ms. Leroux, focused on the transfer of “confidential company information.”

“Because we are bound by contractual confidentiality obligations we cannot be more specific about the information, or disclose to whom this information was sent,” the statement read. Candu Energy is particularly sensitive about the transfer of information, said Ms. Leroux, because it is in the nuclear energy business and is legally bound to safeguard information.

But the company did not respond specifically to The Globe’s questions about whether the e-mail monitoring was linked to collective-bargaining negotiations with the union. SNC also did not respond to a query about whether it was trying to specifically spy on employee exchanges with the union or why it imposed a ban on employees e-mailing their union representatives using work e-mail accounts.

Michelle Duncan, also an SPEA staff representative, said she believes that SNC was spying on these communications because it wanted intelligence that would give it an advantage in the bargaining process, and in previous grievances.

The tension between SNC-Lavalin and SPEA escalated earlier this year, when two Candu employees were placed on paid administrative leave by the company for allegedly sending classified information to a third party. The union – which has filed an unfair labour practice complaint with the board regarding the paid administrative leave – believes that SNC is deliberately punishing employees who communicated with the union before the 2021 ban.

“The employer’s longer term goal is to hamstring SPEA by starving us of information we need to represent our members and police our jurisdiction,” wrote Ms. Coombs in a note to members on Jan. 20 this year regarding the suspensions.

Two employees were placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the internal audit, Ms. Leroux confirmed.

As a general rule, labour laws prohibit employers from interfering with a union’s efforts to communicate and discuss work-related issues with its members, according to David Doorey, a professor of labour law at York University. “On its face, an employer secretly reading e-mail exchanges between a union and its members raises all sorts of legal red flags. This seems like the exact sort of thing that the law intends to prohibit,” Prof. Doorey told The Globe and Mail.

In Canada, however, privacy protections in the workplace are weak, and there really aren’t laws in place to protect workers from employer surveillance, noted Brenda McPhail, director of the privacy, technology and surveillance program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Last October, Ontario introduced legislation that forces employers to disclose to their employees how they conduct electronic surveillance of them. Still, the legislation does not make it illegal for employers to monitor their employees to begin with.

“Employers shouldn’t be engaged in ongoing surveillance unless there is a demonstrable need for it,” Ms. McPhail said.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that two Candu employees were suspended with pay. In fact, they were put on paid administrative leave.