National Post

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Monday, November 29, 1999

Tribunal to weigh equal access to jobs
Forest industry case
Mark Hume
National Post

VANCOUVER - British Columbia's male-dominated forest industry, where muscle power is often a job requirement, could be forced to provide equal access to women by a case before the provincial human rights tribunal.

The case stems from a complaint filed by Loreli Meldrum, a mother of three in Nanaimo, who was denied work at the Somass sawmill, where 400 men and no women are employed processing timber.

Keith Kuhn, Mrs. Meldrum's lawyer, said she failed to get a job handling raw lumber on the "green chain" because she couldn't bench press 100 pounds.

But Mr. Kuhn said the strength test she was asked to take wasn't related to the job, in which workers have to flip over sheets of raw lumber, while sorting for quality.

"There's no lifting over 35 pounds in that job," said Mr. Kuhn. "The requirement to bench press 100 pounds -- we say it was a deliberate filtering method to keep women out."

He said that during the Second World War about half the jobs at the mill were held by women. But after the war ended, "there was a pervasive attitude to cull women and introduce men."

Men have continued to dominate the industry since then, he said.

"There's no doubt women can do these jobs, if they are given the chance," said Mr. Kuhn.

He said that in pretribunal conferences, MacMillan Bloedel, which was recently bought by Weyerhaeuser, has indicated it wishes to make changes in its hiring procedure.

"I think it is inevitable," he said.

Virginia Aulin, a Weyerhaeuser representative, said the company can't discuss the matter because it is currently involved in settlement discussions.

But Mr. Kuhn said even if the company offers his client a settlement package, the human rights commission, which is a separate body, will probably take it before the human rights tribunal so the larger issue of female workers within the forest industry can be addressed.

"These are bread-and-butter jobs in small towns throughout the province," said Mr. Kuhn. "They are sought after because they are lucrative and can help you raise a family. Women, who are often the breadwinners, should have access to these jobs. It's as simple as that."

A human rights tribunal, which will hear a discrimination complaint against MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. for its hiring practices, is scheduled to begin in Nanaimo on Feb. 14.

Mr. Kuhn said that if the human rights tribunal rules his client was discriminated against because she's a woman, it will force the forest industry in general to provide equal access to jobs, for the first time since the war.

"The commission is going to be seeking sweeping changes in the industry. This case, they feel, is a microcosm of systemic discrimination against women within the forest industry.

"The changes, although potentially massive, will make for a better workplace," he said.

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