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Why the Person Serving You at YVR May Soon Be Jobless

‘There’s no job security at the airport’ due to contract flipping, says union.

Andrew MacLeod 11 Mar

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on Twitter or reach him at

Jatinder knows what a coming change in food service contractors at the Vancouver airport will mean for her. “I’m going to lose my job,” she said. “Just all of a sudden it’s all finished.”

A prep cook at White Spot, she’s worked in food services at the airport for nearly 15 years. On what she earns she supports her two teenaged children as well as her husband. She asked that her last name be withheld to protect her family’s privacy.

“It’s really hard to survive,” she said.

Jatinder’s employer is HMSHost, a company based in Maryland that operates food services under various brands in 100 airports around the world and on a similar number of highways throughout North America.

She and other workers recently learned HMSHost lost a contract at Vancouver International Airport under which it operates a Brioche Dorée and a Burger King as well as the White Spot. Unite Here Local 40, the union which represents the workers, expects 90 people will lose their jobs.

“It’s a really, really tough time for us,” Jatinder said. “We don’t care which company is going to take over. Our focus is we just want to stay here. We love our job. We’d love to stay here.”

Fipe Wong, a 23-year employee of HMSHost who has been on leave the last couple years to work for Unite Here, said contract flipping and job losses have been frequent at the airport.

“There’s no such thing as job security in the airport,” she said. “Something’s got to change in the airport. People are suffering.”

Out of work at 63 years old

The contract flip at the airport and expected job losses come as the British Columbia government considers recommended changes to the Labour Relations Code that could see workers like Jatinder better protected.

It’s an issue for thousands of workers not just at airports, but at colleges, universities and corporations where outside contractors provide food services. And while Premier John Horgan’s NDP government recently moved to better protect similar workers in the health-care sector, they haven’t decided whether to do the same for workers at the airport and others.

Any change can’t come soon enough for Leone Simpson, a cashier at Brioche Dorée who has worked at the airport for 12 years.

“I just want things fixed here. I want my home away from home to stay my home away from home, if you know what I mean,” she said.

“I like what I’m doing, I like where I’m at, I like the people I work with, I like the people I meet,” she said. “I might serve 300 people a day, and I send 90 per cent of them away with a smile and some good food. I love working here. I don’t want to lose it.”

Simpson is 63 years old and had expected to retire in 18 months, but instead is worried about finding a new place to work. “At my age I’m out of a job and I don’t know what to do,” she said. “We’re in deep doo-doo here. We’re all freaked out. I am. It just seems wrong, somehow.”

She lives with her 21-year-old son, the youngest of her seven children and the only one still at home. He had an accident last year at a motorcycle shop where he was working and fractured his back. He needs shoulder surgery and Simpson expects to help him as he recovers.

Simpson herself has been unwell and is taking medications for diabetes and high-blood pressure. “I need my medical, my medical insurance,” she said. “I’m lost. I’m totally lost. I thought I’d be here until I could retire, but it seems not.”

Workers have helped make the airport the best in North America, she said, but the airport authority seems intent on breaking the union. “We take pride in what we do. We work our butts off. We have good customer relations. This is not what YVR seems to care about at all. All they seem to care about is the bottom line.”

That the airport is private shouldn’t matter, she said. “It should still be part of the community and making sure their community of people who’ve worked here for so many years and given their heart and soul into it, should be able to continue living and working here. We work hard for YVR.”

Enhancing experiences

From the Vancouver Airport Authority’s point of view, management is doing what it needs to do to “enhance the experience” of the 25.9 million passengers who pass through the airport each year.

Michele Mawhinney, the authority’s vice president of people and sustainability, said in an emailed statement that the authority is making significant changes so that it can provide new retail, food and beverage options.

Vancouver’s airport, which serves over 25 million passengers annually and is repeatedly named North America’s best, will soon announce ‘a fair wage policy’ says a spokesperson. Unite Here Local 40 wants measures to ensure workers keep jobs when YVR changes its ‘revolving door of contractors’ doing ‘same work.’ Photo: Eviatar Bach, Creative Commons licensed.

Contracts run for fixed periods of time to provide stability for suppliers, workers and the airport authority, she said. “Our food and beverage contracts are generally awarded on terms of eight years or more, and in fact many of our existing food and beverage contracts have been in place for more than 10 years.”

The authority values the experience of the existing staff and their role in helping the airport get recognized as the best in North America for nine years in a row, Mawhinney said.

“Because of this, we have committed to ensuring all affected workers are guaranteed job interviews with our new service providers,” she said. “In addition, YVR has committed to announcing a fair wage policy by this year’s Annual Public Meeting in May that will continue to help ensure YVR remains competitive and a great place to work.”

Jatinder said it may be possible to get on with whichever company wins the contract, but that will likely mean losing any pay increases or benefits workers may have gained in their time with HMSHost. “We have to reapply. We have to apply from the starting, maybe minimum wage from the bottom. No contract, no seniority, nothing.”

She and her current co-workers would be treated like new hires and would likely lack union representation, she said. She’s worked non-union jobs before and knows people in non-unionized positions at the airport who never get breaks. “People work like slaves. They are slaves. Everybody needs breaks.”

Eroded wages

A spokesperson for Unite Here Local 40, Michelle Travis, said that wages and job security have been eroded over the last few decades for food service workers at the airport. “Because of the contract flipping it does make it very hard to raise the standard there. You get a lot of minimum wage jobs there.”

An airport like YVR might have 10 contractors that among them operate all the facilities, she said. In many cases the contracts are held by a small number of large multinational companies.*

“The Vancouver Airport Authority has kind of a revolving door of contractors,” said Travis. “They’ll flip them out every eight to 10 years to replace them with the same work. The furniture may change, the name may change, but it’s the same work.”

About 40 per cent of the people affected have been at the airport more than 10 years and many of them have been there close to 20, she said.

“For most of them it’s their full-time job,” she said. “It’s mostly women, mostly older women who are affected. Most of them or many of them have immigrated to Canada from the Philippines, or India or other parts of the world.”

They are fully qualified to work at whatever new outlet is coming in, but instead find themselves put out of their jobs. “It’s incredibly disruptive and creates instability, makes the work precarious and it doesn’t need to be,” she said.

“For years we’ve been going to the airport saying, ‘Look, Vancouver Airport Authority, you call the shots here. You can control who comes in,’” she said, noting the union has offered repeatedly to work on a process where workers could retain their jobs when contractors change.

It would seem to be in the authority’s interest to keep the existing workers given that the industry is facing labour shortages and it’s not easy to find people willing to travel to the airport, but the authority hasn’t seen it that way, she said.

“Because they seem to have a deaf ear to that we think it’s critical that the province weighs in and ensures those workers are protected, because they never can get a leg up.”

Government indecision

Premier Horgan said his government is considering the issue. Last year the government appointed a three-person panel to review the labour code and make recommendations.

“They brought their report back,” Horgan said. “It’s in the hands of the minister of labour and we’ll be bringing forth legislation to address the recommendations that are in that report and I believe the successorship issues will be touched on there.”

But Unite Here’s Travis said she’s concerned the panel’s recommendations on successor rights didn’t include all the sectors that should have been included.

The panel recommended extending protections to cleaning services, security services and transportation services, but failed to add food services, she said. “To not include contracted food services in that group we think is an oversight, and we want to make sure that if there is any extension of successorship protections, that contracted food service workers be included in that.”

The union has made its case to the government and feels heard, but isn’t sure what the government will do, she said. “If the government tables legislation to extend successorship protections to contracted workers, we want to make sure contract food service workers are included in that, because they experience the same thing that health-care workers have experienced for the last 16 years.”

851px version of DeniseYuile.jpg
YVR White Spot worker Denise Yuile says even though thousands pass through the airport daily, she’s forged bonds with customers, including a young girl often on her way to cancer treatment. ‘You just get to know these people.’ Photo: Christopher Cheung for The Tyee.

In November the province repealed BC Liberal-era laws that made it easier for work in the health-care sector to be contracted out and that removed provisions protecting workers who were laid off.

Labour Minister Harry Bains said updates to the labour code are long overdue and are on their way. “The workplaces have changed, and the labour laws haven’t kept up with the changes in the workplaces,” he said. “Work that we see today in the new economy is very different than what was in the early ‘90s or even 16 years ago.”

The panel reviewing the labour code consulted widely and had input from unions, workers, employers, academics and businesses before making its recommendations, he said. “We put those recommendations, that was last August, out for consultation again and we received more presentations from different groups, different stakeholders. All of those are under consideration.”

The government has heard from Unite Here and others since the panel made its recommendations, Bains said. “We’ll make a final decision in due course,” he said. “We’re considering input from all stakeholders, workers, employers and the recommendations that came through our consultative process, so we haven’t finalized our position yet.”

Airport has a ‘vibe’

Denise Yuile is a server at White Spot who has worked for HMSHost for 17 years. “There’ll be layoffs with this one for sure,” she said. “It’s extremely unsettling, I know for co-workers as well. It’s just so stressful.”

The airport has been a great place to work, she said. “It’s just sad to think maybe we won’t be able to continue here,” she said. “I love working at the airport, and a lot of my co-workers, we’re actually long-term employees a lot of us.”

Yuile said she’d been thinking about what exactly it is that makes the airport a special place to work. “It’s really the people, the customers and the people who come through. I think it’s a little bit more unique, working at an airport, because you’re meeting people from all over.”

There are also regulars, including people who come to the city regularly for medical appointments. She mentioned a young girl who came through every six weeks for cancer treatment. “You just get to know these people. That’s really probably the best part of it.”

Often there are people who are excited to be on their way somewhere, Yuile said. “It’s a vibe you can’t really explain, an energy.”

She’s 51 years old and raised two children while working at the airport, now young adults who she still helps support. “It’s just so expensive here. That’s already stressful enough, trying to pay your rent and do everything else, and now on top of it it’s the worry of what’s going to happen now.”

Any and all of HMSHost, Vancouver International Airport and the government should take responsibility and better look out for the interests of workers like her, Yuile said.

Many people don’t understand what it’s like to lose your job because of a change in contractors, she said.

“I’ve been here so long, 17 years, and I love my job,” she said. “It’s just crazy to think I’m going to be jobless, and not because I’m not good at my job, not for any other reason except for the contract flipping.”

*Story clarified Monday, March 11 at 11:25 a.m.  [Tyee]

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