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‘Their Workspace Is Safe and Clean Because We Do All the Physical Labour’

Contract workers at SFU face low pay and few benefits and experience discrimination, according to a report.

Tim Ford 2 Feb

Tim Ford is a mixed-race freelance writer and author based in Victoria. He has been published in the National Observer, CBC News and the Toronto Star.

“They are finding ways to cut costs and save money to make profits.”

“We deserve the same rights and privileges and respect as everyone else.”

“This is our safety, why aren’t you taking it seriously?”

Those are the words of some contract workers who serve food and provide custodial services at Simon Fraser University. They’re collected in a report by Contract Worker Justice @ SFU, a campaign launched in March by some Simon Fraser University faculty, staff and students.

The campaign was launched to push the university to stop contracting out the services and employ the workers directly while providing them with higher pay and better benefits.

But in the process of interviewing contract workers, the campaign heard further allegations about poor working conditions and health and safety concerns.

The report, based on interviews with eight cleaning and 13 food service contract workers at the university, details experiences such as racial and gender-based discrimination, denial of basic tools and supplies needed to complete work, and workplace safety issues.

At SFU, food services are contracted out to Chartwells, a subsidiary of the British-based food service company Compass Group, and cleaning services are contracted out to Canadian company BEST Service Pros. Cleaners are represented by CUPE Local 3338 Unit 4.

These contract workers, according to data from an earlier report by the campaign, are paid less than employees hired at other post-secondary institutions like the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria and get fewer benefits.

The disparities include far fewer paid sick days, no access to extended health benefits and a lack of reduced parking rates.

“What the workers reported to us is worse than what we thought we would have found,” said Jade Ho, a PhD candidate in education at SFU who interviewed contract workers at the university for the report.

As of December, about 159 food service workers and 155 cleaning staff were employed at SFU through contracts with Compass-Chartwells and BEST, Ho said.

Though the campaign’s interviewee group was small, some of the 21 workers made similar allegations, including that they’d been given inadequate cleaning supplies to properly follow COVID-19 safety protocols. According to the report, cleaners were told on occasion to use vinegar and rags instead of proper cleaners.

Other allegations paint a portrait of a toxic work environment where managers disbelieved staff requests for leave based on illness. The report says multiple interviewees were told by their managers that sick leave requests weren’t allowed for Mondays and Fridays.

Some workers reported they faced intimidation or harassment for attempting to report possible workplace violations to WorkSafeBC.

Many of the workers interviewed for the report also spoke about how they have been the victims of racial- and gender-based prejudice, including from managers.

Workers said their treatment doesn’t reflect the fact they’ve been told by the university that their labour is a vital component of COVID safety.

“People in the university — students or faculty — can sit at their computers and work only because we do the dirty work and clean up things,” one worker said in the report. “Their workspace is safe and clean because we do all the physical labour in cleaning up.”

In response to a list of questions from The Tyee, SFU provided a statement saying that while the university had not yet validated the accuracy of the report, it was concerned about the experiences described.

“SFU has brought this report to the attention of our partners, BEST and Compass-Chartwell, and we will be discussing this further with them,” the statement said.

“We appreciate and understand the desire to improve working conditions for workers in the SFU community. Whether those employees are in-house or contracted, SFU is committed to ensure all workers are treated fairly.”

In response to questions from The Tyee, Ken Monteith, the regional vice-president for Chartwells Higher Education, wrote that the company prioritized the health, safety and well-being of its employees. “Our workplace is governed by a collective agreement and employment legislation in the province of British Columbia, and we take this commitment seriously,” Monteith said in an emailed statement.

The statement also said that while the company believed it was in a “competitive range” for compensation, it was doing a review of its compensation plans and working with SFU to address the concerns raised by the report.

BEST Service Pros cleaners did not respond to questions from The Tyee by press time.

Enda Brophy, an SFU associate professor in communications, said the workers’ complaints reflect the nature of contract labour.

“The labour conditions that have been created by contracting out on campus are entirely unacceptable for a public institution,” Brophy said. “And they are especially unacceptable for a public institution which has chosen, honourably, to put ‘Equity, Diversity and Inclusion’ at the centre of its mandate.”

Brophy believes the issue is more pervasive in academic institutions than the public may be aware.

“It’s a fairly clear trend that employment at post-secondary education, really across the developed world, has become more precarious,” he said.

By contracting out the work, universities “have essentially absolved themselves of any responsibility for the quality of that work or the degree to which it is remunerated,” he added. “The university gets to pay less than it would have paid and frees up badly needed money in its budget, in order to make up for what has, over the years, been declining public support for post-secondary education.”

Earlier research by Contract Worker Justice @ SFU revealed wage gaps between SFU and comparable institutions like UBC and UVic that don’t rely on contractors for food and cleaning services.

According to the campaign, workers at UBC performing similar duties make between $17.26 to $25.85 per hour, compared to cleaners at SFU making $15.67 to $17.93 per hour and food service workers making $14.93 to $20.32 per hour.

Other provincial institutions were not researched by the campaign, but representatives with the Canadian Union of Public Employees have stated their support for ending contracting-out of work at universities.

In September, CUPE Local 3338 issued a statement calling for SFU to bring contract services in-house and hire food and cleaning staff directly.

“They’re part of the campus community,” CUPE BC president Karen Ranalletta said. “And every part of the campus community contributes to students’ success. There has to be a way for universities and colleges to bring this work in house.”

According to statistics provided by CUPE, roughly 64 per cent of the province’s universities and 46 per cent of its colleges contract out some or all of their food services. That includes institutions like Thompson Rivers University and Royal Roads University.

Nearly 73 per cent of B.C.’s universities contract out some or all of their custodial services, as do about 21 per cent of B.C.’s colleges. Among those are places like Vancouver Island University.

In response to the campaign, SFU hired consulting firm Deloitte in September to analyze in-house staffing vs. contracted options for food and cleaning services.

A report was to be presented to the university in the fall, with a recommendation for action presented to the Board of Governors this spring.

“We wish to remain a leader with respect to progressive working conditions,” SFU president Joy Johnson said in a statement in September.

“Although we understand the desire to review contract service arrangements, replacing services or changing a service model must be considered with care and attention, and must also balance concern for tuition increases and the university’s multi-year recovery from the pandemic.”

SFU told The Tyee that Deloitte’s consultation work is almost done, and the university’s executive team has received an overview. They expect to issue a recommendation after reviewing the work over the next few months.

Contract Worker Justice @ SFU delivered their report findings at a regular online meeting of the Board of Governors last week. Brophy presented the report along with CUPE Local 3338 president Fiona Brady Lenfesty and dining services cook Jeremy Ebdon. Brophy says he was pleased by the response.

“We’re happy that the board wanted to find out more about the conditions of contract service workers on campus. We were especially encouraged by what felt like a lot of strong support from board members for our position.”

Along with the report, the campaign also presented their demands for action, which include bringing all food service and cleaning staff into direct employment as soon as possible while ensuring that no workers lose their jobs, and recognizing and working with union and campaign representatives.

During a question-and-answer period following the five-minute presentation, board member Tamara Vrooman described the situation as an “unacceptably invisible part of our SFU community.”

Board member Anke Kessler said the university’s equity, diversity and inclusion commitments mandated it to improve contract worker conditions.

Martin Pochurko, SFU’s vice-president of finance and administration, presented on behalf of university management and said both cleaning and food services have always been contracted out.

He also said the campaign’s presentation was “one perspective” and suggested that BEST and Chartwells, who had representatives attending the meeting online but did not present, would have “different views on some of the topics discussed.”

Pochurko said the university’s executive team had looked at the contracts and, in his preliminary opinion, the Chartwells contract offers a living wage and benefits that are, in percentage terms, equivalent to SFU benefits.

The BEST contract, according to Pochurko, is not a living wage and is lower than other contracts offered on campus. He added that BEST had “taken this to heart” and was in discussion with CUPE about increasing the wage structure.

Pochurko said the university had hired Deloitte to “gather facts and perspectives from stakeholders.” Their data, he said, will be used to formulate a recommendation from management.

Brophy says the Contract Worker Justice @ SFU campaign plans to continue pushing for equity for contract workers and is glad the board was receptive to their ideas.

“We will take every opportunity to make our case, because we think it’s not only an excellent case, it’s actually incontrovertible,” Brophy said.

“We simply know that we’re right.”  [Tyee]

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