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How International Students in a Janitors’ Union Won Their Fight

‘Most of the students here, they don't get work easily, so it's hard to fight for our rights and to raise our voice at work.’

Brishti Basu 26 Mar 2024The Tyee

Brishti Basu reports on labour for The Tyee. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative. Follow her on X @brish_ti.

When Ravi Kumar became the team lead of around 25 housekeeping staff at McArthurGlen Designer Outlet in Richmond last year, he expected a raise in keeping with the added responsibilities.

“When I asked my supervisor for the increase in my pay when I became the team lead, he just said it's not that big [a] company or systemized [that] you should be given an extra 50 cents [an hour],” said Kumar, who is also an international student from India.

The company in question is Ontario-based Dexterra Group, which contracts janitors, construction workers, housekeepers and customer service workers to businesses, airports and the Government of Canada.

In 2023, the company reported $1.1 billion in revenue, out of which at least $700,000 was made up of federal government contracts.

On Saturday, Kumar was among janitors at five Vancouver buildings who voted in favour of a new collective agreement with Dexterra Group, after the employer came back to the bargaining table with a contract offer to evade a strike vote.

“It's been like a three-month fight with the Dexterra company,” Kumar said, describing a difficult bargaining process. Since November, he’s been part of the bargaining committee and is a union shop steward with Service Employees International Union Local 2.

The new agreement promises workers a six per cent raise each year for the next two years, paid lunch breaks, and a promise to hire back any workers who get laid off when work becomes available, among other things, Kumar said. The contract also promises Kumar his raise, he said.

An increasing reliance on international students

A spokesperson for SEIU Local 2 told The Tyee in an email that this new contract was negotiated by janitors at five Vancouver buildings that hire Dexterra workers, including the CRA building, Harbour Centre and Abbotsford Airport.

According to the statement, companies that employ SEIU members, like cleaners, security and maintenance workers — have “increasingly been relying on international students to staff their accounts.”

Kumar says about 40 per cent of cleaning staff at McArthurGlen are international students.

Ria, who has worked as a security guard at the Lougheed Town Centre in Burnaby for over a year, said she and most of her colleagues are either international students or recent graduates with work permits. She requested that The Tyee use a pseudonym to protect her privacy.

Security staff at the Burnaby mall hired by Guardteck Security bargained their first collective agreement last summer. According to Ria and a statement from SEIU Local 2, the workers won a 16 per cent raise to an hourly rate of $19.75, wage increases for working graveyard shifts, a pay bump after working for two years as a security guard, paid leaves and other benefits.

“I came to know about the union after a month or two [of working there] when there was voting for the union,” said Ria. She said she signed up after hearing about the pay increases and dental coverage being negotiated by the union.

For both Kumar and Ria, the biggest draw to joining the union is the prospect of increased job security and the union’s advocacy for rights on the workers’ behalf.

“Most of the students here, they don't get work easily, so it's hard to fight for our rights and to raise our voice at work,” Kumar said.

“The most important thing is fear of losing work. If you do a single mistake, sometimes the manager or the supervisor scold you or even threaten [that] you’ll lose your work.”

The Dexterra Group has not responded to The Tyee’s request for comment in time for publication.

‘A lot of very young people who can’t afford to be here’

Jenny Francis, a geography instructor at Langara College, has been studying the education, employment and immigration outcomes of international students in B.C.

Recent unionization drives like the one involving Kumar and Ria are a positive step. Those driving the organizing efforts, she said, are “obviously super achieving students.”

“There’s a lot of very young people here who really can’t afford to be here and don’t have a lot of support, especially when it comes to the labour market because they’re temporary residents,” Francis told The Tyee, referring to international students.

Preliminary excerpts of Francis’s research, published by New Canadian Media and the Globe and Mail, found that the vast majority of international students struggle to find work in their chosen fields after graduation.

In an interview with The Tyee, Francis identified four factors that pose an added challenge for international students when it comes to speaking up for their rights in the workplace.

Temporary residency status can inform “that fear that you can be sent back.” English-language barriers can make it difficult for international students to speak out and to understand labour law. Being young and far away from family members can isolate them from crucial networks of support. Meanwhile closer to their homes in Canada, Francis notes there is a lack of employment support services through major institutions like their school or Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

“International students… don't qualify for most employment services out in the community because a lot of those that are for immigrants are funded by IRCC, and they fund programs for permanent residents, not for temporary residents,” Francis said.

“It's really hard for them to learn about the labour market or what kind of employment opportunities there are and most colleges aren't focused on that.”

Personal service industries, like security and hospitality, she said, are increasingly staffed by international students desperate to make a living and support their education in Canada.

Depending on workers with the fewest options

According to the SEIU Local 2 statement, maintenance and security staff are hired through a competitive bidding process: companies that hire them bid on contracts posted by public and private companies.

“These contractors are entirely dependent on workers that have the least options in the labour market,” reads the statement from the union. “Almost entirely newcomers to Canada, mostly women, with limited language or recognized educational accreditation, often working multiple jobs to stay afloat.”

Francis said she has heard of students having to trade sex for work and for a place to stay, and said they’re often asked to work overtime without pay.

While Ria and Kumar did not experience anything as extreme as what Francis just described, they said being part of a union has helped them and their colleagues advocate for themselves. Importantly, it’s helped them understand that they have a right to set work-related boundaries with their employers as part of measures to protect their mental and physical health.

“In the past when there was no union… they always took you for granted,” Ria said. “But now after unionizing, all the managers and all the upper management authorities, they know that you have the right to say no.”  [Tyee]

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