New report raises questions about conditions for university contract workers

An SFU social justice organization says workers face challenges worsened by the pandemic

For the next 10 years, Chartwells will provide the cafeteria services at all KPU campuses. (Keet Kailey)

For the next 10 years, Chartwells will provide the cafeteria services at all KPU campuses. (Keet Kailey)

When Canada went under lockdown in response to the pandemic two years ago, a large number of cleaners and food service workers were laid off, leaving many remaining workers overworked and understaffed. Workers reported having to skip breaks in order to keep up with additional cleaning duties mandated by health and safety plans, and said they worried about their own wellbeing. 

Although these working conditions already existed, the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the inequalities that contract workers face within universities.  

Contract Worker Justice (CWJ), a group of students, instructors, and staff at SFU, released a report in January which found that contract workers like cleaners and food service staff have drastically lower pay and benefits than workers in the same professions at other universities.

The 11-page report discusses the additional conditions SFU contract workers face due to COVID-19, such as being understaffed, working in situations where it was impossible to follow social distancing protocols, and having inconsistent and limited working hours. The report also explains that workers have fewer paid sick days than other SFU members, cannot use the university’s services like the library, Wi-Fi and daycare, and overall don’t feel like a part of the university community. 

Before Enda Brophy began working on the report with the Contract Worker Justice at Simon Fraser University last year, he had always been interested in and an advocate for the fair conditions of workers in all environments, including contract workers. 

Brophy, an SFU associate professor in communications, says the report was broken into two parts where CWJ compared collective agreements to other universities like the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria, that hire workers instead of using a third-party company. 

“Once we compared those collective agreements, it was very clear the SFU contracted workers were doing very badly relative to in-house workers at UVic and UBC,” Brophy says. “Then [we] launched a second phase of the research project, which has involved doing interviews with workers.” 

The CWJ interviewed 21 workers, with eight being cleaners contracted through BEST Service Pros, and 13 working in food services through Chartwells at the university. 

“We found that workers were living in a kind of regime of fear where they were afraid of speaking out … [and] which workers are supposed to remain silent, and they’re also supposed to be separate from the rest of the university,” Brophy says. 

SFU cleaner contract workers are part of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3338 union and the school’s food service workers work through Chartwells and are part of the Unite Here Local 40 union.

However, it is a bit different for Kwantlen Polytechnic University contract workers. 

Cleaning services at KPU are provided by Cushman & Wakefield, food services through Chartwells, and Paladin provides security services at the campuses.

According to the BC Bargaining Database, C&W, Chartwells, and Paladin are not part of a union with the university. This means workers’ wages, sick days, and benefits can vary or be more challenging to meet specific criteria. 

On Indeed, job advertisements indicate that food service workers make roughly between $16 to $18 an hour and security guards between $17 to $22 an hour, depending on the site or location. 

With the living wage in Metro Vancouver being $20.52 and the provincial minimum wage being $15.20, it poses challenges for workers trying to get ahead. 

Cleaners and food service workers employed by UBC and UVic receive wages that range from $17.26 to $25.85 an hour, receive 15 paid sick days per year, and have access to a dental and extended health plan, according to CWJ.

After KPU criminology instructor Michael Ma found out about the report, he became interested in looking into the conditions of contract workers at KPU. 

“I do see myself as part of a much larger organization, and without cleaners, food service workers, people working at the bookstore, [and] people working in facilities, I couldn’t do my work. I do see myself as part of a family or a team of people,” he says. 

Ma is the project team leader in harm reduction for the Social Justice Centre, a KPU instructor-led initiative that focuses on community advocacy and civic change like environmental advocacy, harm reduction, and anti-poverty. 

“Even though I’m not in the union with Chartwell workers or with the facilities and cleaning workers, I still feel solidarity with them because we are in the same space.” 

Although Ma is in the same space as cleaners, he says some instructors and students don’t usually see or interact with the workers. 

“That’s one of the sadnesses of the way we work because, in a way, they’re supposed to ‘get out of our way,’ so they don’t interrupt your work, and in that sense, it does fragment us, it doesn’t build that solidarity,” he says.

“We live in a society that devalues certain types of work, which is labelled as a ‘low skill,'” Ma says. “It’s greatly devalued because not everyone can do that.” 

During Ma’s time at KPU, he says he always tries to chat with the cleaners and food service staff. He has now built connections with some of them and talks about politics or their children. 

“If we were working alongside with them, then there would be that kind of solidarity, care, and interest in each other’s welfare. During the pandemic, it’s been shown how we have been blind to the importance of so many ‘low-skilled’ workers, and yet it turns out they’re incredibly valued.” 

For Ma, it’s important for him and others in the KPU community to get to know the people working on campus to connect and build the campus environment. 

“It’s important for us to develop a sense of responsibility for the other people that we live and work with, and that it shouldn’t always just be about your own wages, benefits, and your own well-being.” 

In the future, Ma hopes the conversation about food service workers and cleaners will change as they are essential for places like universities to function. 

For contract workers who are or aren’t part of a union, Kari Michaels, one of the executive vice presidents at the B.C. General Employees’ Union (BCGEU), says there are many campaigns and initiatives that aim to help workers.

In 2010, Michaels was one of the students who formed the union for the Kwantlen Student Association and has been with the BCGEU for many years.

The BCGEU is a member of the BC Employment Standards Coalition, and is one of the organizations that seek to improve employment standards and hold employers accountable. She says many of the workers who aren’t unionized need to rely on employment standards as a baseline to know their rights at work. 

“I think that where those workers aren’t unionized, making sure that they have the minimum standards that are livable and allow them to actually have things like vacation days, sick time, adequate leave, those kinds of things are really important.” 

Other campaigns the union has been involved in are Justice for Janitors, Living Wage for Families, and Together Against Poverty Society. In addition to joining campaigns, the organization also organizes workers within their own union and collective agreements. 

Last month, student residence advisors at the UBC Okanagan campus launched a unionization campaign with the BCGEU. If successful, the residence advisors “will join food service workers, library employees, teaching and research assistants, administrative staff” and other workers at the campus, according to KelownaNow

Although she wasn’t surprised by the information she found, when Michaels read the CWJ report she says the most vital takeaway is the importance of talking and listening to workers and building those relationships. 

“This report wouldn’t have been what it is without the effort made to actually build trust and relationships with the workers in this university,” Michaels says. “There’s a really important message here around [not taking] things at face value, and more needs to be done to ensure accountability and these things are being followed.”

She adds that the report highlighted that contract workers are disproportionately people of colour and women, and it’s important for people to realize what kind of risk workers are taking to share their concerns, and to support those workers. 

“These workers … potentially have immigrated to work here and they have their families that they’re responsible for and their livelihoods,” Michaels says. 

“Putting that at risk shouldn’t be underestimated. I think this is the piece where workers do collectively come together and speak out about the conditions that they’re in and fight for better. There’s an inherent risk in that, and it’s not something done lightly.” 

Michaels adds that she hopes to see more outreach and interest in the conditions of contract workers within universities. 

By bringing awareness to the conditions that contract workers face, she says that universities that continue to use contract services should be applying high standards like requiring unionized workers or living wages, and implementing a system of accountability to ensure tasks are being done properly in the workplace. 

In order to create significant changes for contract workers within universities, Brophy says the most important thing is to have workers employed “in-house.” 

“Even just bringing their wages up is inadequate. We need to take responsibility for these workers,” Brophy says.

“It’s not only an idea which we bring in for faculty and staff. We need to bring it in for our low-wage workers, and if we care about equity, diversity, and inclusion, then we need to begin with our lowest grade workers.”