British Columbia

Contracted workers at SFU face abuse, unsafe conditions and poor pay, report claims

A new report from a coalition of students and employees at the B.C. university says contract workers are underpaid, overworked and concerned for their health and safety on the job.

Coalition of staff, students and faculty push university to directly employ cleaners, food-service workers

A coalition of concerned students, staff and faculty at Simon Fraser University say labour conditions for contract cleaners and food-service workers at the school must be improved. Photo is a stock image and does not depict a worker on an SFU campus. (Shutterstock / Small365)

Contracted cleaning and food-service workers at Simon Fraser University (SFU) are being subjected to unfair pay, unsafe practices and undignified treatment, according to a new report calling on the school to do something about it.

The report, published this week and presented to the school's board of governors on Thursday, is the work of Contract Worker Justice @SFU, a coalition of staff, students and faculty campaigning for an end to contracting out these jobs on all three of the university's campuses. 

It is based on anonymous workers' testimonials conducted since October and is supported by their respective unions.

"They just don't feel like they're a valued part of the community at all," said Jade Ho, a PhD education student and coalition member. "And when it comes down to it, we know that the root cause of it is because they are contracted out."

Cleaning work is contracted out to Best Service Pros, while Chartwells Canada, a division of Compass Group Canada, has the food services contract.

Research by the coalition shows both companies pay less than the Metro Vancouver living wage of $20.52/hour and less than similar jobs at the University of British Columbia and the University at Victoria.

At the other two institutions, cleaners and food-service workers are hired directly by the schools.

SFU says it is currently reviewing a report on the impact of directly employing its contracted workers.

Accusations of racism

According to the coalition, contract workers at SFU are disproportionately people of colour and female and many have worked at the university for more than a decade — some for 30 years.

They cannot access campus childcare, they get few sick days and the cleaners do not have any health care, it says.

The report says many workers also felt demeaned by managers who accused them of laziness and lying about illness, or were "outright racist". A food worker testified to having their English skills and accent mocked by management.

"There's also a lot of health and safety issues that's going on with the workers, and it has been exacerbated through the COVID-19 period," said Ho.

Cleaning workers' testimonials included being told to lay on the floor to scrub toilets, being given inadequate cleaning supplies to combat the coronavirus, and being denied breaks despite an increased workload. Food service workers talked about managers who refused to wear masks. 

Contractors, unions respond

Ken Monteith, Chartwells' regional vice-president, told CBC in a statement the health, safety and well-being of food services staff is a company priority, that it is disappointed to hear people do not feel respected and valued and that the workplace is governed by a collective agreement and employment legislation.

"We will be working with our partners at SFU to address these concerns," said Monteith.

Unite Here Local 40, the union representing food service workers, is entering collective bargaining with Chartwells this year.

Spokesperson Stephanie Fung said workers have the union's full support in their fight for bigger paycheques and better working conditions. She also mentioned getting workers access to university facilities and tuition deals.

"It's time," said Fung. "They deserve the respect they want."

Contract Worker Justice @SFU coalition says cleaners and food-service workers should be hired by the school directly. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

In a statement to CBC News, Best Service Pros says the report contains a "great deal of inaccurate information."

The statement by president and CEO Bruce Taylor and people and culture director Nalini McIntosh says they were upset the authors did not contact them for comment.

Best has attempted for at least the past six months to increase wages and benefits for SFU cleaners but their union resisted, according to the statement. The company says the offer is finally going to members this week.

But CUPE Local 3338 said the offer is a business necessity because Best Pro is dealing with staff shortages and struggling to recruit and retain staff.

"The nominally increased wages they've been offering are a temporary Band-Aid," union president Fiona Brady Lenfesty said in an email. "They do not address the broader problems of contracting out."

CUPE Local 3338 and Best Pro go to the bargaining table again next year.

School reviewing options

But the coalition wants to eliminate contractors altogether and have SFU make cleaners and food-service workers direct employees. This, according to the coalition, would mean the university could set clear standards for working conditions and improve employee wellbeing.

Last year, SFU hired consulting company Deloitte to look into the risks and impacts of bringing contractors in-house. In a statement, the school says it is reviewing those findings over the coming months.

The statement, in part, said while SFU has been unable to validate the accuracy of the coalition's report, it is nonetheless concerned.

"Whether those companies are in-house or contracted, SFU is committed to ensure all workers are treated fairly," the statement said.

Both Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley and Katrina Chen, MLA For Burnaby-Lougheed, have endorsed the coalition's cause.