Contracted food and cleaning service workers at SFU allege poor working conditions
Contracted food and cleaning service workers at SFU say they are subject to poor working conditions on campus, alleging inadequate wages and benefits, high workloads, and health and safety concerns.
A report by advocates calling for SFU to bring the employment of contracted food and service workers in-house is raising allegations about concerning working conditions on campus.
The report, released earlier this week by advocate coalition Contract Worker Justice @SFU (CWJ), says staff hired by outside companies are subject to inadequate pay and excessive workloads, health and safety concerns, inadequate benefits, and a lack of dignity in the workplace.
“We wanted to put out this report so that we can continue to educate the larger SFU community about their lived experiences and the working conditions that these groups of workers are facing, because they’re also really important members of SFU. But we don’t feel like a lot of people actually know what is going on with them,” coalition member Jade Ho told the Beacon.
“We think it’s really important evidence for SFU to review and to really consider bringing the workers back in-house so that they can improve their working conditions as part of the workers at SFU.”
Cleaning work at SFU is currently contracted out to Best Service Pros, while food service is contracted to Compass-Chartwell. The staff are not employees of SFU itself.
In September, the university hired Deloitte to analyze the costs and benefits of bringing contracted workers in-house. President Joy Johnson said then that the board of governors expected to make a final decision on the matter by spring 2022.
Low pay and allegations of withheld wages
CWJ interviewed 21 staff within the food and cleaning services department, and Ho said the issue of low wages and sporadic schedules was one that cropped up repeatedly.
“The majority of the cleaning and food service workers make way below living wage, according to the Burnaby rate. And that has not only really given them extra stress, but it has really affected their quality of life,” she said.
“They talked to us about how they had to make different life choices that might not be the best for them. And also it really affects their children’s education.”
According to the City of Burnaby, the living wage in Metro Vancouver—which is defined as the amount that two adults need to make hourly in order to meet the basic needs of a family of four—was $20.52 in 2021, a 5% increase over 2019.
The report said almost all the food and services workers at SFU make less than that—including Jeremy Ebdon, who’s worked as a cook in the dining hall for five years.
Ebdon told the Beacon he makes just under $19 an hour, and his workload has been steadily increasing since the pandemic began. Management will make new hires and then ask more experienced staff to train them, as well, he said.
“A lot of training responsibilities are being dumped on staff with an already increased workload. Not to mention the fact that with our pay—we had a 30 cent raise in three years, and it’s gotten pretty bad.”
The report alleges that in some cases, management has illegally withheld wages owed to staff.
“Cleaning workers reported having their wages withheld by the company for holidays they have worked, and for days on which they began a shift on campus and were sent home by the company due to bad weather. Workers have also had overtime wages withheld. This failure to pay wages is a direct violation of employment law,” the report reads.
Workers allegedly discouraged from using sick leave
CWJ is also raising concerns about management trying to discourage people from taking sick leave as necessary.
As of Jan 1, employers in BC are required to provide staff with at least five paid sick days. CWJ said that as of last year, food service workers did receive five days, but cleaning staff received only four—with the report calling both numbers “woefully inadequate.”
The CWJ said cleaners in particular have reported management intimidation when they try to take sick leave, along with accusations of lying about illness.
“Also management has told them things like, you’re not allowed to take sick leave on Mondays and Fridays. How do you control when they can get sick?” Ho said.
Ebdon said in his experience, management does try to discourage food services staff from calling in sick and in some cases ask if sick workers can come in for part of the day—something he’s concerned about, because British Columbians have been told over the past two years that they must stay home if even remotely sick due to the pandemic.
He said there have been a number of COVID cases popping up on campus among food services workers in recent weeks, but that management hasn’t sent out any official notices of exposure. That makes him and his coworkers nervous that they may have been exposed to the virus and bring it back to their families without knowing.
The report also raises concerns about workplace injuries, with allegations that increased workloads and deadline pressure have made accidents common—but injured workers are discouraged from reporting incidents to WorkSafeBC.
“When workers have needed to go to the hospital, managers have not contacted their families and, further, have prevented fellow workers from contacting families on behalf of injured workers,” the report reads.
“In some instances, when a worker has had to be taken away in an ambulance, they have been forced to pay for it themselves.”
Ebdon told the Beacon of one incident a few weeks ago where there was a power outage on campus that lasted for a couple of hours. After making calls to upper management and the university, dining hall managers decided that staff would resume operations—in the dark.
He said while staff were told not to use knives while the power was out, the situation felt unsafe both for the workers and for students using the dining hall.
A ‘lack of dignity’
Workers also told CWJ that they felt disrespected by their employers on the whole. Some reported incidents of racism and sexism, including managers mocking their accents.
And Ho said neither food service workers nor cleaning service workers have access to the same basic services on campus that other university employees can use, nor are their children eligible for the same tuition waivers as others.
“For example, they have to pay for their own parking. And that really brings their wages down even more. Most of the workers are women of colour, immigrant women, and there’s no access to childcare on campus at all,” she said.
“And it really presents a huge stress and problem for many of these workers. Just little things like this, like internet, they don’t have access to the libraries, none of the services that other workers have access to on campus.”
Ho said CWJ will be presenting the findings of its report to the SFU board of governors at a meeting Thursday morning.
In an emailed statement, SFU said that while it hasn’t been able yet to validate the accuracy of the report, the university is concerned about the experiences workers have 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 university said.
:As announced last year, SFU hired Deloitte to help the university gain a full understanding of the value, risks and impacts to bring these contracted services in-house… The SFU executive team will be reviewing those findings over the coming months to develop recommendations and next steps. 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.”