Campaign calls on SFU to become first living wage university

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WEB-living wage-Vaikunthe Banerjee

The Living Wage campaign celebrated its launch last Wednesday

By Suyesha Sthapit
Photos by Vaikunthe Banerjee

Last Wednesday, the Living Wage SFU Campaign formally launched with an open event in the West Mall Complex Atrium. The event was attended by approximately 45 faculty members, students, and community members. The Graduate Student Society, SFPIRG, and local unions CUPE 3338, the BCGEU, and the TSSU support the campaign.

SFU’s Living Wage Campaign is a project that aims to ensure that every individual employed directly or indirectly by SFU is guaranteed a living wage. This is the amount of money two people working full time (35 hours per week) need to earn per hour to support a family of four. Presenters at the launch of the campaign included distinguished alumnus Mae Burrows, SFU professor Dr. Marjorie Griffin-Cohen, Living Wage for Families campaign organizer Michael McCarthy-Flynn, and CUPE 3338 business agent John Bannister. The launch event highlighted the findings of a study the campaign had undertaken which focused on the working conditions for the lowest paid workers at SFU.

For Metro Vancouver, the living wage has been calculated to be $19.14 per hour for 2012. This does not include things like home ownership, saving for retirement, a savings cushion, the cost of a holiday, or the cost of caring for someone disabled or severely ill.

A living wage at SFU would increase wages for research assistants, child care workers, food service workers, and janitorial staff. McCarthy-Flynn reminded the audience that “These people are all around us but they are invisible. We are working to make them visible.”

According to the campaign, low wages are one of the key reasons for child poverty in BC; 48 per cent of children living in poverty in BC live in families with at least one adult working full-time. According to political science professor Dr. Marjorie Griffin-Cohen, “No parents working full-time, full-year jobs should have to choose between rent or childcare, food or healthcare.” SFU’s Living Wage Campaign is calling on SFU to implement a Living Wage clause in all its new contracts for employment as well as in its tenders to external subcontractors, in order to lift its low-wage workers out of poverty.

The research conducted among SFU’s low-wage workers found that 73 per cent earned less than a living wage, 57 per cent did not get paid for their overtime hours, and only half had benefits included in their employment. According to one of the workers surveyed, “I feel like I can’t provide for my family. I have to struggle to pay for food, housing, electricity and food bills. Sometimes I have to go to the food bank for food.” Another said, “I literally live paycheck to paycheck and budget my finances to only meet bare necessities.”

Cohen stated, “BC has one of the highest poverty rates and child poverty rates compared to other provinces in Canada,” and that the women were particularly affected, earning $2,700 per year less than the Canadian average. Bannister highlighted that one of the major concerns of
the campaign is SFU’s current practice of subcontracting to external companies to provide cheap labour. McCarthy-Flynn explained the reasons why has the campaign chose SFU to become the first living wage university: namely the audience of SFU’s status as one of the best employers in BC and in Canada; its vision to become an engaged, progressive university, its commitment to fair trade products, and its role as a leader in education, innovation and social change.

According to McCarthy-Flynn, “We have taken the university at its word that it wants to achieve these things and the Living Wage sits at the heart of all these concerns.” Many of the top American universities, including all of the Ivy League institutions, have become living wage employers.

Among the several questions that were brought up during the event, one was how much becoming a living wage university would cost. Flynn admitted that the campaign isn’t sure of an exact amount, but he extending an invitation to the university to explore this question as a community.

He stated that several other institutions found that the actual amount was surprisingly low. For example, it cost the City of New Westminster only 0.25 per cent of their annual budget to become a Living Wage employer. The university administration has received the SFU Living Wage Campaign’s research report, which representatives stated they are looking into and will comment on soon.