SFU needs to engage its low-wage workers

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Living wage report highlights persistent labour issues at SFU

By Michael McDonell
Photos by Mark Burnham

On Monday, March 4, the full report (and summary) of the SFU Living Wage Campaign’s was made available online. The report, “Simon Fraser University: Becoming the First Living Wage University in Canada”, persuasively links the campaign’s proposals with empirical evidence assembled from a number of sources. The report was authored by Michael McCarthy Flynn, the Living Wage Campaign Organizer, with a forward from professor Marjorie Griffen Cohen.

The report itself indicates several significant labour issues at SFU. It compares different insights into low-wage work revealed by the experiences of 33 workers interviewed. Given the findings of the report, it would not only be unethical, but illogical for us to not support the campaign.

Approximately 100 auxiliary janitorial staff earn just $13.43 per hour, lacking benefits (other than a medical plan) and job security.
It also shows that Chartwells employees at Tim Hortons, the Mackenzie Cafe, and other Burnaby locations earn slightly more ($15 per hour), but similarly lack a health and dental plan. While they are also unionized, one worker was dismayed at living “from paycheque to paycheque.”

While a minimum wage applies to individual workers, the Living Wage Campaign targets broader family and household needs. Over two fifths of all SFU workers (and over half all belowliving wage workers) interviewed earned less than $14 per hour. Roughly the same number of workers also had to budget for out-of-pocket expenses such as parking costs.

Moreover, over two thirds of campus employees interviewed were female, and over two thirds belong to underrepresented “minorities.” Slightly over half our workers have to look after dependent family members. If we cannot even address the needs of our workers, how will we
continue “engaging the world?” For this reason, the vast majority of workers felt that their job was deteriorating other aspects of their life, worsening chronic stress. Feelings of isolation from family, for example, are increasingly common. These are hardly the findings you’d expect from one of Canada’s top 100 employers of 2013.
SFU workers themselves expressed that a living wage would directly benefit their present well-being, and that of their families.

Based on this research, the report asks SFU to engage in a process to pass a living wage policy that would ensure that all staff of the University and all contracted workers (through a legally binding living wage clause) are paid a living wage to cover their basic family expenses. This proposal is backed up by four key points.

One is for SFU to provide the same working conditions many of its businesses have already agreed to under Fair Trade certification (i.e. ethical procurement). It states that SFU should strive toward an ethical work environment to maintain and facilitate high-quality education and research.

Taking the entire household into consideration, it then proposes “leadership and community engagement in providing practical solutions to child poverty.” About half of BC children living in poverty have at least one parent working full-time, all year. The poor themselves are often unemployed, underemployed, or low-wage workers, and their trajectory often begins early in life with intense psychosocial and socio-economic pressures.

Finally, the campaign encourages a consideration of the potential future benefit of the living wage to the next wave of students, who might not otherwise be able to attend university. For the university to not do its part to ensure the children of its employees have all the resources necessary to access post-secondary university would be a farce.

Luckily, the report claims that these proposals are practically feasible. They would affect less than 0.1 per cent of SFU’s budget, and the living wage calculation accounts for non-guaranteed benefits.

Furthermore, the demands are already consistent with SFU’s stated mission and Strategic Vision, and would merely extend the existing Ethical Procurement Policy to service work.

I encourage all members of the SFU community to participate in the Living Wage Campaign. Recently, my department student union (Labour Studies, aka LSSU) has joined the Living Wage Committee. DSUs and clubs can encourage members to sign the LW petition, promoting the larger Campaign. SFU Living Wage is viable and ethical: it is both practically and analytically worth supporting.

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