In a conference on Feb. 27, Living Wage SFU called for Simon Fraser to become the first living wage university in Canada, following the example of Queen Mary University of London (QMUL).
Living wage refers to the salary that one would have to make to earn a “decent living” according to Marjorie Griffin Cohen, a professor of political science at SFU, and the only faculty member currently a part of Living Wage SFU.
To become a living wage university by Metro Vancouver standards, SFU would have to pay all workers $19.62 per hour; this would also apply to jobs that are outsourced to other companies.
According to Adrienne Montani, provincial coordinator at First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition and leader of the living wage movement in BC, the province’s $10.25 minimum wage does not allow workers to get out of poverty, never mind make a decent living. “We’re not trying to get people at the poverty line; we’re trying to get them above it,” she said.
Also in attendance at the conference was Jane Willis, a professor from QMUL, the first living wage university in England. Willis stated that living wages for the workers at QMUL have resulted in increased productivity and less turnover as job satisfaction is higher.
Previously, despite similar arguments, the board of governors decided not to pursue becoming a living wage university, citing financial inability. As stated in an email from Judith Osborne, vice president legal affairs and university secretary, “the board felt it would not be appropriate for one publicly-funded university to pursue this policy in isolation from others.”
“The costs of adopting such a policy would [ . . . ] require off-setting cuts, thereby weakening the university’s position to meet its educational objectives and placing it at a competitive disadvantage relative to other institutions,” stated Osborne.
She suggested that the matter was more one of provincial policy, for which the government would need to provide the funding.
To become a living wage university, SFU would have to pay all workers $19.62 per hour.
SFSS board members also had mixed reactions to the idea, as discussed at their Feb. 19 board of directors meeting. Some, like ERO Chardaye Bueckert, were in favour, while others, including business representative Brandon Chapman, shared concerns about the financial implications. He stated, “We need to be careful, [ . . . ] we have a university that can’t make ends meet in many areas.”
Shahaa Kakar, of Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group (SFPIRG) and a member of Living Wage SFU, does not believe cost is the problem. “They [university administration] had done some preliminary costings, and they basically told us that [. . .] they estimated it would cost them less than half a per cent of their annual operating budget to become a living wage employer.”
Member services officer Moe Kopahi reminded the SFSS board, however, that “it’s more complex than we think. It’s not a simple math of percentage increase.”
The board of governors stated that part of the problem is that they are unable to raise student tuition fees. Julia Lane, of the GSS, elaborated, “The university is still bound by the provincial mandate to cap tuition increases for domestic students by no more than two per cent per year. So I don’t think tuition fees would be a logical place to look for the necessary increases.”
However, both Cohen and Kakar agree that it should not be necessary to raise tuition fees to make SFU living wage. “The living wage campaign would not endorse raising tuition fees,” said Cohen via email. “That would be improving the situation of one vulnerable group at the expense of another and that is never the way people who advance this issue find acceptable.”
Kakar believes it is more of an “issue of political will.” She told the conference that it was necessary to raise public awareness, as the university allegedly told her that it was not a priority, and that it would not be dealt with until the community makes it known that it is a priority.
“But we’re a handful of people,” she stated. “We won’t be taken seriously by the university unless we can really show that there is a large amount of political will to make this happen.”