Contract Worker Justice releases report on poor working conditions at SFU

They continue to urge SFU to hire food and cleaning services workers in-house

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Blusson hallway with a cleaner’s cart in the center.
Workers report poor benefits and low wage under the current contract system. PHOTO: Gudrun Wai-Gunnarsson / The Peak

By: Karissa Ketter, News Writer

The Contract Worker Justice (CWJ) group has been pushing SFU to hire their cleaning and food services workers in-house. They recently wrote a report detailing the poor working conditions of these workers and presented it to the SFU Board of Governors (BoG) on January 27, 2022. 

CWJ co-hosted a virtual presentation of the BoG meeting with SFU350. At the meeting, representatives of CWJ presented their findings. The three presenters included co-founder of CWJ and communication professor Dr. Enda Brophy, president of CUPE 3338 Fiona Lenfesty, and SFU dining hall cook Jeremy Ebdon. 

Brophy noted CWJ has been endorsed by all major SFU constituencies (undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty), the Burnaby mayor, and three Burnaby MLAs. 

University of British Columbia and University of Victoria hire their workers directly. Brophy noted this means their workers “fare better than SFU’s contracted workforce in every single category, including wages, benefits, and access to campus services.

“They can’t even use our libraries or access Wi-Fi on campus,” said Brophy. 

SFU’s workers make less than a living wage, “receive significantly fewer paid sick days than other SFU employees,” and have limited access to health and dental coverage, according to CWJ’s report. This is because the contracting-out system “pushes down wages by incentivising companies to minimize labour costs at the expense of the workers,” according to the presentation.  

While CWJ receives less than a week of paid sick leave, SFU employees are eligible for at least one week of sick leave and up to 26 weeks after more than five years of employment

In an interview with The Peak, PhD student and CWJ coalition member Jade Ho discussed the report in more detail. She explained CWJ conducted interviews with the workers throughout Fall 2021. In these interviews, they found the companies have been telling workers to limit their interactions with others.

According to Ho, “The companies actually have told them things like, ‘We don’t want you to talk to people. When you see them, simply say hello and goodbye,’ and ‘if people come and ask you questions about your work, tell people that you are a new employee and you don’t know anything.’

“They would like to be treated and respected,” said Ho. “There’s quite a lot of separation and silencing.” 

In the report, workers emphasized the lack of respect and dignity in the workplace: “What is probably more important to me is to be treated with some respect, and not be talked to rudely or be disrespected at my place of work. People in the university — students or faculty — can sit at their computers and work only because we do the dirty work and clean up things. Their workspace is safe and clean because we do all the physical labour in cleaning up.”

Ebdon, who is also a member of Local 40, BC’s union for hotel and hospitality workers, said, “Many of our workers are afraid to speak up for fear of retribution from management.” He reported numerous workers are not taking their break time to keep up with operational requirements due to chronic understaffing. 

Ebdon said management has mostly ignored workers’ concerns regarding working conditions. 

Workers expressed concerns for COVID-19 safety while working on campus. “They would daily tell us about the COVID-19 safety regulations and make us sign documents saying we understood the protocols, and then ask us to go work in places where it was impossible to maintain these protocols,” said one worker in CWJ’s report.  

Ho noted that vice-president finance and administration Martin Pochurko responded to their presentation by saying, “I would remind the Board that, of course, the presentation that you’ve seen today is one perspective.” He added the service workers’ employers who were in attendance “would have different views on some of the topics discussed today.”

Ho commented on Pochurko’s response in her interview with The Peak. “We think that we have presented is not just an ‘equal perspective’ to the financial side because this is people’s lives on the line. This is not just people’s working conditions, because people’s working conditions affect their quality of life.” 

In a statement to The Peak, Pochurko wrote, “SFU values the cleaning and food service workers that work on our campuses and it is very important to us that they are all treated fairly. Although we have not been able to validate the accuracy of this report, we are concerned about the experiences described within it,” said Pochurko. 

SFU recently hired another third-party company, Deloitte, to analyze the in-house and contracted working conditions at SFU. While CWJ has previously expressed concerns about this decision, they are waiting for Deloitte’s results and the university’s response, according to Ho. 

Deloitte is a private consulting company with “a tendency towards privatization.”

Currently in progress, Deloitte’s report “includes interviews with key stakeholders, including the Contract Workers Justice leaders, the employee unions and the current companies providing these services. The SFU executive team will be reviewing those findings over the coming months to develop recommendations and next steps,” according to Pochurko. 

Ho encourages students, staff, faculty, and the SFU community to read CWJ’s report. “One of the key things about our report is not just a summary of the things that we found, but some of the specific quotes that are from the workers. So I encourage you to take a look at the report and look at some of those quotes of what the workers have said of each grievance that they have been sharing with the research team.”

Ho reported, “Workers hold an incredible amount of pride in their job. They are passionate about being part of the university community. We asked them, ‘Do you feel like you’re part of the university community?’ and they said, ‘When it comes to our work conditions, we really don’t feel like it.’ But when it comes to interactions with students, they really do feel like they are a part of the community.”

To find out more about the CWJ campaign, visit their website or social media.