Concerns persist regarding contracting out of service jobs for Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local 3261 after reaching a tentative agreement with the University of Toronto (U of T) on November 18.
While in bargaining, service staff at U of T, including custodial services, food services, grounds, maintenance and other areas, had voiced concerns about the contracting out of their jobs to for-profit operators who pay low wages. According to a press release from CUPE Ontario, the new collective agreement does not include any guarantees on limits to contracting out but it does contain “steps in the right direction.”
A strike may have been averted for U of T service workers but the impacts of contracting out deepen inequities for their service staff.
CUPE says the precarious working conditions of service staff will be highlighted in a forthcoming report by Kiran Mirchandani, Professor in the Adult Education & Community Development Program at U of T, and Michelle Buckley, professor in the Geography department at U of T.
A two-tiered workforce
While the report is not published yet, drafts indicate that these professors’ study found there is a two-tiered workforce on campus. According to CUPE local 3261 president, Allan James, workers employed by third-party contractors make approximately $16-to-$17 an hour with few benefits while those employed directly by the university make about $23 an hour.
“Living in Toronto,” James said, “I don’t know of anybody who can survive on a wage of $17.”
Other than wages, workers employed by third-party contractors enjoy fewer benefits, James said. He pointed to tuition waivers as one of the important benefits for service workers at U of T.
“Most of our employees wouldn’t be able to afford to send their kids to university if they were just making $23 an hour.” James said. “That would have been impossible. Now they have an opportunity for their kids, if they qualify, to actually go to university and pull themselves out of poverty.”
Benefits break cycle of poverty
Diana Medeiros, the daughter of a worker employed directly by U of T, benefitted from the tuition waiver and said this benefit can help children break cycles of poverty in their families.
“Higher education is so expensive already and that alone is a barrier,” Medeiros said. “Not to mention everything with inflation going on. It’s just adding more fuel to the fire of making it hard for us to continue. So this waiver was a game changer. That’s the best way I can describe it. It was an absolute game changer for me and my family.”
Beyond tuition waivers, Medeiros said she and her family also found other benefits to be very useful. Medeiros said her father passed away when she was 11. During this time, she said the university provided access to counseling.
Medeiros said she found it ironic that the university was contracting out jobs like her mother’s. She said that the cuts to benefits made by corporations will not promote equity among service workers, despite U of T’s public image being one that is devoted to equity and diversity.
“They’re branding equity, but they’re not reflecting it in what they could do,” Medeiros said. “It just bothered me so much when I found out about the contracting out. I was just like, ‘Well, this saved my family and our life and our situation and this could help so many more people. Why would you teach and support equity to such a high standard and degree but not provide it in the same ways?’”
James explained that the university chooses to contract out service jobs to save on costs. However, James said funds from their $3.2 billion budgeted revenue could be allocated differently to ensure higher wages and benefits for all service workers.
Better wages and benefits would lead to better service
James said that better wages and benefits for service workers on the U of T campus will also improve services.
“For most of these employees who work for the for profit agency, this is their second or third job,” James said. “By the time they come to do work for the university, most of them are tired.”
Medeiros said that while she was studying at U of T, the impacts contracting out had on workers were clear.
“They were overworked like no one’s business. It was insane,” Medeiros said.
With service workers spread thin, Medeiros said that things were not as clean and not restocked as often. The impact on workers also harmed the overall university environment according to Medeiros.
While the negative impact on service is clear, James wanted to reiterate that the fight is not against workers employed by for-profit agencies.
“Our fight has never been with those workers who work with those for profit contractors. They’re just trying to make a living and I respect that,” James said.
James continued, “Our solution is that the employer stop contracting out and bring in those employees who are working for these contractors. Make them U of T employees, so they can get a little more wages and good benefits.”
U of T is among the top 50 employers in Canada on Forbes’ list of Canada’s Best Employers. If they are to be an example for Canadian employees, it may be time to end the two-tiered workforce.
“I think the University of Toronto is a trendsetter,” James said. “There’s no doubt they’re one of the biggest universities, if not the biggest university, in Canada. That [limiting contracting out] will send a message that they’re a responsible university who practice what they preach, and they’re willing to do the right thing.”