Last week, Queen’s was cited as Canada’s best employer by Forbes magazine. This assessment may ring true for some workers at Queen’s, however for many others it sounds like a Beaverton headline.
While Queen’s may provide stable and dignified work for some, many others are still personally experiencing the alarming state of precarious work in Ontario. This is work which is low-wage, insecure and lacking in basic benefits like paid sick days.
As the Toronto Star reported in 2014, this form of employment is on the rise. In Toronto, for instance, 52 per cent of workers are in part-time, contract or temporary positions. Queen’s is no exception to this trend.
Only two years ago in 2014, we witnessed a dramatic change to the quality of custodial jobs at the University. As The Journal reported, 17 full-time custodial staff were laid off and replaced with “casual” workers who didn’t make the Kingston’s Living Wage of $16.29 per hour at the time. The Living Wage refers to the income that earners in a family need to bring home in a certain area, based on the actual costs of living in a specific community. That amount was updated to $16.58 per hour in 2016 for Kingston.
For this new class of “casual” custodial workers at Queen’s, wages were brought down from a healthy $23 per hour to $12 — a mere 60 cents above minimum wage. The result was staffing levels being thinned so significantly that areas deemed “low traffic” are often not cleaned anymore. But more importantly, Queen’s eliminated a number of stable jobs with decent pay and replaced them with precarious employment.
Post-doctoral scholars at Queen’s have also been fighting against precarious employment. Last summer, PSAC Local 901, the union representing post-docs, began bargaining with Queen’s to win a raise to the minimum salaries. At present, many post-docs are making only $32,000 a year, while simultaneously supporting families and paying rent in a city with the third highest rents in the province, according to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s 2015 rental market survey.
When we consider both this and the short-term nature of their job contracts, it becomes abundantly clear that this group of workers at Queen’s don’t receive the treatment that’s expected when working for the supposed “best employer in Canada”.
If we look to Hospitality and Food Services on campus, we will find yet another group of workers who might disagree with Forbes’ assessment of their employer. According to the most recent collective agreement with CUPE Local 229, the starting salary of a part-time Sodexo employee as of May 2014 was just $11.53 per hour.
Furthermore, while their full-time counterparts are guaranteed sick days in their collective agreement, the part-timers workers don’t have the same assurance.
While employers can save in labour costs by restricting the number of full-time positions available and increasing the proportion of part-time positions, this kind of practice means that more jobs at Queen’s are needlessly precarious.
On paper, teaching assistants might not look like they fit into the group of workers I’ve been describing but they do as well. The present TA wage is $39.31 per hour according to the PSAC Local 901 collective agreement for their unit. However, in practice many teaching assistants at Queen’s are earning below the poverty line.
This is due to the “company store” policies which Queen’s utilizes, meaning graduate students end up paying back most, or all, of their income in tuition fees. According to the Registrar’s office, the minimum a domestic doctoral student will pay in tuition fees is $7,540.82 per year, however according to their collective agreement, TAs can only work a maximum of 10 hours a week at the above rate of pay.
For TAs, it can feel as if Queen’s pays them with one hand and reaches into their pocket with the other. The outcome of this practice is yet another group of Queen’s employees whose financial stability is under threat.
Right now in Ontario, attitudes about what decent work ought to look like are shifting.
The Fight for $15 and Fairness Campaign is demanding that the provincial Liberal government make dramatic reforms to both the Employment Standards Act and the Labour Relations Act to create higher minimum standards for all workers. These include raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, legally enshrining certain minimum benefits such as paid sick days, and protections for workers against “temporary” work.
The Kingston chapter of this campaign is making the case that no worker should be making poverty wages in Ontario, that workers should have the power to take care of their own health, and that workers should be able to have the security and benefits of permanent, full-time positions wherever possible.
If the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign succeeds, life as a Queen’s employee would change dramatically for many people.
In the meantime, we need to face facts: precarious employment is a major issue in Ontario, and Queen’s is a part of the problem.
Lesley Jamieson is a second-year PhD student and teaching assistant in the Department of Philosophy at Queen’s. She serves as Vice-President of Community Affairs for PSAC local 901.
Employment, fair wages, Fight for $15 and Fairness Campaign, post docs, Queen's University, Sodexo, Teaching Assistants
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