By Shannon Higgins
When a blizzard unexpectedly drops 20 centimetres of snow on Ryerson’s campus, Willy Torres knows that six fellow groundskeepers are clearing snow, hours before most students and faculty are pressing the snooze button. And when one of the main snow ploughs broke down this semester, the groundskeepers still managed to dig out Ryerson’s three city blocks with shovels before students arrived.
Torres has been working at Ryerson for more than two decades, cleaning bathrooms, weeding gardens under the blazing summer sun and cleaning up the school after fl oods. He’s loyal to Ryerson and works hard to maintain the buildings and grounds for the students he’s befriended. So it bothers him when the school starts to contract out its custodial services to private companies.
“We know that the [contracted] workers get nothing; they make only $10 an hour, they work many hours, they are not loyal to Ryerson,” he says. “The contractors don’t care about Ryerson — they just want to do their work and go home.”
The use of contract workers is just one way Ryerson gets its labour on the cheap. Others include laying off 90 per cent of its cafeteria staff for the summer and hiring part-time student employees for peanut wages with no benefits. Despite doing some of the most backbreaking and dirtiest work on campus, support staff will never see the six-figure incomes of school administrators and some professors. Their work keeps the school running, but while Ryerson spends $80 million dollars on new buildings, the university’s workers remain stuck with low wages and bad working conditions.
The 92 workers in Ryerson’s cafeterias are some of the most vital to the school. They feed thousands of students, staff and faculty every day. They are also some of the university’s lowest-paid staff, many of them making less than $30,000 as fulltime employees during the fall and winter semesters.
During the summer, reading week and winter break, most food services shut down, despite the continuing education students, grad students, faculty and staff who are still on campus.
“I want to work — but I won’t get the opportunity to,” says a Tim Hortons employee in the Engineering building while pouring coffee. Despite working at Ryerson for almost three years, she is forced to rely on employment insurance during the summer.
Only 13 food service workers with seniority get to stay on in the summer. Those 13, deemed continuous employees, are the only cafeteria workers who get a pension. The other 79 have to find other jobs for the summer or collect employment insurance and, despite working throughout the fall and winter semesters year after year, won’t get a pension when they retire.
And there are a litany of other complaints about working conditions.
“A lot of workers don’t take lunch breaks or bathroom breaks because it’s too busy. That’s a labour law violation,” says Louise Lichacz, chair of OPSEU Local 596, which represents cafeteria workers. “They aren’t allowed to take time off work and [administrators] don’t like to pay them for any kind of training.”
Last year when the union was gearing up to renegotiate its contract, food service employees reported that managers were refusing to give them time to attend union meetings and, in one case, a worker got in trouble for handing out union pamphlets.
Workers were afraid to speak to the Eyeopener for this story, fearing reprisals from management, which has the power to cut back their hours.
Part of the problem, Lichacz says, is Ryerson’s 10-year contract with Aramark, which provides the management and organization for the school’s food services. With 20,000 employees in Canada, Aramark is a multinational company with a monopoly over 400,000 student wallets in universities, colleges and high schools across Canada.
“They’re very aggressive [with an] anti-worker style management and a low-wage strategy,” says Alex Dagg, the Ontario council director of UNITE HERE, a union that represents some Aramark workers across North America, including Seneca College and the University of Toronto. On Feb. 12, workers and students at the U of T protested Aramark’s low wages, while Aramark workers at Seneca College’s Markham campus went on strike Monday to demand they be paid the same as workers on Seneca’s other campus. “We’ve been engaged in this battle with [Aramark] — they’re a low-wage employer and they’ve decided to fight us on all fronts.”
However, the man who oversees Ryerson’s food services denies many of the workers’ allegations. John Corallo, director of ancillary services, said that employees do receive standard breaks and lunch hours. “Because we’re in a service industry, the breaks may not be at 12 o’clock, but they all have scheduled breaks and lunches.”
He admits that the school cut back the hours of some Hub staff in September, but says it was necessary because Ryerson’s largest cafeteria was getting less business.
When students look for a job on campus, chances are they’ll end up in one in the Student Services department. One of these employees is completing her social work degree and working as a peer-support counselor. Her job isn’t easy, and in some places, it would earn her a comfortable salary. At Ryerson, she makes $10 an hour.
“It could be better for the work we have to do — I’m still a full-time student,” she says, requesting that her name be withheld. “I believe that we are the lowest paid workers at Ryerson.”
She’s just one of the people Lichacz calls the most exploited workers at Ryerson. Comprised mostly of students, the 1,500 part-time employees of Student Services are the people who run Sports and Recreation, Student Financial Assistance and the Health Centre. Their labour comes cheaply — they receive no benefits and half the pay of the full-time workers.
“They’re treated very badly and expected to work their ass off,” says Lichacz, who thinks it’s ironic that Student Services are meant to help students on a personal and academic level, but also uses them for cheap labour.
To put it in perspective, the department hires only 100 full-time employees and fills the rest of its ranks with part-time students.
“They [Student Services] hire people part-time doing the same thing as the full-time employees, and they’re making less than half the salary and no benefits,” says Lichacz.
Compared to cafeteria workers and Student Services employees, Ryerson’s 90 custodial staff — caretakers, landscapers and groundskeepers — are treated like royalty. They are kept on throughout the summer and during school breaks, and most of them are fulltime employees with pensions.
But these conditions come with a price at the bargaining table — if they retire earlier than 65 custodians don’t get benefits to tide them over until the Canadian Pension Plan kicks in, leading some employees who would be eligible to retire at 60 to stay on.
But more importantly, the custodians are worried about the fact that 20 per cent of their work is contracted out to private companies, who pay their employees less and don’t have to offer the same benefits as unionized workers. And with the advent of Ryerson’s Master Plan, a 20-year program to redevelop the university and add new buildings, some fear that number may grow.
“We want to stop that practice,” says groundskeeper Willy Torres, who is also vice-president of CUPE Local 233, the union that represents the workers. “We want all the buildings [on campus] for CUPE members.”
When custodians leave, it can sometimes take three to five months to hire a replacement. Torres says this is a symptom of two problems — administrative bureaucracy and management’s reluctance to hire internally. He would rather see caretakers promoted to fill groundskeeper and landscaping roles.
But the school maintains that its relationship with its custodians is a good one. “Negotiations are fairly amicable — it’s been settled for the last 30 years with no strikes,” says Adrian Williams, manager of custodial services, adding that the school tries to improve the benefits package when it has the money.
“We’re very competitive, it’s a good contract and benefits for employees are good compared to other universities.”
And for Torres, it’s worth it to work at Ryerson. “We, the guys who’ve been here for 25 years, become friends with the students,” he says. “I’ve been here for 22 years. Most people stay here forever.”