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Anti-poverty group calls for SFU living wage policy

Simon Fraser University is being urged to adopt a living wage policy as a means to reduce child poverty in the families of people who work there.

First Call, the B.C. child and youth advocacy coalition, is releasing a report Wednesday that shows 73 per cent of the auxiliary contract workers surveyed at SFU earned less than a living wage, with only half getting any benefits through their employment.

The report's author, Michael McCarthy Flynn, First Call's living wage campaign organizer, noted that his organization releases an annual child poverty report.

The living wage campaign aims to raise awareness of the fact half of children living in poverty in B.C. have parents working in low-wage jobs.

The report says the current living wage for Metro Vancouver is $19.14 per hour, a figure that is lowered to take into account any non-mandatory benefits that are paid to employees.

While SFU is often recognized as a top employer for those it hires directly, those not earning a living wage are generally people hired by a third party to work as cleaners, security staff, food service staff, childcare workers and research assistants.

The workers surveyed comprised 17 research assistants, three cleaners, seven childcare workers and six food service workers. McCarthy Flynn noted it was difficult to find people willing to participate out of fear of recriminations from their employer or being fired.

According to the report, janitor positions are one of the lowest paying at SFU campuses, earning a starting wage of $13.43 per hour, with only Medical Services Plan (MSP) premiums covered as a benefit. Research assistants' hourly wages range from well below minimum wage up to $30. Childcare workers range from $14.62 per hour for a casual worker to $20.39 for a senior early childhood educator.

Of the respondents, 64 per cent were female, which is consistent with research indicating most low-wage work is performed by women, 72 per cent were Canadian citizens and 65 per cent belonged to visible minorities.

Almost 60 per cent of respondents were the sole income earner for their families, and 42 per cent earned less than $14 per hour. And 57 per cent reported having to work unpaid overtime, in some cases up to 12 hours per week.

In one case, a research assistant said the lack of a living wage meant his wife could not get necessary surgery because they couldn't afford for her to take time off work to recover from the operation.

If SFU adopts such a policy, it would be the first university in Canada to do so.

"We had to pick one to start with and we felt SFU's history of being a progressive university, of its approaches to social issues, and its commitment to be the university of engagement led us to choose them being probably the university that would be most open to this," said McCarthy Flynn.

Interestingly, SFU recently passed a fair-trade policy committing it to purchase a proportion of products from producers who are paid a living wage in the developing world.

"Obviously SFU's committed to being an ethical institution but if they were willing to commit to that in the developing world, it would be equally incumbent on them to [show] a similar commitment for workers working actually in their institutions."

As for the increased costs that would result from such a policy, McCarthy Flynn suggested that it would be a matter of transferring costs off the backs of low-wage families to institutions such as SFU.

Nevertheless, from studies of the impact of such policies elsewhere, "usually an institution has to pay less than one-tenth of one per cent" more, he said. "SFU is a billion-dollar institution, we're talking a few hundred workers who have to be brought up a few dollars an hour. It's not a huge ask for them."

He noted that they're not asking SFU to change existing contracts but to include legally-binding living wage clauses as they come up for renewal so the university can budget for it over a number of years.

SFU spokesperson Scott McLean confirmed the university has received the report and it is currently being reviewed by its finance department before it responds to First Call.

wchow@burnabynewsleader.com

twitter.com/WandaChow

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