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Airport cleaners speak out about poor working conditions
by Robert Devet
For the cleaners working at the Halifax airport, members of Teamsters Canada Local 927 , better wages and benefits are the number one priority.
Their collective agreement expired in the spring of 2014 and they have been in a legal strike position for the last three months.
Workers are paid just dimes above minimum wage and the employer, Eurest Services, offers no benefits whatsoever,
“We make less than $1500 per month, so if you’re paying say $700 a month for an apartment, running a car with insurance and gas, it’s pretty tight,” Dan, one of the cleaners, tells the Halifax Media Co-op.
The lack of any benefits is another point of contention.
Dan knows of workers who can’t afford prescriptions, people who badly need physiotherapy but can’t afford it.
“Just things like regular dental check-ups,” says Dan. “ If your employer covers that, you just make you appointment, pay your percentage and you’re good to go.
“But if it has to come out of your own pocket, and it is a choice between putting new tires on your car, or going for a checkup, we will do the check-up next month, and then next month….
“Next thing you know there are more severe dental problems, and you can’t afford those either,” Dan says.
“One girl has had teeth broken off at the gum line, and she can’t afford to have them fixed,” Wanda tells the Halifax Media Co-op.
Wanda and Dan are more fortunate than most of their co-workers. In their mid-fifties, they share the daily commute, which saves money, and the mortgage on their trailer is paid off.
Even for them there’s not much left after the bills are paid.
Keeping the airport clean is a demanding job.
When he started working at the airport, a couple of years ago now, Dan used a pedometer and discovered that on an average shift he easily walked 16 kilometers.
There are about 26 cleaners at the airport. Four years ago there were about fifty, Dan believes.
There is a core of workers who have been there for years, but by and large employee turnover is high.
“There have been days when we showed up and there are only three people, and we run around the airport, trying to clean that place, including the parkade, it is completely overwhelming,” says Wanda.
It’s also a dirty job, and not without risk. People blow their nose and throw the kleenex on the floor. Travelers get sick in the washroom.
Workers don’t feel appreciated by their employer, Dan says.
During negotiations the employer told us that if we only come in for the money we better not come in at all, Dan relates.
“Can you imagine that,” says Dan. “He said that with a straight face.”
Meanwhile Dan tells of a co-worker who has been there for 29 years but still makes exactly the same near-minimum wage.
Eurest Services claims that its contract with the Airport Authority only allows for a very narrow profit margin, and their is simply no room for the raises and benefits that the union is looking for.
The union has not been able to validate that claim.
Yet pre-tax profits of the parent company, the Compass Group, surged to $1.8 billion in 2014. The conglomerate predicts a 5.5 percent revenue growth for the first half of this year, due in part to a strong demand for its services in North America.
We do know that Eurest cleaners at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport earn $13.70 per hour and do receive full benefits.
In an earlier story we reported that Rob Beairsto, President of the Local, thinks that the problem lies not just with the company the cleaners work for.
He wants the Halifax International Airport Authority, the entity that manages the airport infrastructure, to take some ownership of the issue.
“The Authority should say (to facility management companies) that if you want to bid, you have to guarantee a couple of dollars above minimum wage,” he suggested.
“And you need to have a 75 percent prescription plan. These people are dealing with infections from all over the world. They get sick, but they can’t afford a prescription.”
But the Airport Authority is not interested.
In an email to the Halifax Media Co-op Peter Spurway, Vice President Corporate Communications & Airport Experience, wrote that since the Airport Authority is not a party to the collective bargaining process, it would be inappropriate to intervene.
Meanwhile, in spite of it all, Dan, Wanda and the other cleaners do take pride in their work.
And they appreciate the support from most other workers at the airport.
“We’re like a community at the airport. Most people are awesome,” says Wanda. “We are like a family in many ways.”
We sure hope the Airport Authority people in charge also feel that way about us, she says.
Originally published March 30 2015 at the Halifax Media Co-op