By Daniel Tseghay
In 2015, 900 workers in the health services support sector – laundry staff, dietary workers, and housekeepers – lost their jobs and were forced to reapply for them. They worked for two BC Health Authorities, Vancouver Coastal and Providence Health, public health providers who had nonetheless contracted out some of their services – “non-clinical services” – to private multinationals. In that case, the two health authorities ended their cleaning contract with Aramark and signed one with Compass. But they did so without a transition agreement meaning that when the new-Aramark employees began work they did so as if they hadn’t worked at the same facility for, sometimes, years and they lost all their seniority.
Instances like this have happened too many times since the beginning of the century and, today, workers in health care are pushing back.
Late last month, 4,000 BC hospital housekeeping and dietary workers delivered a 96 per cent strike mandate in the midst of contract negotiations with four multinational employers contracted by separate health authorities across the province. They voted for strike action – potentially leading to progressive job actions – on June 23rd to ensure job security and better wages. Represented by the Hospital Employees’ Union (HEU), they work within health authorities in Metro Vancouver, the Fraser Valley, and southern Vancouver Island while their employers are private companies, Compass-Marquise, Sodexo, Aramark, and Acciona. The strike votes included all bargaining tables except for one, covering the 900 cleaning staff at the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority employed by Compass. There are 11 different collective agreements, covering 75 hospitals and extended care facilities, and most of the contracts ended in September of last year.
Until 2002, hospital support services, consisting of housekeepers, dietary workers, and laundry staff, were part of the public sector and therefore covered by the same collective agreements that nurses would be subject to. In that year, the BC Liberals passed Bill 29, the Health and Social Services Delivery Improvement Act. Before it, there were measures preventing the contracting out of services in health care collective agreements. Bill 29 eliminated those protections, allowing publicly funded health authorities and other health employers to contract out what it deemed “non-clinical services”; and it also decided that health care workers were not protected by the successorship provisions of the BC Labour Code.
When these support service workers were first separated from other health care workers and subject to privatization, they experience a dramatic drop in wages. “Those jobs initially pay around $18 or $19 an hour and the wages were very initially slashed to just above the minimum wage, $10.50 an hour,” says Jennifer Whiteside, secretary-business manager, in an interview with Rankandfile.ca. “Over time we bargained those wages up to a point where now an average salary for a worker is between $15.75 and $16 an hour. That’s still considerably less than someone who works for a health authority doing that work.”
They also often lose significant benefits like retirement security.
When contracts end, like they did when Compass lost theirs to Aramark in 2015, people who have worked for years, and sometimes decades, at a specific workplace are forced to reapply for their jobs because of the legacy of Bill 29. “We have a bizarre situation under our labour code where employers can get away with this kind of contract flipping that means whole workforces re-employed and we pretend it’s a brand new employment relationship even though some of them are on their second or third return doing the same work,” says Whiteside.
HEU has now been at the bargaining table for over a year making the case that these workers deserve better wages and job security. Whiteside says the union is making the case that the health authorities, being public health care providers, are responsible for ensuring the best possible care. Private companies, which force their employees to reapply for their jobs, are risking a loss of continuity of care, which is especially needed in, for instance, long-term care facilities.
Since private companies, unlike publicly-funded health authorities, are profit-seeking, they’re saving money in ways other than lowered wages. Occupancy rates are high and the workload is overwhelming, with both the result of overloading workers with tasks as hours are shortened. “We shouldn’t be in a situation where workers are really taken advantage of by public bodies because they’re contracting out that work to private providers who drive down the wages and working conditions,” says Whiteside.
Beyond the negotiating table, there are political changes that would help these workers achieve job security. The BC Labour Code could re-instate successorship, ensuring that as long as public health care providers are contracting out some services and those contracts change hands from one private company to another, the workers keep their jobs. “Those workers,” says Whiteside, “should not be subjected to the vagaries of commercial contracts.”
But most importantly, says Whiteside, it’s about the political will of these health authorities. Another publicly-funded institution recently had some and it ensured job security. Earlier this year, when food service workers at SFU were set to lose their jobs when their contractors changed, their union and the general public stepped in to demand job security (Rankandfile.ca covered the early stages of the dispute). Ultimately, SFU required the new contractor to re-hire the entire workforce and to do so with at least the same wages.
“From our perspective it’s really a question of political will and the necessity of having that clear policy direction from government that says security and dignity are important for the workforce in healthcare regardless of who employs them,” says Whiteside. “At the end of the day it’s health authorities who are responsible for these contracted relationships. And it’s because of the tone they’ve set that we’ve seen a 96 per cent strike mandate by workers who are not prepared to take it anymore because it is a completely unjust, undignified,and disrespectful way to treat workers.”