Hospital laundry aide Felinor Adriano works for about $12.50 an hour. The salary isn’t enough for his family to live on, he said, so he also works full-time as a security guard, and his wife works two jobs as well. Away from home more than 90 hours a week, Adriano misses out on raising his five-year-old daughter; he also doesn’t earn enough to visit his family in the Philippines, which he left in 2002.
“I didn’t see life like this,” Adriano told the Georgia Straight in an interview at the Hospital Employees’ Union prebargaining conference at the Hilton Vancouver Metrotown hotel on March 28. “When we go out, she’s [my daughter is] sleeping. When we come home, she’s sleeping.”
Stories like Adriano’s, about the impact low wages have on the people contracted to cook and clean in B.C.’s health facilities, were a big part of the conference. The delegates also heard about hospital cleaners scrounging through the facility’s garbage for cereal boxes for their kids’ breakfasts; an exhausted line cook who worked 17 days in a row; and a housekeeper who can’t afford to heat her house. The contracts with Compass Group Canada Ltd., Aramark Canada Facility Services Ltd., and Sodexho Canada expire September 30, and the union launched a living-wage campaign at the conference to lobby health authorities for better pay. Currently, cleaners and cooks earn between $12.47 and $17.92 per hour. The average pay for the 3,500 contracted-out workers is about $13, according to HEU secretary–business manager Judy Darcy.
“How can it be acceptable in 2008 for people employed in health care to be the working poor?” she asked the Straight in a phone interview. “Every time I see the TV ads [calling B.C. the ”˜best place on Earth’], I want to scream.”
Since 2002, hospital cleaners’ and cooks’ wages have roller-coastered from about $18 an hour, on average, to a low in 2004 of between $8 and $10 after contracting-out, according to Darcy. In 2005, salaries rebounded moderately after the first round of HEU bargaining with the corporations, to about $13 an hour.
If the workers want higher pay, they should look to the companies that employ them, the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority’s senior spokesperson, Viviana Zanocco, told the Straight in a phone interview. Health authorities, she said, do not bear responsibility. “I can see how they can think that,” she said, “but, legally, it’s not appropriate for us to comment on the wages the companies offer.” Zanocco noted that health authorities are looking for savings “on every front”, and “when you’re dealing with taxpayers’ dollars, you’ve got to find the best value.”
According to UBC assistant professor of sociology Jennifer Chun, who studies wage campaigns in the U.S. and South Korea, the contracting-out at B.C.’s health facilities is part of a global trend toward privatization and ever-lower wages. As the body that represents taxpayers, she said, the VCHA has a moral obligation to make sure its cleaners and cooks are paid properly.
“The deterioration of working conditions has a direct impact on health workers and all of us who access health care,” she said. “They [the VCHA] turned their heads. You can’t outsource responsibility.”
What has that impact been? The last fully independent audits of VCHA’s housekeeping and food services were completed in 2006; since then, the authority’s ValueIN team audits services monthly. In December 2007, the contracted-services report said: “December showed a marked improvement from November when five sites scored below 85 percent [the industry standard].” November’s food audit noted that at three facilities, there was “poor food presentation, food items reviewed bland, limited variety of vegetable.”¦Unsatisfactory temperatures, food quality poor.”
As for the impact on the workers’ lives, poverty leads to “poor health, school failure, family stress and substandard living conditions”, Adrienne Montani, a coordinator for First Call: B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition, told the conference in a speech. Her point was echoed by both the Health Officer’s Council of B.C.’s 2007 submission to the B.C. Conversation on Health, and the conversation’s own final report, which linked child poverty to poor health outcomes. Neither document, however, specifically named the wages of health-care employees as a source of that child poverty.