VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – The people cleaning hospitals and care homes are a vital part of B.C.’s health-care system at the best of times. During a global pandemic, they’re more important than ever.
But a partially privatized system is leaving thousands of these essential workers undervalued, underpaid, and excluded from full participation in the province’s health-care workforce, according to the Hospital Employees’ Union, which represents more than 50,000 people, including 4,000 contracted health authority workers and 11,400 working for independent long-term care facilities.
‘Incredibly valuable’ work is ‘undervalued,’ union says
“I think the cleaners are generally thought of as disposable workers. I think cleaners are generally sort of invisible to most people,” said Jennifer Whiteside, HEU spokesperson and secretary-business manager.
“The work they do is incredibly valuable, incredibly important and over the last 18 years it has been absolutely undervalued.”
In 2002, the BC Liberal government opened housekeeping and food services up for privatization. Thousands of health authority employees in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island were laid off when that work was contracted out to private companies.
In 2009, Whiteside’s predecessors as HEU spokesperson, Judy Darcy, penned an op-ed published by the Georgia Straight that was critical of the policy.
“…A growing body of evidence from B.C., Ontario, and the U.K. shows that support-services privatization – with resulting staff reductions, increased workloads, inconsistent training, and high rates of turnover – has driven up hospital-acquired infections, slowed patient turnover rates, and increased costs,” Darcy, now a member of the NDP cabinet wrote at the time.
Now, more than 15 years later, privately employed workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in some of the province’s hardest-hit areas are being paid significantly less than their publicly employed counterparts.
Privatization has driven wages down: HEU
Lower Mainland hospital cleaners were paid more than $18.32 an hour in 2002 – the equivalent of $25.63 in 2020, according to the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator – and now contracted workers doing the same work are paid just over $17 per hour while those employed directly by health authorities are paid more than $20 per hour, Whiteside said.
“They are paid less today than they were during the SARS crisis 17 years ago and that is the result of privatization,” Whiteside said.
She said the private companies employ many women and many racialized people, a “very vulnerable and precarious workforce.”
Compass Group Canada, which is contracted for services at several Lower Mainland hospitals, did not respond to an interview request from NEWS 1130.
Requests for comment from Health Minister Adrian Dix and Labour Minister Harry Bains were not returned by NEWS 1130’s deadline.
Cleaners play ‘critical’ role in hospitals
The privatization of food and cleaning work has also set support workers apart from nurses, doctors, technicians and other health-care workers who should be one cohesive team, Whiteside said.
“Nobody in a hospital can do their work without a clean environment in which to do it. Housekeepers are every bit as critical to providing care to British Columbians as any other health-care worker,” she said.
She said the private companies also create an unnecessary layer in communication and organization that has created issues with workers accessing the protective equipment they need during the pandemic.
While these are longstanding issues the union has been working on for years, Whiteside said, “this crisis is putting into sharp relief the problem created by a fragmented, privatized system.”
The HEU is already working with the province in the hopes of ending privatization and contracting altogether, Whiteside said, but in the meantime, the B.C. government should ensure that contracted workers are paid at least as much as their counterparts elsewhere in the province.