Due to increased COVID-19 cleaning, the university is hiring two external companies to provide caretaking services instead of in-house workers. CUPE 3261, the union that represents over 1,200 service workers in a variety of positions at U of T, is contesting the decision. 

Alongside a website created for the cause, the union’s petition for the university to stop using independent contractors for caretaking services has over 1,900 signatures so far. 

Ron Saporta, Chief Operating Officer Property Services and Sustainability, wrote to The Varsity that the independent contractors were hired due to the pandemic, and the change is not meant to be permanent. Saporta said the reasoning behind this move was “to allow for flexibility as the COVID-19 situation evolves, and to ensure cost-effectiveness.”

The petition claims that, contrary to U of T’s assertion that this move is only due to COVID-19, “UofT is using this moment to reduce its labour costs by relying on private cleaning companies.”

“This is not appropriate behaviour for one of the largest government-funded, public institutions in our country,” Allan James, President of CUPE 3261, told The Varsity

University of Toronto Faculty Association President Terezia Zoric also expressed solidarity with the petition, writing, “This both negatively impacts low paid precarious workers and hands the work to people who do not know U of T buildings or share the same commitment to the campus community as do regular cleaning staff.”

On its website, CUPE 3261 writes that it has suggested that the university hire temporary workers who would be represented by CUPE 3261, as well as existing members who were laid off from other departments. 

CUPE 3261 members are protected by the collective agreement between the union and the university, and the union has expressed concerns that the third-party caretakers will not be able to assert their rights as strongly, since they are not protected by this agreement. 

One of the union’s biggest concerns is health and safety protocols against COVID-19 under the third party companies, pointing to evidence that external caretaking companies provide a lower quality of cleaning. In addition, the union alleges that caretaking companies have a higher turnover in staff, which may also increase COVID-19 risk.

According to James, private caretaking companies have a lower quality of services due to “a for-profit model that has money-making as the main motivation rather than high quality of service, inferior working conditions, and poor safety equipment and lack of proper training.”

Even though hiring independent contractors does not cost CUPE 3261 members their jobs, the union still has concerns about the possible long-term effects of this decision. “We want to maintain good jobs at U of T,” explained James. “Through privatization, as more and more jobs get contracted out, there will be fewer good jobs at U of T.” The external services will be responsible for 18 buildings at the St. George campus. Prior to this move, several buildings on campus had already been contracted out to private companies.

“We will continue to deliver high quality service, adhering to consistent cleaning protocols across campus and using cleaning products approved for use against COVID-19,” expressed Saporta, also noting that the staff of the external companies is unionized.

“Contracting out the work of cleaners is inconsistent with the equity principles U of T claims to represent,” wrote James. “U of T has the ability to make the right decision, and we will continue to ask them to do so.”