The University of Toronto needs to protect its casual workers if it is committed to keeping everyone safe and healthy during the pandemic. A recent video prepared by the United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1998 Union described its members’ experiences working at the university, providing testimonials of the experience as “a pool of cheap labour,” “an abusive relationship,” and “hard on your mental health.” This is indicative of an ongoing problem that needs to be resolved at the university: the precarity of workers’ rights protections.
USW 1998 represents administrative and technical workers; its Casual Unit is one of two bargaining groups in the union. The unit consists of technical staff such as research assistants, lab assistants, and staff in offices, residences, and gyms, as well as other jobs. The video, titled “Precarity U,” was part of the union’s campaign to advocate for the rights of contract and casual workers on campus, according to Nick Marchese, the president of the USW Local 1998 Casual Unit.
Members of the union spoke out about their experiences at the university, debunking common myths about casual workers that include the assumption that they do not really need the money, that there is a set pay scale for USW 1998 members at U of T, and most distressingly, that casual workers are guaranteed paid sick leave.
During a pandemic, the spectre of job insecurity haunts casual workers as they fear contracting the virus while being deprived of paid sick leave. Additionally, many worry that they will continue to exist in the purgatory of being allocated insufficient hours and shifts, unsure if they will be asked to resign their contracts for the next year. These are unconscionable working conditions during a pandemic.
As reported in a previous article by The Varsity, one of the union’s demands is guaranteed paid sick days for casual workers. “The current situation at U of T where we have continuous employees… who have medical benefits, including up to 15 weeks of paid sick days, sometimes working side by side with casual employees who earn not a single paid sick day is not only regressive and unfair, but also, especially during a pandemic, dangerous and irresponsible,” Marchese wrote to The Varsity.
Just like the rest of us, these workers are all trying to make it through this difficult time as best as they can. As part of the U of T community, we are beneficiaries of the hard work of U of T casual workers. We carry the responsibility of supporting the union’s mission in fighting for the rights of casual and contract workers as they experience precarity at a dangerously high level.
This starts by listening to the demands of USW 1998 members and placing pressure on the university to mandate paid sick leave for all casual and contract workers, with a guarantee that their jobs will not be at risk when they choose to claim sick days.
Without any robust policies in place that protect casual workers’ rights, university staff will continue to suffer in both the short term and long term. With job precarity, staff are more likely to experience emotional and physical distress, not knowing when they will be able to pay bills or if they could afford to miss a shift if they contract the virus. Members of university staff should not have to choose between their own personal health and their livelihood.
These concerns hitting casual and contract workers have not been addressed with the magnitude of attention that is necessary. Although issues surrounding precarious employment existed before COVID-19, they have only been exacerbated. The right to decent wages, paid sick leave, and job security plays a major role in the physical and mental health of all employees, as well as the success of the university.
Employment security is not a commodity; it is a means of survival. No time has been more crucial for this university to show initiative and start making structural changes to the ways that U of T workers are treated — not as easily replaceable workers, but as crucial and non-negotiable tenants of this postsecondary institution and its respective branches.
My overwhelmingly positive experiences working with custodial, tech, and culinary staff on campus were some of my favourite parts of being on campus. By neglecting their needs, U of T is also neglecting the needs of the U of T community at large.
Janine AlHadidi is a fourth-year political science and diaspora and transnational studies student at St. Michael’s College.