2017, Business

U of T cafeteria workers’ quest for justice

The wretched tales of the fast-food workers at University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus & their continuing struggle for fair compensation and dignity

This article also appeared on Rank&File.ca

“This is unbelievable that it’s happening in Canada, right? It’s okay [easier to accept] if it happens in my country. But in Canada? I cannot believe this.” – Patricia Mahamalage, food service worker at UTSC.

Patricia Mahamalage, 45, has been temporarily laid off from her cafeteria job at University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus. Her employer, Aramark, told her that business is slow during the summer and that she will have her job back in September.

Summer lay-offs are the norm for cafeteria staff at UTSC, where food services are predominantly outsourced to Aramark. The multinational corporation manages multiple outlets on campus including Tim Horton’s, Pizza Pizza and Starbucks.

More than half of the 65 Aramark employees are relieved off their duties annually when campus life slows down from April to September.

However, this is the first time in about a decade that Mahamalage, an immigrant from Sri Lanka, has been laid off. She has no doubt that she is being victimized.

The cafeteria manager, Indy Karu, and her have had a combative history. Mahamalage has been on the receiving end of it for the past five years, as he has dished out abuse with impunity and tormented her endlessly.

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Patricia Mahamalage (Courtesy of P. Mahamalage)

But the tide has been turning, even if the waves are thrashing only marginally less menacingly at the shores where Mahamalage’s brittle sand castle stands.

In February, Mahamalage and her colleagues went on strike, demanding better wages and working conditions. After almost two months of striking, the workers ratified a new collective agreement that guaranteed every person at least $15 per hour within a year – up from the $11.50 wage that many of them had been earning until then.

Mahamalage was one of the leaders of the strike, having been elected as a union steward this year. To her, this is retribution. Her union agrees. David Sanders, the organizing director of Unite Here, terms the management’s behavior “totally unacceptable.”

Mahamalage’s complaint has been filed as an employee grievance. Her case is one of many that employees have registered against the management.

The grievances, which have been piling up for years, will be taken up in a mega-meeting between Aramark management and Unite Here this summer. The union will have the option of resorting to arbitration by the labour relations board for unresolved disputes.

However, the process is lengthy and can take up to several months.

“A toxic work environment”

Mahamalage describes the workplace environment at UTSC as “nice” when she initially started a decade back, even if it was a minimum-wage job. But the atmosphere changed when a new management took over in 2009.

Under the supervision of Indy Karu and his team, Mahamalage and her colleagues appear to be trapped in a Dickensian nightmare.

The litany of accusations includes harassment, arbitrary demotion, reduction in hours for minor offenses, and callous disregard for safety and wellbeing of workers.

Karu’s hyper-vigilance is a theme that props up in several conversations with sources.

According to Mahamalage, Karu once attempted to eavesdrop on her conversation in the women’s locker room.

“I went to the washroom and he followed me. When I opened the door [on my way back], he was there. Because he wanted to hear what we were saying inside,” Mahamalage says.

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Patrice Callaghan

Patrice Callaghan, another union steward, has had similar experiences over the course of her eight years of employment at UTSC. She says that Karu has a habit of discreetly staring at her and her colleagues, as if waiting to pounce on them for making a mistake.

“It’s not a coincidence when more than five times you look up, and he’s staring at you. You’re supposed to be watching the people – whoever possibly could be stealing or whatever. [But] we are the employees, we work here – and out in the open,” Callaghan says.

“What could we possibly be doing out in the open?” she asks in exasperation.

Callaghan says that she complained to Aramark’s higher management several years ago about Karu standing too close and staring at her, but a female HR rep from the company found that to be his “management style.”

Responding via email, Karen Cutler, Aramark’s vice president of corporate communications, writes that the complaint “was investigated under our policy and the allegations were unfounded.”

According to several workers, one of the salient features of Karu’s management style is his proclivity for punitive measures. Mahamalage cites an incident where he shouted profanities at her for forgetting to ask a customer what time they would like to pick up their pizza.

According to Mahamalage, that led to elimination of her breaks, reduction in hours and ultimately, demotion from her supervisory role. She says the resultant stress was overwhelming for her and she was prescribed medication to cope with the situation.

The management apparently hasn’t just exploited the emotionally vulnerable. It feels no compunction in preying on the physically challenged.

“[There are] lots of problems here. Our manager – she doesn’t talk to us nicely. If we call, [and say] ‘I can’t come. I’m sick today.’ She asks a lot of questions, ‘Why are you sick? What happened to you? Can you bring a doctor’s letter?” Mahamalage says.

According to the account of Yamuna Kakunthan, 35, the requirement of a doctor’s note was manipulated to teach her a lesson. An ankle injury from a car accident last year meant she had trouble walking, and was susceptible to injury when performing chores such as mopping.

In the immediate aftermath of the injury, her doctor prescribed her a lighter workload for two months. The management reacted appropriately by relieving her of mopping duties and even providing her a chair. Since Kakunthan’s discomfort on her feet persisted, the expiration of her doctor’s note was not a problem.

However, upon returning from strike, the management demanded proof of her injury. She said she would ask her doctor for another certificate on her upcoming appointment, but that wasn’t good enough, even though she was weeks away from surgery.

“He [the manager] can see me the way I walk. He doesn’t need to ask, right?” Kakunthan softly asks.

Her lack of mobility also suddenly became a concern.

“She was working a little bit slowly. So I explained to them, so [then they said], ‘Okay, then we can lay her off,’” Mahamalage says.

Similar anecdotes of Aramark management’s malfeasance gush out of the workers in an endless stream as they unwrap their wounds.

“It was really the animus behind the U of T Scarborough strike, it was the deep antipathy towards Indy [Karu] by the workers,” says Sanders, the union’s organizing director. “And in that sense that strike was an expression of liberation to try to get away from how Indy had [managed].”

Over the years also, [he] had worked very hard to divide the groups within the workplace and pit people against one another, have people competing with each other for shifts, for jobs, for this and that, to basically create a toxic work environment,” he says.

The workers agree with this assessment and blame the management for creating rifts amongst them by playing favorites.

Although there was a strong resolve for better compensation, Mahamalage points out that they were “also fighting for respect and dignity.”

Aramark maintains that it takes “all allegations of harassment seriously” and thoroughly investigates them. It also states that it hasn’t received formal complaints about the union relating to allegations of punitive measures and disrespectful behavior towards employees.

The strike – fighting for better compensation and respect

The collective bargaining agreement between Unite Here and Aramark expired in September 2016 for cafeteria workers at York University and UTSC. Once negotiations got underway, they quickly reached an impasse.

“The company’s original offer continued to leave people in poverty wages for years – (it) didn’t even get people to $15 an hour at the end of a 5-year agreement and that was utterly unacceptable,” Sanders says.

Further reading: Workers get ready to take on Aramark (Rank&File.ca)

In February, workers at York and UTSC went on strike. For a story I wrote in April, Unite Here told me that between the two universities, they collected around “7,000 signed postcards, petitions or letters, calling on both the university administration and the provincial government to step in and do what’s right.”

Boxes full of the petitions were delivered to offices of Premier Wynne, the ministry of labour, the U of T president and the UTSC principal.

“There were delegations led by U of T profs on a number of occasions, where they went with some workers and delegated the principal’s office. Then there was solidarity tabling and free coffee stations and that sort of thing,” says Marc Hollin, a researcher at Unite Here.

The union also organized the workers to demonstrate weekly outside Queen’s Park (provincial government headquarters). They were also seen at City Hall, with dozens of them in Unite Here shirts quietly slipping into council meetings, attempting to politely remove their cloak of invisibility.

“My sense from the provincial government was that it was hands-off but supportive of the demands of the workers,” Sanders said in late April.

Since then, the Ontario Liberals have pledged to raise the minimum wage to $14 per hour by January and to $15 by January 2019.

Meanwhile, University of Toronto maintained a distant approach, saying that the issue was to be resolved between Aramark and its employees.

Sanders accuses the university of “offloading its dirty laundry to a subcontractor,” pointing out that the cafeteria workers employed directly by the university at the St. George campus in downtown get paid $18 or upwards per hour.

“I think the University of Toronto, as an anchor institution of our community, has a responsibility to ensure that everybody who works or lives or studies within the university community is treated with respect, and dignity, and paid a living wage that can support a family,” he says.

According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the living wage in Toronto in 2014 was $18.52.

Sanders’ contention is that workers at UTSC don’t hold the same value for the institution that sees the Scarborough branch as a secondary campus.

Asha Mattis, a senior at UTSC who became closely aligned with the cafeteria employees over the course of the strike, is unflinchingly critical of her university’s attitude toward the problem.

Mattis, who is a Women’s Studies and Anthropology major, is appalled at the university’s hypocrisy. She refers to her curriculum distilling the interplay of power in relation to race, gender, citizenship, religion, sexuality and disability; and yet, she sees the university ignoring these factors in its own backyard when dealing with a workforce largely comprising of immigrant women and people of color.

“It’s so crazy, trying to talk about child rights in Nigeria or they talk about all this shit around the world, and then we have people feeding us, who are serving us coffee every single day, under this contract of poverty wages, under the same neoliberalism that we criticize in school,” Mattis says, her voice brimming with repulsion. “They get poverty wages!”

Shelley Romoff, UTSC’s director of communications, declined my interview requests. However, she told me via email that the university was pleased about the ratification of the agreement. She noted that it had been termed ‘groundbreaking’ by Unite Here.

“We work with a vendor to provide food services at U of T Scarborough because this is the best solution given the scale, volume, infrastructure and need for the range of choices the community wants,” she wrote.

“The review process for selecting this vendor is one that is inclusive and rigorous.”

Perhaps the university would have been more willing to change its position had more of its students vocally expressed their outrage.

The (UoT) Scarborough Campus Students Union did make an effort to send delegations to the administration, and facilitated interactions between the workers and the university (but heard the same heartless rhetoric i.e. “this is between Aramark and its employees”).

According to SCSU president Sitharsana Srithas, the student union endorsed the petition drive, had its members on the picket line when possible and helped organize two Free Coffee Days (to discourage students from making purchases at Tim Horton’s).

However, Mattis – who initiated the second Free Coffee Day – says that she was often the only student on the picket line. She notes that although solidarity called for boycotting Aramark outlets, the queue at Tim Horton’s continued to snake outside its doors.

She partly attributes the lack of food options on campus making it difficult for students to translate their sympathy into action.

Srithas admits that while students who were aware of the issue were involved in the campaign, not everyone was well-informed. She attributes the lack of engagement to students’ being busy with part-time jobs and “family commitments,” citing the highly racialized campus demographic.

“That’s an ongoing struggle not just with this issue but also any kind of campaign or advocacy work that the union does. It’s very hard for our message to get out there,” Srithas says.

The workers v. The union

“So in five years, when the minimum wage is $15 again, we are going to have the same thing. We are going to have a bunch of UTSC food employees, who are making next to minimum wage, living in poverty,” says Asha Mattis.

Though the cafeteria staff shares a deep sense of aversion towards Aramark, many of them are also resentful towards a union they say has largely abandoned them.

When 65% of the workers voted to ratify the new agreement with Aramark, Unite Here portrayed it as a groundbreaking success. However, it left many of the workers disgruntled, including two of the three union stewards.

“I am not in agreement with it simply because we are the same company from downtown and we should all be the same all across the board,” Patrice Callaghan says.

Callaghan says that the union had convinced the workers that they would be getting the same deal as UoT St. George, but yet they ended up with compensation lower than not just the downtown campus workers, but also those at York (though only marginally).

“During the whole process, the union is telling us, it’s a great contract, take it. But we as the workers, did not [think it was great]. So you as the union were supposed to represent us,” Callaghan says, blaming Unite Here for forcing the deal down their throats.

Gesudasan Rayapok, 62, a chef at Aramark, cites the difficulty of picketing for long hours for minimal (picket) pay during the harsh Toronto winter as an explanation for the ratification vote.

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Gesudasan Rayapok

“Everyone was fed up. You know, at that time, it was cold outside,” Rayapok says. “You know, some people had to pay rent. It’s very hard. Because sometimes my children were helping, [for me it was] okay, but some of the other people, they don’t have help.”

Sanders, the organizing director, who acknowledges that the agreement could be better, explains that by the time Aramark put up an offer in April, the strike was approaching its third month. According to an absurdity in Ontario’s labour law, if workers on strike don’t ratify a deal within six months, they can all be fired.

In early April, the winter semester was about to finish. In summer, with only about 40% of the workforce required, Aramark could have easily made it to August 6 (the six-month mark) by hiring temporary workers and part-timers.

The six-month limitation is set to be removed in the new legislation being proposed by the Ontario Liberals.

“I don’t want to sell it short,” Sanders says. “A 33% raise over four years is the best collective agreement that any trade union has negotiated in the province of Ontario in any sector, public or private in at least the last five years.”

The union denies that it promised the workers the same deal as St. George, but says that it strived for a $18 minimum wage. According to Unite Here, the lower wages at UTSC is a function of it being treated as a secondary campus by U of T.

The workers are also concerned that although everyone will be earning a minimum of $15 per hour starting March 2018, the subsequent annual raise from that point onwards is only 10-15 cents per hour until the end of the contract in 2021.

“So they are not giving them a percentage of a raise, nor are they giving them a raise that even accounts for inflation,” says Mattis, a trusted confidante of many of the employees.

“So in five years, when the minimum wage is $15 again, we are going to have the same thing. We are going to have a bunch of UTSC food employees, who are making next to minimum wage, living in poverty.”

But Sanders argues that with most of the pay raise being meted out quickly, the compromise dictated that wages wouldn’t spike too high in the future.

“Extracting 33% in four years is unheard of. Not only were we able to extract that much but we were able to force them to put all that to the front end of the contract,” he says.

“Normally employers put it all at the end of the contract, so it looks like you won it, but you actually get it for the last four months.”

But the workers have a point. Though they are ahead of the curve, they will essentially be at an inadequate minimum wage in two-three years. Unite Here is not completely oblivious to the point.

“It’s a great contract but still not what people deserve. These jobs are not good enough,” Sanders says. “[However] it’s a breakthrough agreement to put people forward.”

While some of the workers suggest that their deal has limited value considering that minimum wage in Ontario will soon be $15 anyway, Sanders makes the case that Unite Here’s efforts as part of the broad $15 and Fairness coalition of activists and unions across Ontario was integral in nudging the Liberal government.

Regardless of the merits of either side’s arguments, the chapter on compensation is closed for the foreseeable future. However, the fight for a more congenial workplace ambience continues.

“My manager came to me, [and said], ‘Oh you went on strike. Nothing, nothing happened to me,’ he laughed loudly. I said, ‘Your name is spoiled already.’ Then he was angry with me,” Mahamalage says, recalling an interaction that happened a couple of weeks after the strike.

If Mahamalage felt emboldened, the management ensured that her ego didn’t inflate too much. Her hours were reduced upon returning from strike; with some other workers facing the same issue.

And then in early May, she was slapped with an unprecedented summer lay-off, which she believes is a result of her manager spotting her talk to me.

As the big dispute resolution meeting between management and the union approaches at the end of June, Mahamalage and her cohorts are not optimistic.

They say they have filed many grievances over the past several years, which have failed to materialize in resolutions. Both Mahamalage and Callaghan, for instance, say that they have been involved in about 20 outstanding grievances each.

“Nothing ever comes out of it!” Callaghan exclaims.

Callaghan says that the union’s tone has often been disrespectful and patronizing.

“Because we are mainly immigrants, they feel like we have no sense. They feel like we can’t put two and two together kind of thing,” she says.

Pursuing accountability

“Aramark is a valued, longstanding contributor to UTSC” – Bruce Kidd, UTSC Principal

“I am disillusioned by the fact that the same University that has taught me to be so critical of oppression has reproduced the same kinds of oppression through their business practices” – Asha Mattis.

If the UTSC administration let its conscience sleep during the strike, Asha Mattis was intent on shaking it awake.

She was shocked at the treatment Aramark had meted out to Mahamalage in particular, and was convinced that the union was not adequately representing the workforce.

“When they have a history of not taking these grievances seriously, how do you have faith in them? How do you have faith in (the process) when some of these grievances have been swept under the table?” Mattis asks.

In early April – days before the strike ended – Mattis wrote an in-depth letter to Bruce Kidd, the UTSC principal, introducing him to the wretched experiences of the persons working at the university’s cafeteria and asking for accountability from the administration.

Mattis’ letter recommended the following course of action:

  • Form an investigative committee to file a report on the outstanding grievances of the workers with the intent to find a way to resolve the issues.
  • Take measures to ensure the university is not supported through poverty wages
  • Put an action a plan to fair and equitable subcontracted labor on all U of T campuses

To support her positions, Mattis suggested that Aramark was violating U of T’s own policies on human rights, and its “commitment to principles of equal opportunity, equity and justice.”

In his response a few weeks later, Kidd said “Aramark is a valued, longstanding contributor to UTSC,” and that the university has “no evidence” that it doesn’t abide by U of T policies and Canadian law. He wrote that the workers should look to the union – and the established procedures as defined by the university’s policies – to address their grievances.

Though Kidd had no reservations about Aramark’s conduct, he obviously found joy in Mattis’s activism. He told her that he was “delighted that your studies in Women and Gender Studies and Cultural Anthropology have encouraged you to speak up for social justice.”

He went on to say that Mattis’s letter had had him so excited that he was going to award her 14 brownie points – the highest honor that UTSC bestows upon radical students – that she could avail at the Aramark cafeteria, and enjoy the labour of love of her dear friends.

Kidd also suggested that Mattis could join the UTSC Food User Committee that advises the administration on the campus’s food services.

Working in concert with other student groups including SCSU, Mattis also engaged Frank Perruzi, UTSC’s assistant director of food partnerships. Learning that the university took a share of Aramark’s profits to allow the company to operate on its campus, Mattis suggested that the money be diverted towards the workers.

“To even have those conversations with the university was really hard (because the university wanted to maintain a neutral stance),” she says.

After conversations with the administration, Mattis says she understands that the issue is not as simple as asking Aramark to pay more, and the company has to bear expenses such as for maintenance and expansion.

“There’s a balance here. It’s not as easy as just saying, ‘Here, pay them more money.’ At that point we saw the university needs to get involved. It’s not as simple as Aramark paying them. It’s about creating a structure where Aramark can pay them [more],” she says.

But lobbying the university to revamp the profit structure became a moot point as the workers signed a new deal soon after. Mattis then turned her attention to the management’s behavior.

During a chance meeting with Bruce Kidd, she appealed to him for the university to oversee the grievance committee meeting.

“I assured the principal that we were not demanding that all Aramark managers be fired, but rather that we wanted to hold accountable the bad apples to ensure that the workers were treated with the same respect and dignity that any student, staff or faculty had the right to,” Mattis says.

Kidd was sympathetic but stressed that it could not get involved in matters concerning two third parties.

Upon Kidd’s suggestion, Mattis set up a meeting with Frances Wdowczyk, the director of business development at UTSC. Wdowczyk pointed out the distinction between contract and direct employees to emphasize the university’s limitations, but told Mattis that she would follow up with the administration at the downtown campus and revert back in 10 days about possible legal options available to the university.

Over a month later, Mattis is still waiting for a response.

“I am disillusioned by the fact that the same University that has taught me to be so critical of oppression has reproduced the same kinds of oppression through their business practices,” Mattis says.

Cause for optimism?

Considering the complexities in play at UTSC, and the myriad issues to deal with, the union has dedicated a third of the time of two of their organizers to the location.

But Sanders is not convinced that the presence of the union alone is enough to tackle the situation. He believes it’s the workers who have to coalesce around their common issues to achieve goals.

According to Sanders, going through the grievance procedure will not change the workplace. In part, he says, it’s because not all grievances are backed by the kind of evidence needed to win the cases. And that creates bad precedents for similar cases to be decided by the labour court in the food services sector.

“Because Indy so aggressively creates conflict and division and targets people and all those things, not surprisingly people would rather not step up and confront him directly,” he says.

“And would rather have the union file a grievance and take something to arbitration. And the problem with that is that you only have a legal argument, and because the management can be clever in how they do things, they can get away with targeting and attacking people.”

The answer is unity, he says, explaining that the workers achieved that for most of the strike before tensions erupted again.

Sanders says that aside from having three shop stewards represent the 65 workers, the union will make an effort to form a broader committee structure to tackle workplace problems. The committees would be based on naturally-occurring groups at work, such as people uniting as friends, or by shifts, or through job classification.

“(In most of our workplaces) we try to have one leader from each of those groups who becomes a member of the volunteer organizing committee for each workplace,” he says.

“That committee meets regularly to discuss like, ‘Here’s what Indy did now, I think they are trying to do this, we gotta watch out for this.’”

For Mattis, knowing that the union is working towards mobilizing the workers is a positive sign.

“I am actually encouraged that they have a union that is fighting for them. And I’m learning a little bit more,” she says.

The summer of discontent

Mahamalage has seen too many union organizers, heard too many promises and faced too many insults to be optimistic.

Last year, she was about to file an official complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal about her situation before being dissuaded by the union to do so. They encouraged her to take a leadership role in the strike instead.

Several months later, she finds herself out of work. And so in May, she finally submitted her dossier of complaints plus supporting evidence to OHRT. The tribunal is expected to respond soon.

At 45, being unemployed is not easy. Due to her weekend job, where she works alongside her husband at a furniture store, she is ineligible for unemployment insurance.

She found work at a garments factory but damaged nerves in her hands made it excruciating for her to handle bulky items for eight-hour shifts. She quit after a week.

“I have been applying for cashier jobs. [But at] this time it’s hard because students are also working. So everywhere they say that ‘we want to hire you after August or September,’” she says.

Since her Aramark supervisor is going on leave in August, she is hopeful that her services will be required then at UTSC.

“It’s okay. It’s two months. Til’ then, I’ll borrow money (from a friend),” she says, with the air of someone for whom hardship is a way of life.

“This is unbelievable that it’s happening in Canada, right?” she says about her entire ordeal. “It’s okay [easier to accept] if it happens in my country. But in Canada? I cannot believe [this].”

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