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Immigrant women hit hardest by low wages at YVR, says union

Living wage policies are up to individual employers, says YVR.
Unite Here Local 40 is calling on YVR to impose a living wage policy on concessions contractors.

A union representing hospitality workers in B.C. has issued a report calling for better wage policies at the Vancouver International Airport (YVR).

According to the report published Tuesday by Unite Here Local 40, a union representing food service workers at YVR, the average wage for YVR food and beverage workers is $18.27.

In 2023, the living wage for Metro Vancouver was $25.68 per hour.

The report included data collected from online and in-person surveys of 139 airport concession workers conducted in January and February this year, as well as employment data covering about 500 concession workers who are union members.

Earlier this year, the union raised alarms over the lack of transit subsidies for workers of one of YVR's largest food providers, SSP Canada Food Services.

Staff working early morning and late night hours previously received transit reimbursements from SSP until the COVID-19 pandemic, when YVR began implementing its own program. YVR's program ended on Feb. 1 and SSP has yet to reinstate reimbursements for staff.

In March, workers voted 85 per cent in favour of a strike after months of bargaining with SSP Canada Food Services.

While the airport authority does have a living wage policy, the union says it only covers around 2,500 airport authority workers, "a small fraction of the nearly 30,000 people who work at the airport and on Sea Island." 

The policy applies to companies providing direct contracted services to the airport authority for operations and maintenance, such as janitorial, landscaping and traffic management. 

In a statement to the Richmond News, the airport authority confirmed it is aware of ongoing contract negotiations between SSP and employees represented by Unite Here Local 40.

Since SSP is a commercial tenant rather than a direct service provider, YVR's living wage policy does not apply to the employer.

"YVR is not a party to the negotiations between SSP Canada Food Services and UNITE HERE Local 40," reads the statement.

The union, however, says SSP employees only account for "a small portion" of concession workers at the airport.

"We estimate that there are over 1,000 concession workers (union and non-union) working inside the terminals at YVR who would benefit from being covered by YVR's living wage policy," UNITE HERE Local 40 spokesperson Michelle Travis told the News.

Racialized women hit hardest by discrepancies, according to union report

Racialized women appeared to bear the brunt of the impact of wage discrepancies, as union data shows 80 per cent of concession workers at YVR are female.

Approximately 80 per cent of those sampled are visible minorities, including immigrants or newcomers to Canada. Figures for other genders were unavailable.

The demographic for airport authority staff paints a different picture, with just under 60 per cent identifying as male and about the same proportion identifying as white. Visible minorities account for 41 per cent of airport authority staff and 2.6 per cent identify as Indigenous.

As well, the report also highlighted the pay gap between YVR CEO and president Tamara Vrooman, who earned a total of $2.15 million including base salary and other incentives in 2023, and YVR concession workers. 

Calculations by Unite Here Local 40 show a full-time concession worker at the airport would earn about $36,540 per year, about 1.7 per cent of what Vrooman made last year.

Compensation for an average executive at the airport, according to YVR's 2023 Executive Compensation report, increased from $490,102 to $547,017 last year.

Concession workers who are struggling with low wages are also experiencing job insecurity, according to the union.

"...some concession workers reported that even though they were hired to work full-time, they do not always receive full-time hours," reads the report.

"Others reported having no control over their schedule and being expected to be at the beck and call to the needs of the airport."

In addition to facing unpredictable job conditions, the union said concession workers surveyed also reported an average of $1,575 in housing costs per month. Approximately 30 per cent of those surveyed are working more than one job.

Faced with rising costs, 53 per cent of workers said they cut back on family support.

"Many of YVR’s airport concession workers are first-generation immigrants to Canada or newcomers," reads the report. 

"It is common for immigrants, particularly newcomers, to send money abroad to support family or to pool resources among extended family living in Canada."

Fresh food ranked second in terms of cutbacks, with health and medical and transit costs sharing third place.

YVR should extend living wage policy to concession workers, says union

In the report, Unite Here Local 40 called for YVR to implement a $25 wage policy for concession staff, among other recommendations.

YVR, however, told the News that standards for compensation and working conditions in B.C. are determined by the B.C. Employment Standards Act while the B.C. Human Rights Code protects fundamental human rights for workers.

The airport authority added it offered information seminars about living wage in B.C. to the airport community in partnership with Living Wage for Families B.C.

"While deciding to pursue a Living Wage is solely up to each employer to determine on its own, we were pleased by the interest that has been shown by the community to learn more about becoming a Living Wage Employer, and we will look for further opportunities to work with Living Wage for Families BC," reads YVR's statement.

The union also asked that the airport reinstate its transit reimbursement program, but YVR said it should be up to commercial tenants to implement their own programs because YVR's initiative was part of its voluntary efforts to help the airport community during the pandemic.

"From the outset, these measures were designated as temporary and were a clear example of the airport authority going above and beyond, in order to help other businesses and their employees during the pandemic," explained YVR.

"As flights and passenger numbers rebounded, those commercial tenants who participated in the transportation subsidy were notified in November 2023 that the program would be discontinued."

In Richmond, city council previously endorsed a provision in the city's public procurement process to raise awareness of the merits of providing a living wage.

Under the provision, the city is to give consideration to vendors who "commit to paying their onsite staff a wage equivalent to or greater than the published living wage for specific contracts in excess of $250,000," city spokesperson Clay Adams told the News.

He added the provision is not a policy, but rather a message to vendors that the city "recognizes the value of providing a living wage if possible."

And according to Unite Here Local 40, airports along the West Coast that currently implement a living wage or minimum compensation policy include those in San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle and Los Angeles.

For example, according to the City of San Jose's airport living wage determination for July 1, 2023 to June 30, 2024, airport businesses must provide compensation of no less than US$18.86 per hour to employees with minimum health insurance benefits and US$20.11 per hour to those without benefits.

Ultimately, said the union, "the airport authority shapes the economics, policy and operations for outlets."

"That includes details such as customer pricing, setting hours for outlets, with start times as early as 4:30 a.m. and as late as 1 a.m., with implications for staff who rely on public transportation, and requiring security screenings and background checks for workers," reads the report.

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