Wealthy property owners are looking the other way as janitors are forced to miss work and pay
Large property owners, including the federal government and the City of Ottawa, and the cleaning companies they contract, have refused to pay janitors who, through no fault of their own, are losing much needed work hours. When you live paycheque-to-paycheque, this forces families to make impossible choices.
The convoy that has taken Ottawa hostage arrived nearly two weeks ago. While the dangers and annoyances it has caused have been well documented, not as evident is the impact they have had on the city’s working class – consider janitors for example.
Janitors have been working through the COVID-19 pandemic, playing a key role in sanitizing the city. Their work has made it safer for everyone and they have continued to clean while property owners never saw it fit to provide janitors with pandemic pay. These workers have risked their health and safety, riding crowded busses through lockdowns without the option to work from home.
Many of the city’s cleaners come from racialized communities and the majority are women. Although they are often left behind, through their union they have made important gains over the years, like annual pay increases, medical benefits and a pension plan. Still, many must work second and even third jobs just to make ends meet.
The occupation has resulted in the shutdown of many buildings in downtown Ottawa and blockades have, at times, prevented workers from getting to their jobs. Hundreds of incidents of intimidation, harassment and targeted racism have been reported and made the downtown core unsafe for workers.
These protestors are not representative of the majority of truck drivers and do not have the right to intimidate and harass residents, and openly promote hate speech and racism. The notion they represent “the average working Joe” in Canada is absurd. No janitor would be able to take weeks of unpaid leave to trek across the country to invade someone else’s city.
“I work at a store in the Rideau Centre, and it had to be closed down,” say Juliana Cruz, who has been working at the mall for a cleaning company for 15 years. “People were coming into the stores not wearing facemasks and they were ignoring the security guards.” At one point, an employer at the mall reported that workers at the Rideau Centre were hiding out of fear. The mob’s presence became a serious safety concern and stores were closed.
Juliana, a member of SEIU Local 2, figures she’ll only see about $200 of the $1,100 plus she normally makes on her next paycheque. “In the last two weeks I’ve only worked two days at Rideau,” she says. “They tried opening the store last Thursday and Friday but had to close again.” She’s not sure when she’ll get another shift.
Omte’s mother is also a member of Local 2. She works for a janitorial company contracted to clean a federal building downtown Ottawa. Her mom, who struggles speaking English, is concerned about speaking out but was willing to have her daughter talk on her behalf about her experiences as long as we didn’t use her last name.
“She’s back at work now but lost eight days of work,” explains Omte. “When she asked about pay, she was told they would not be compensated.”
Juliana, Omte’s mom, and many of their co-workers will be coming up short this month because of lost pay.
Juliana is fortunate to still be able to work her part time job elsewhere in the city. “I’m not sure how I’m going to pay all my bills,” she says, “but at least I should be able to make rent.” I’m not sure what my co-workers at the Rideau Centre are going to do.
About one hundred SEIU Local 2 members have lost vital income because of closures. Countless other workers in the city have as well.
“All of this because they refuse to wear masks and get vaccinated?” says Juliana. She has her vaccines up to date, including her booster shot. “They don’t work, and they won’t let us work,” she says.
“Many of the janitors who work downtown walk to their jobs,” says Omte. “A lot of the workers have told me they are being harassed on the street just for wearing a mask.”
Freedom has nothing to do with not wearing a mask or refusing to get vaccinated – those are vital public health measures that helps keep us all safer. There is freedom, however, in being able to make a living with the respect, in being able to provide dignified housing for your family and putting healthy food on the table. There is freedom in the peace of mind job security and good medical benefits provide.
SEIU Local 2 respects everyone’s right to peacefully protest, but this occupation has been far from peaceful. The convoy has not provided freedom for anyone, and certainly not Ottawa’s working families – in fact, they have been robbing workers of their freedom. It’s time for the federal, provincial and city governments to step in and protect the public’s safety.
A coalition of local labour unions, community organizations and residents will be holding a rally this Saturday in solidarity with frontline workers and Ottawa residents affected by the occupation. Click here for rally details.
“Those in the convoy should pack up and go home and allow us to work!” says Juliana. Until that happens, Ottawa’s property owners (including the City and the Federal government) and cleaning companies should stop turning their backs on working families who have already taken the brunt of the pandemic. Be good corporate citizens; show you respect Ottawa’s janitors and pay lost wages.