Temporary foreign workers and immigrants employed as janitors at the University of Alberta say they have been fired or threatened for trying to form a union.
The employees of Bee-Clean Building Maintenance Inc. work under contract at the Edmonton university and are calling their union drive "Justice for Janitors."
With the help of the Services Employee International Union, the workers are asking for the support of faculty and staff and for the university's president to intervene.
"We are here to demand that Bee-Clean stop attacking workers exercising our rights under the law," said Tarik Accord, a Somali woman who said she was fired from her job last week for talking about the union. "We are respectfully requesting the president of the University of Alberta to meet with us and talk about our concern."
Janitor Danilo de Leon said Bee-Clean managers have threatened to send temporary foreign workers who are from the Philippines back home if they try to join a union.
Mr. de Leon said employees aren't being paid their full wages and are not being paid overtime. He said the janitors are also required to perform unpaid labour at the home of a manager.
"We have rights and we want to be respected," he said. "We are not slaves. We are workers."
Bee-Clean declined comment but said it may issue a statement next week.
The union, which is not yet certified to represent the janitors, says it has filed an unfair labour-practice complaint with the Alberta Labour Relations Board and has filed lawsuits on the workers' behalf to recover unpaid wages.
The union is U.S.-based and has more than two million members. It has a Canadian local that has won contracts for janitors in Toronto, Ottawa and British Columbia.
The Bee-Clean dispute at the University of Alberta is the leading edge of the union's "Justice for Janitor's" campaign in the province, said organizer Merryn Edwards. Its symbol is an outstretched arm reaching up holding a broom.
Officials at the university said president Indira Samarasekera was not aware of the janitor's request to meet with her.
Deb Hammacher, one of the university's vice-presidents, was adamant the school would not get involved in the dispute.
"This is a Bee-Clean issue. This is not a University of Alberta issue," she said. "The university does not get involved in the hiring and firing practices of its contractors."
But it appears the controversy won't be easily swept away. Some faculty and students are already vocally expressing support for the janitors.
Professor Amy Koler said she is embarrassed that the people who clean her office have to put up with degrading treatment and that it is disturbing that the university is being maintained through "unjust and unethical working conditions."
Prof. Koler said the university's administration needs to review the allegations of underpayment, harassment and unsafe working conditions. She called on Ms. Samarasekera to live up to a pledge the president made in April that "uplifting all people" is the University of Alberta's brand.
"These are very inspiring words, but I think now is the time to make them more than just words on paper," Prof. Koler said. "If the university wants to live up to its promise of uplifting the whole people, the administration has to ensure that all members of the university community, including the cleaning staff, are treated with respect and fairness."