How can employment and contracting practices in Canada’s property service sector be improved? This was the question posed to a multi-stakeholder group convened by SHARE, in partnership with the Atkinson Charitable Foundation, on October 30th in Toronto.
The roundtable brought together a diverse group of real estate investors, commercial property owners, property management companies, trade unions and grassroots advocacy groups who expressed an interest in working together. The Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, the Ontario Municipal Employees’ Retirement System, OPSEU Pension Trust, Bentall Capital and Brookfield Properties all took part in the proceedings, along with key trade unions and civil society groups including the SEIU, Kairos and the Workers’ Action Centre.
The day’s sessions focused on highlighting the investment risks associated with precarious employment practices in commercial real estate, and examining strategies for moving responsible real estate forward. Regi David from the Workers’ Action Centre spoke about the challenges that many cleaners and security guards face as a result of being misclassified by their employers. These workers are often classified as independent sub-contractors by the service firms contracted by the building owners – leaving them without protection under the employment standards act and vulnerable to abuses of legal rights. Sarah Stettinius of Landon Butler & Company, a US-based firm that applies its responsible contractor policies across its entire $7 billion real estate portfolio, offered an alternative to focusing simply on the financial bottom line by explaining the business benefits for investors and building owners from responsible property investing.
Participants were also asked to consider the usefulness of a code of conduct or policy as a mechanism for improving employment and contracting practices in the property service sector. Participants discussed the merits of voluntary codes of conduct in improving working conditions and examined what workplace standards such a code should cover. The respective responsibilities of property owners, property managers and service providers in implementing a code and ensuring compliance were also considered in the discussions
Several participants stated that a code of conduct or policy represents an important first step in improving employment and contracting practices but that it would not be sufficient to address all the complex challenges that many property service workers face. In order to be effective, participants noted the importance of involving workers, property service companies and tenants in the conversation, while others emphasized the need to link this conversation into broader discussions about “green” real estate in order to catalyze a shift towards sustainable real estate.
There was strong support from all participants for further research to generate measurable data in support of the business case for improved labour standards. This data, it was noted, is extremely important to help real estate companies and investment decision-makers state the case that developing and implementing labour practice codes and policies would not only improve employment and contracting practices, it would also strengthen service supply chain management and improve the quality of tenant services.
SHARE will continue working with the Atkinson Charitable Foundation on this issue and hopes to build on the valuable conversations that took place at the roundtable, engaging this diverse group of stakeholders to better employment practices across the commercial real estate sector in Canada.