3 Questions with Researcher-in-Residence Dr. Enda Brophy

August 07, 2020

Meet Dr. Enda Brophy, SFU School of Communication Associate Professor and CERi Researcher-in-Residence.

1. What is your area of research?

EB: My main area of research is labour and collective organizing by workers in communication and cultural industries. I have had a longstanding interest and involvement in labour politics in the university though, and this will be the focus of my project as a Researcher-in-Residence at CERi. Universities are rife with inequity, a condition that has only been aggravated by neoliberal labour management strategies like flexible employment and outsourcing. Looking the university from below, from the perspective of the low-wage labour that allows this institution to function, is one way to make these inequities visible to students, faculty and administrators who may take this work for granted. My research aims to spotlight these inequities and explore the means of addressing them.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began low-wage service sector workers across the economy—from warehouse workers at Amazon to cashiers at Safeway—have been celebrated alongside health providers as “essential” workers. Our SFU community has its own low-wage frontline workers, including the employees who clean offices and provide food service on campus. As it has in other sectors, COVID-19 has exposed a fault line between privileged employees such as myself who are able to work from home and those whose “essential” work has not only historically been low-paid and precarious, but now puts them at greater risk of contracting a deadly disease. To make matters worse, as the university has moved most of its activities online, many workers have been laid off and face deeply uncertain futures. My research project at CERi aims to explore the impact of COVID-19 on the low-wage workers in our community at SFU and to review policy proposals and collective organizing options to improve the situation for these workers.

2. What are the challenges of your research?

EB: SFU has styled itself as a progressive, engaged university but outsourcing campus services like cleaning and food services work has meant it is able to distance itself from low wages, problematic working conditions, and COVID-related layoffs for workers performing essential services in our community. The people cleaning our lecture halls and preparing our lunches provide critical service, but students, faculty and administrators may take this work for granted if they even think of it all. This research project aims to spotlight work on campus that tends to be less visible and thus doesn’t have a high profile in our community. As research that is guided by solidarity, a key principle is challenging the divisions and inequities among workers on campus (or those on campus and those working virtually, these days). I teach courses and a cafeteria worker prepares meals, but each of us contributes to the societal goal of post-secondary education. I’m employed directly by the university and the cleaner is employed by a cleaning company contracted by SFU, but we work on the same campus at the same public institution. Challenging the barriers that are placed among different kinds of workers on campus will be the greatest challenge of this research project.

3. How does your research impact community?

EB: By highlighting low-wage work in our community, the project aims to valourize this work and the people who perform it. By researching this work cooperatively with workers and their organizations, the goal of this research is to create and support relationships of solidarity among different kinds of workers in our university community. Most broadly, the goal of this research is to push the university to become a more egalitarian, democratic and fair institution, for all of its workers.

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