As part of the Association of McGill University Research Employees’ (AMURE) ongoing negotiations with the university, President Sean Cory published an Open Letter to Principal Suzanne Fortier on Oct. 25. The letter lays out four injustices that research employees at McGill face, which AMURE—a union of research associates and assistants at McGill—hopes to come to a collective agreement upon at some point in the future: Payment discrepancies, inequitable hiring, precarious employment for those on leave, and professor abuses of power.
According to the letter, McGill retroactively increased pay for research assistants by 30 per cent last year, but this has only been applied to new hires thus far. Just two days after the Open Letter was published, McGill’s Human Resources department released a pay equity update confirming this gap and laying out plans to address it. In an email to the The McGill Tribune, Fortier reiterated the administration’s desire to fix payment discrepancies soon.
“In spring 2017 McGill entered into a conciliation process with three unions overseen by a provincially appointed conciliator,” Fortier wrote. “That process continues today, and the goal is to reach mutual agreement on the terms of our 2010 pay equity maintenance evaluation. Once this is achieved, we will move as quickly as possible to implement all pay adjustments, including retroactive payments, for those who are owed them.”
Fortier declined to comment publicly on the other three topics mentioned in the letter, citing confidentiality agreements in the bargaining processes.
AMURE also claimed that the majority of casual employees—who work fewer hours on a shorter-term basis and are not given the same benefits as regular employees—are women or people from racialized groups. Cory attributes this homogeneity to professors having too much individual freedom when hiring research employees.
“There’s not a single way that McGill is trying to increase diversity,” Cory said. “In research groups, professors can hire who they want […] and unfortunately because not all jobs are posted, it tends to be that they hire from their own social network, which tends to be white people.”
Cory interpreted McGill’s unequitable hiring as a violation of the Canadian Employment Equity Act, which says that employers have the duty to ensure representative hiring of marginalized groups. Cory promoted tactics such as providing incentives for diverse hires, training professors in equitable hiring practices, and requiring that professors post job openings in varied locations that reach a range of demographics.
Employability on Leave
The AMURE letter also highlighted the precarious positions of McGill employees on maternity or disability leave. Given that those on leave lack time and resources to search for new employment, many companies of McGill’s size take extra measures to ensure their employees’ job security. McGill, however, does not, and Cory reported that some employees return only to find that their jobs have been filled.
“You’re not offered any [protection] at McGill,” Cory said. “Other companies will offer the person a comparable job to what they had before, or at least guarantee their salary if they find them a different job. For research employees, [McGill] does zip. A person can come back from a depression, an accident, cancer, maternity leave, and McGill is like, ‘Well, find your own job yourself.’”
Cory hopes to negotiate a policy for internal hiring with the university to ensure that former workers are prioritized when re-applying for a job.
Abuses of Power
The letter also called for a ban of student-professor relationships, citing a repeated issue with professors abusing their hiring powers to take advantage of student employees.
“Professors can exploit their power over people, their hiring ability,” Cory said. “We’ve seen [cases where] professors approach people, they ask the students to work for them, then the work that’s being provided for these people is almost, like, made up work. It’s not a research project, it’s almost like busy work, photocopying […] arranging for the person to come to [their] office late in the evening.”
When reporting equity cases to the university, McGill’s Human Resources office bridges the gap between administration and employees. In an email to the Tribune, Diana Dutton, Interim Associate Vice-Principal of the office, noted that the claims in AMURE’s letter are unsubstantiated.
“It is difficult to assess these claims as no supporting data is included,” Dutton said. “I am not sure I am in a position to speak to other employees’ experiences, but I can certainly speak to my own. I know McGill to be a fair and equitable employer, highly committed to respecting employees’ rights and upholding all collective agreements and applicable labour standards. We are committed as well to equitable hiring and employment practices, not only for research employees, but for all employees. And if an employee feels they have been treated unfairly, we have grievance and dispute resolution processes in place to help ensure a fair outcome.”