Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Post-Doctoral Fellows: a new frontier for cheap university labour

While students, workers and supporters are watching for improved working conditions at York, another group of workers is quietly suffering on university campuses.

Post-doctoral researchers are like faculty members: they have received their doctorates (PhDs) and conduct high-level research in their fields of expertise. But they have none of the benefits that are afforded to faculty members. Ryerson’s post-doctoral fellow population is approximately 80 and is growing rapidly.

Recently, two unnamed tenure-track faculty members have constructed a website to document the problems facing post-docs in Canada. The authors are anonymous, citing concern of potential reprisals from their current universities for what they have to say about the unfair treatment of post-docs. They draw their expertise from their “ordeals” as post-docs at the University of Toronto and McGill. There are about 500 post-docs working at McGill and between 1,800 and 2,500 at the University of Toronto.

In their website, the authors focus on the injustices faced by foreign and domestic post-docs, poor benefits, the difficulty of starting young families, the question of status (student vs. employee), and post-docs’ unsustainable pay. According to University of Toronto documents, base pay for U of T post-docs is a meager $28,000 despite working hours of 50, even 60 hours a week. In addition to this, stories abound of post-docs being forced to pay for their own travel and accommodations to research conferences. And for the insulting icing on the cake, there is a new move afoot to charge post-docs training fees in order to—get this—classify them as students.

It appears that the University of Toronto is trying to conjure up the image that post-doctoral fellows are in fact students in a training program. This is to try and fool the Canadian Revenue Agency into thinking post-docs are students and therefore eligible for T2202As. They are playing to post-docs’ hopes that their wages will not face income-tax—an unlikely scenario considering the CRA just issued a statement instructing universities, including the U of T, to issue proper income-tax paperwork to post-docs.

But maybe this isn’t the real reason that the U of T and others are interested in labeling post-docs as trainees (students). More people are becoming worried that in the pursuit of more money, universities will start to look for more revenue generating units (tuition fee-paying students). Post-docs at the University of Toronto (excluding those at affiliate research institutions like hospitals) will be forced to cough up $200 this year, which could generate nearly half a million dollars. With no regulations on these fees, they could grow rapidly after their introduction.

There is a growing and strong opposition to the introduction of these fees. CUPE 3902, the union representing a handful of teaching post-docs (and thousands of other instructors) has included the removal of a ‘training’ fee in current contract negotiations. CUPE 3902 at the U of T is trying to negotiate better supplemental job opportunities like teaching.

Foreign workers are especially exposed to the harsh realities of post-doc positions and require special attention. If universities like the U of T are successful implementing their student/trainee post-doctoral model, foreign post-docs could loose their access to public healthcare. Many may also experience bureaucratic turmoil because of inconsistencies that such a change in designation would cause with their current work visas.

CUPE 3902’s negotiations are strong evidence that unionization would stop this cash-grab and other consequences that a student label could lead to. Post-doctoral fellows in Ontario universities should follow the path of their counterparts at McMaster, Western and the University of California to seek the protection of a union. This is the only way to guarantee their status as workers and to effectively bargain for better contracts in the future. Otherwise, post-doctoral fellows will find themselves as another exploited source of cheap and highly-educated academic labourers.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you for this EXCELLENT article! It properly outlines the concerns of the authors of "Protect Canadian Postdocs".


We hope too that post-docs start fighting for their rights as employees, maybe even organized ones!

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