Masters students at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design have launched a campaign calling on administrators and faculty to end allegedly unethical employment conditions for research assistants. Students’ objections include drastically low pay rates, pressure to underlog their hours, and a lack of respect for students’ boundaries between their working hours and personal lives. 

On November 30, Izzy Mink, Bhavika Sharma, and Jessica Palmer — masters students at Daniels who organized the campaign — were joined by fellow Daniels masters students to deliver a petition outlining the campaign’s demands to the Dean’s office and to various faculty heads. According to the organizers, the petition includes signatures from 75 per cent of the graduate students at Daniels; organizers also noted that 99.6 per cent of the students they approached agreed to sign the petition. 

The campaign’s two central demands are as follows. First, faculty should be employing all students doing research assistant (RA) work through “official Research Assistant contracts,” which are protected by a collective agreement between the United Steel Workers (USW) Local 1998 and U of T’s central administration. The campaign defines the work of RAs as “any job taken to assist a professor,” excluding Teaching Assistants’ (TA) work, whether or not the worker is officially designated as an RA. 

Secondly, and more simply, the campaign demands that all graduate students doing research assistant work should receive at least $25 an hour. Mink, Sharma, and Palmer noted in an interview with The Varsity that they prioritize the pay increase, whether or not their demand for USW representation is successful.

As of the time of publication, the campaign has not yet received a response from U of T. The university declined The Varsity’s request for comment on the students’ demands. 

The complaints

The 14-student group occupied the Dean’s office for a few minutes after they delivered the petition and shared stories of their mistreatment as employees.

Mink shared that she started her Work Study position in summer 2022, and received $15 an hour as compensation. “I thought it was really a great opportunity,” she said. Later, Mink described that she attended a conference where she met two architecture students, which she characterized as essentially working the same job, at Toronto Metropolitan University and Dalhousie University, respectively. “One was making $26 an hour, one was making $28 an hour,” she recounted.

In an interview with The Varsity, Mink explained that the Work Study program essentially means professors are not bound by USW 1998’s collective agreement with the university administration for RA positions. This collective agreement doesn’t represent Work Study students. A Work Study position is specifically tied to a student’s Degree Program, and is largely funded by the university department offering the position. Since these positions are considered part of students’ education, they are also exempt from Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, which sets out basic conditions for workers hired through typical employers, such as vacation pay. 

Palmer recounted to The Varsity that she’d been told by fellow students that their professors would encourage them to log fewer hours than they had actually worked, “saying, you know, ‘are you sure that took you 15 hours? Because it took so-and-so ten hours.’”

During the sit-in at the Dean’s office, Palmer highlighted that the power imbalance between Daniels’ graduate students and their employers makes collective protections all the more important, since those employers are often also the students’ own professors. “They know every single person coming to critique you, they have a really strong voice when it comes to your ability to complete a job in the future,” she said. 

As an example of these power imbalances, Palmer shared the story of a peer who was assigned to do TA work during their work-study contract. In an interview with The Varsity, Palmer’s peer — a former Daniels’ masters student who has now graduated — directly confirmed the story. They requested to remain anonymous out of concern for future employment opportunities. 

The former student told The Varsity that they had secured a TA position in the fall with the same professor who had employed them to assist with research earlier that summer. “I was asked to do a significant number of hours [for the] tasks that were for the upcoming TA position… I did all of that on the wages of a [Work Study student],” they explained. They recalled that they received $19 an hour through their Work Study contract — as of January 1, 2023, CUPE3902’s collective agreement with the university guarantees all workers doing TA work an hourly wage of $47.64.

They also noted that they did TA work for a second class that their professor was teaching during the fall, despite only being formally contracted for one. Eventually, they described, everyone in the second class thought that the student was their TA, too. “They thought that I was the person to reach out to for questions,” the student recalled.

More conversations to come

Sharma told The Varsity that the group is open to having further conversations with the Dean about the campaign and its demands following the petition’s delivery and sit-in. Palmer said, “There were people who came in and listened. And that was really good to see.” 

Still, the members also emphasized the individual responsibility that professors carry. In an interview with The Varsity, Daniels masters student Kazia Rodrigo said, “Professors themselves dictate how they treat their employees — having good work-life boundaries and respecting each other’s time. They’re actively choosing to do it. It has nothing to do with the university setting that up.”