Student Workers

You’re a university student and you managed to get a research contract with a teacher you admire? Excellent! It might be a one-time contract or a contract of several thousand dollars for the entire year, complete with an office and a nice desk. You’ll nonetheless have to pay taxes and you’ll have to produce to the level that is expected of you. The most important contracts often come from an existing or future thesis or dissertation supervisor. Theoretically, your worker’s rights seem protected by a collective agreement and by the Labour Code, but what does this look like in reality?

In fact, salaried student’s rights are difficult to defend because of, among other things, the vagueness surrounding the supervisor-student and employer-employee relationship, the delays of complainants’ settlements in relation to the duration of their studies, of the pressure on salaried students to keep producing to fulfill their contract, and the lack of consideration given by university directorates. In short, the double status of student and worker is throwing people into confusion that benefits employers, while fostering harassment and abuse of power.

Grantee: the other side of the coin

Even better, you got yourself a scholarship or a grant? Congratulations! It may be a scholarship of excellence or perseverance. It is not usually possible to live on this type of scholarship, but it is generally free of taxes and does not require the production of scientific work. The most popular scholarships, however, are those that cover in full or in large part the cost of living for a year, such as those given by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Fonds de recherche société et culture (FQRSC) and those occasionally offered by the most well-off research chairs. For these exchanges, the parameters are more vague, sometimes even illegal. Practices vary from one chair to another and the legal and social protections offered to union members are absent.[1] What’s more, some of these scholarships include a production requirement for a chair or for the advancement of a dissertation or a thesis.[2]

Grantee or salaried student: the same vulnerable status

Let’s first explore the major differences between the statuses of grantee and salaried students. The tax aspect is the most cited advantage of scholarships. It should be noted, however, that only some scholarships are tax-free and that the general precariousness of students means that they often have no tax to pay anyways. This tax exemption is often presented by “bosses” as an advantage equivalent to the rights the student loses by not being a worker. However, in some cases, such as when scholarships are associated with a chair, the student is expected to perform tasks normally reserved for workers without the protections that a collective bargaining agreement can offer. The student is thus forced to do undeclared work: no taxes, but no rights in the event of litigation.

Despite these differences at the theoretical level, students who receive either bursaries or salaries face many common issues related to the strengthening of the supervisor-student relationship, already unequal, by the addition of a financial component. In fact, an employer-employee or supervisor-grantee relationship strengthens the power of the teacher over their student. In the case of salaried students, the professor can make the student’s working conditions difficult and possibly not renew the employment relationship. In the case of students with scholarships, it is often the supervisor who is responsible for communicating with the subventionary organization (FQRSC, SSHRC, research chair) to confirm that the conditions for awarding the scholarship are always respected and that payments are being made. In the case of SSHRC, it is forbidden for the student with a scholarship to work beyond a certain number of hours. It is the prerogative of the supervisor to monitor the hours of work done for them by the grantee. In both cases, the research supervisor is in a position to be able to terminate the scholarship if the student works “more” than desired by the subventionary organization.

For union delegates and executives, it is not uncommon to hear from students who are dissatisfied with their working conditions or who are victims of harassment and abuses of power, but who do not wish to make a complaint for fear of reprisals. “I don’t want to complain about my teacher because I need the next research contract to pay my rent! ” “ I can’t refuse the hours of work, because this teacher controls the payment of my scholarship! ” “ I don’t want to make a complaint against my teacher, I’m afraid they’ll reject my thesis.” Indeed, although collective agreements and codes of academic conduct seem, in theory, to prevent abuses of power and cases of harassment, it is very easy for a research supervisor to abuse their power with impunity. The double status (student-grantee or student-worker) renders impotent the collective agreements, the Labour Code and the university’s disciplinary code.

It must be noted that this dynamic of vulnerability and of supervisor’s abuse of power is gendered, marked by sexism and uneven between men and women in the teaching profession given the female student majority in classes. This gendered aspect of the relationship between research leadership and students helps to enable harassment, while also complicating the complaint process for victims.

For a less hierarchical and more pedagogical university community

If students who are currently salaried or receiving “privileged” scholarships remain vulnerable to abuses of power, it is because of the working student’s double status and the hierarchical structure of graduate studies that places the master-disciple, supervisor-directed relationship at the center of the pedagogical experience, regardless of the nature of the relationship and the consequences it may have on students. We therefore call for the recognition of the status of worker for all students so they can benefit from the corresponding rights, and we call into question the hierarchical organization of the university community. It is imperative that this questioning of the status quo not only breaks the exploitative relationship between supervisor and directed, but also offers recourse to students who are victims of abuse.

Valérie La France-Moreau and Laurent Paradis-Charette
Translation by Ronny Nou-Khlot


Valérie Lafrance-Moreau studies at Université du Québec en Outaouais (UQO) and has a scholarship. She’s also a union rep at Syndicat des étudiants et étudiantes salarié.es de l’UQO (SEES-UQO).
Laurent Paradis-Charette studies at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and has a scholarship. He’s a the former President and Secretary-treasurer at SEES-UQO

  1. SÉTUE UQAM. (23 mai 2016). Les fausses bourses: une pratique illégale : ↩︎

  2. (#_ftnref2)FQRSC. (2015) Le guide du boursier.