Graduate student labourers are workers too

PSAC 901 hosts discussion as part of Respect Our Research movement

Eleven individuals were in attendance.

Story updated Sept. 22 9:22 p.m.

PSAC 901 members want Queen’s and legislators to respect their research.

PSAC 901 hosted students at Stauffer Library to demystify research, and discuss working conditions on Sept. 20. PSAC 901 is the union representing graduate teaching assistants, teaching fellows, research assistants, and postdoctoral scholars at Queen’s.

“Graduate student workers are also many things at once, not just students and trainees. We’re also academic laborers, teachers, and we produce scholarship and research that the University wouldn’t be able to function or have research output without the labour of graduate students,” PSAC 901 Vice-President (Community Relations) Levi Duhaime said in an interview with The Journal.

Respect Our Research had three goals: to demystify research for the public, re-frame graduate student labourers as workers, and advocate for more funding from Queen’s and the provincial government.

“There is this misconception of us as students, and that’s a labor issue for us, because we’re workers. When we have this misnomer of being students, we unfortunately don’t receive all the protections and rights under the Employment Standards Act and Labour Relations Act,” Duhaime said.

Speaking at the event were Queen’s Assistant Professor Rebecca Hall, Kingston & District Labour Council staff Doug Nesbitt, and PSAC Kingston regional representative Tim McIntyre.

Change must happen at the structural level, Hall explained, as faculty awareness of graduate student labourer issues vary department to department.

Nesbitt, a former member of PSAC 901, recalled his days as a PhD candidate without the stress of time to completion.

“Now there are degree completion timelines, and you’ll lose your funding after a certain period,” Duhaime said. “You have to jump through all these bureaucratic hoops to stay at your program in good standing.”

The tightened timeline for Masters and PhD students doesn’t mean standards aren’t still high, which Duhaime explained incentivizes graduate student labourers to work harder and longer hours.

Respect Our Research event attendees voiced concerns about power imbalances between themselves and their supervisors. Graduate student workers are dependent on their supervisors for funding, research support, and letters of recommendation to continue their careers in academia.

The discussion emphasized the additional hurdles international graduate student workers face at Queen’s. Attendees cited reduced funding opportunities, missing their support systems, and higher levels of discomfort advocating to themselves as challenges.

An international student himself, Duhaime understands the additional precarity of having to secure study permits and visas to work and study at Queen’s.

To access government support and health care, international graduate student workers must have filed a year of taxes, meaning students working on two-year completion timelines are halfway through their degrees before they’re eligible for support.

“We don’t have that support structure of the family and the community,” Duhaime said. “We’re not eligible for a lot of the domestic funding streams, like SSHRC, NSERC, and Tri-Council funding, so our funding is much more limited, and we don’t have access to those grants and scholarships that Canadian students [do].”

Respect Our Research was spearheaded by Western University’s PSAC 610 President Karuna D’Souza to show research conducted by graduate student labourers is for the public good and should be compensated accordingly, Duhaime explained.

The Canadian government acknowledged Canadians need a minimum of $26,000 annually to support themselves. For PSAC 610, the minimum guaranteed funding for PhD students is $17,000 per year, which Duhaime called below the poverty line.

The event targeting both students and community members had a smaller turn out than expected which Duhaime attributed to potential attendees showing support at the LGBTQ+ education counter-protest downtown.

“PSAC 901, and specifically, the political action committee, is certainly going to plan more events like this future and to continue vociferously advocating for proper compensation and protections for our labour,” Duhaime said.


September 23, 2023

A previous version of this story contained information that did not meet the Journal‘s standard for verification.

An error was made in the Sept. 22 issue of The Journal. 

The Journal regrets the error


funding, PSAC 901, Research

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