The Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) gathered for its first council meeting of the Fall 2023 semester on Sept. 6. Led by speaker Nora Delahaye, the hybrid session’s agenda included teaching assistants’ (TA) rights and Bill 96.
The meeting began with a presentation from Kiersten van Vliet, a representative from the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM)—the union representing graduate TAs and invigilators. Van Vliet outlined the rights and responsibilities of TAs and invigilators and encouraged them to reach out if they felt that their workers’ rights were being violated.
“If you have experienced harassment, discrimination, or sexual violence, [AGSEM officials] will be your advocates because you are entitled to a safe working environment as an employee of McGill,” van Vliet said.
Van Vliet also informed the council about AGSEM’s No More Free Hours campaign, a work-to-rule strike aiming to prevent course supervisors from asking TAs to exceed their contracted working hours—time that they are not compensated for.
“Before AGSEM represented graduate teaching assistants at McGill, the lowest paid TAs were earning minimum wage, which at that time was $7.25 an hour,” van Vliet said. “There are some departments at McGill that would pay us minimum wage if they could.”
PGSS University Affairs Officer Racchana Ramamurthy stressed in an email to The Tribune that this campaign is key to reducing the power imbalance between TAs and course supervisors.
“TAs hesitate to update the workload form if they exceed the hours fearing refutation from their supervisors and departments,” Ramamurthy wrote. “This has to be addressed immediately, and I am sure AGSEM’s No More Free Hours campaign will raise awareness about this and encourage TAs to exercise their rights.”
Following van Vliet’s presentation, PGSS External Affairs Officer Ansley Gnanapragasam took the floor to discuss the impacts of Bill 96 on the society. The bill, which requires that all organizations and businesses serving people in Quebec produce documents written in French, has reportedly cost PGSS $7,000 per month in translation fees since its implementation in June.
“This is an unsustainable cost,” Gnanapragasam told the council. “We [need] to translate documents such as meeting minutes, contracts, and other documents pertaining to the PGSS.”
Gnanapragasam acknowledged that this is not only an issue that graduate students at McGill face, but one that also affects other English-speaking institutions throughout the province.
“[We have] contacted some other English-speaking universities to see whether or not this is an issue that they’re also facing,” Gnanapragasam said. “This has been the case at Concordia, some CEGEPs, as well as Bishop’s University.”
PGSS has reached out to both the provincial and federal governments to request monetary compensation to help cover the cost of translation. The council hopes that the government will establish a fund to assist non-French-speaking organizations grapple with the effects of Bill 96.
PGSS Secretary-General Satish Kumar Tulumu echoed the financial strain of Bill 96 on the council in an email to The Tribune.
“More than three-quarters of PGSS membership are from outside Quebec and the vast majority of members from outside Quebec are also from non-French-speaking nations,” Tulumu wrote. “Many of the office bearers can’t write [in the] French language, leading to the hiring of French translators. This is good that we are employing local [francophones] but it makes us economically unsustainable.”
Moment of the Meeting:
Despite being scheduled for 1.5 hours, PGSS’s general meeting lasted only 42 minutes. Additionally, the council met its quorum of one per cent of total graduate membership, which has been a struggle in previous years.
“What we have found by surveying teaching assistants is that 48 per cent of teaching assistants worked above their contracted hours. On average, that would equal $430 of unpaid labour per TA. That equals a million dollars of unpaid TA labour that McGill is stealing from us every year.”
— Kiersten van Vliet on the importance of fair pay for TAs