The exploitation of Research Assistants (RAs) by SFU

Canada’s most engaged research university refuses to recognize the union of those who produce said research

Photo courtesy of Simon Fraser University.

By Serena Bains, Staff Writer

Research is one of SFU’s three pillars in its strategic vision, resulting in $161 million in income. Research assistants (RAs), a group that primarily consists of graduate students at SFU, conduct much of the day-to-day research. 

For years, RAs have raised concerns about their working conditions, their contributions not being recognized, low wages, and the theft of their intellectual property (IP). Thus, the Teaching Staff Student Union (TSSU) led a campaign for SFU to recognize research as work and include RAs in the union. On November, 15 2019, SFU and TSSU signed an agreement recognizing TSSU as the union for RAs and grant employees.

To an undergraduate student not familiar with the issue like myself, it seemed as though the campaign was successful and that RAs would soon be receiving the appropriate wages and benefits for their labour. While the former is true, SFU has not kept up their end of the bargain. In fact, SFU has violated the voluntary recognition agreement multiple times, and has failed to take action to prevent the theft of graduate students’ work and their resulting IP.

According to the Research is Work campaign, SFU has violated the agreement in the following ways: 

  • SFU refuses to recognize TSSU as the union for RAs 
  • SFU initially refused to provide TSSU a list of RAs until ordered to by a mediator 
  • SFU refuses to start the collective bargaining process
  • SFU has attempted to exclude scholarship RAs and work-study RAs. 

The need for a union is clear. RAs receive irregular payment, and sometimes no payment at all, for their work. There have even been cases where RAs are reprimanded for reporting unsafe work conditions. 

An anonymous RA provided an account of their experience(s) as an RA to TSSU. They worked on three projects simultaneously, where the method and time of payment varied for each project. Despite taking on three separate projects, the RA was still not receiving a living wage.

“The salaries from the first two projects were not sufficient to pay for my rent and living expenses. As a result, I had to work 30–40 hr/wk at my hourly wage job in addition to the first two projects. I spent 50–60 hours a week on campus. In terms of mental and emotional labour, I was never not at work. [ . . . ] On August 20, I got the news that the funding I was relying on to pay my tuition in the Fall would no longer be coming my way. [ . . . ] This meant that if I was not able to secure a student loan in 3 weeks to cover my tuition, not only would I be out of school, I would also be unemployed.”

Derek Sahota, a TSSU advocate spoke to the average wages an RA receives in an interview with The Peak,

“A typical environment is you’re working [ . . . ] 50–60 hours a week and you’re making (after you pay your tuition) a thousand to two thousand dollars a month, so it’s much less than you would make even at minimum wage.” 

In addition to not receiving a living wage, RAs also face the possibility of their work and related IP being stolen from them. If an RA creates something patentable and licensable during their work under the supervision of a faculty supervisor, they may not retain the rights to their work due to factors such as coercion.

Sahota provided a hypothetical example, similar to those that have repeatedly been reported to SFU. Say that an RA is paid from a grant to work on solar cells as a part of their work towards their thesis. In this case, the RA is working towards the capstone project of their academic career and is receiving employment. 

Through their work as an RA they develop a new technique for a solar cell, something that is potentially patentable, licensable and therefore profitable. Their faculty supervisor (who essentially controls the RA’s employment, academic career and potentially their status in the country) may ask the RA to sign an agreement that would give SFU all the rights associated with this new IP or face consequences, such as refusing to allow them to defend their thesis. 

This environment allows for coercion, where faculty and SFU can use their nearly absolute power over graduate student RAs to steal their IP. RAs are usually just starting their graduate career and are not told the rights they have regarding IP.

If a student were to report such coercion regarding IP, their options are limited. They would have to report their case to the SFU Technology Licensing Office or the Office of the Vice-President, Research and International (VPRI). Harjap Grewal, the Advocate and Policy of the Graduate Student Society (GSS), spoke to the current reporting processes in an interview with The Peak,

“The office is linked to industry, and it isn’t necessarily set up [ . . . ] for a student to go get advice or to better understand their legal rights with regards to IP [ . . . ] if there’s a dispute [a student] can go through the VPRI [ . . . ] but the concerns we’ve had with that office is that it is an office that consists of either existing or former faculty members that [adjudicate] whether something should proceed to investigation or not.” 

Grewal continued, “The VPRI Office has a vested interest in increasing research dollars coming into the university and private firms that want to do research in partnership with the university [ . . . ] there is an incentive to undermine the rights of students in order to attract industry by making IP more readily available to capture from students. You can’t put a lot of trust into that office to fairly respond to the concerns of students. We need an office that is independent of fundraising and industry interests.”

Not only is this unethical and a violation of power, it is also against SFU’s own intellectual property policy. Point 5.4 of SFU’s IP policy states the following:

The University specifically acknowledges that IP created exclusively by a student Creator in the course of completing the requirements for an academic degree or certificate is owned by the student Creator, to the extent that the IP comprises part of the requirements for the degree or certificate.”

The School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering (MSE) at SFU Surrey has been subject to multiple of these cases being brought forward by RAs. Due to this, there have been two separate external reviews done of the school; one of which SFU has released, and one that SFU has kept confidential despite several calls for its release. 

The review cites that three separate student cases were thought to be the catalyst for the review. Recommended action 17 of the external review speaks to how the IP, Integrity in Research and Conflict of Interest (COI) guidelines and procedures all should be updated and reviewed. The preamble to this recommendation in the external review also states the following:

“Most MSE professors do not understand SFU policies on COI and IP [ . . . ] this leads some researchers to not report instances of COI, to create their own practices around COI and IP and even to write their own agreements that they then have their students sign.”

This is particularly problematic when the managing director of a venture capital company and a director on the board of a tech company is the associate director of SFU’s Innovation Office, which the Technology Licensing Office (one of the offices RA’s go to to report cases of possible theft of IP) falls under. The director of MSE was also the CEO on the board of the same tech company. 

This was the case until early 2019 in MSE, where the external review made indirect reference to this situation in recommended action 12:

“In the future, terms for Director, Associate Director and Graduate Chair should be limited. The length of the terms of the Associate Director and the Graduate Chair should be shorter than that of the Director and the changeover should be staggered such that new people are taking on leadership roles in the School regularly.”

It is clear that SFU is taking advantage of graduate students, whether it be by denying the terms of the agreement with TSSU, not paying RAs a living wage, or stealing/coercing RAs to sign away the rights to their IP.

Grewal outlined the next steps the GSS is planning to take to make students aware of their rights if they find themselves in such situations in the future.

“We’re very supportive of RA unionization because I think that will have an enormous impact not just on the working conditions of graduate students, but them being able to exercise their rights in a way that’s not dependent on the good will of faculty members. [ . . . ] The other piece that we’re doing is putting out a rights guide [ . . . ] in that guide we’re talking about the rights that graduate students have more generally, but we’re also specifically telling graduate students that they do not need to sign away their IP before they begin research at SFU.”