Research assistants need healthcare and SFU’s labour practices need reform

Despite their labour, most RAs don’t receive healthcare and some are ineligible to have it

A large crowd gathered to celebrate the research assistants unionizing in 2019. PHOTO: Gudrun Wai-Gunnarson / The Peak

by Emma Jean, Staff Writer

Over the past month, the Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU) has been circulating a petition that demands research assistants (RAs) — who fall under the TSSU —  be granted the benefits they were promised by SFU nearly two years ago. These benefits include broad healthcare coverage, recognition for all RAs as employees, and the reimbursement of the International Student Health Fee. Beyond signing the petition, it’s good for everyone –– at SFU and beyond –– to set a precedent where research workers at SFU are protected and properly compensated.

In November 2019, when research assistants joined the TSSU, they expected to have reached some kind of bargaining process with SFU by the following year to receive proper support for themselves. Since then, however, the bargaining process has been indefinitely delayed by SFU. As a result, many RAs don’t have the employer benefits, including healthcare coverage, that every other employee at SFU gets. RAs who work for principal investigators or the leaders of high-level research do receive dental and healthcare coverage. However, this exception still leaves most RAs uncovered and unprotected.

The lack of protections is extra risky when workers are left underpaid and uncovered in the middle of a pandemic. This also doesn’t take into account RAs who receive scholarship money from SFU. They aren’t considered employees as a result, despite their labour being equal to non-scholarship RAs, and are unable to unionize and receive benefits. RAs already receive below minimum wage in pay, a labour practice that is barely legal as it is, and hardly a living wage despite RAs working a reported 50–60 hours a week. SFU’s labour practices shouldn’t allow for this in the first place, and once RA’s receive proper benefits and recognition, it’s crucial they change their pay policy so it won’t be allowed in the future.

With so many gaps in coverage and eligibility, SFU’s RAs deserve better in so many ways. RAs are an integral part of making some of SFU’s most valuable work happen. Even if they weren’t, they still deserve to make a living wage and have their needs covered like any other worker. Making sure that RAs get the same coverage and relative pay as any other employee at SFU would also pave the way for other unrecognized workers at SFU to get the same union benefits as their colleagues doing the same job.

If these demands are met, this would not only mean that all RAs at SFU would receive what they deserve, but that a new precedent for RA protections would be set in Canada. The poor pay and treatment of RAs is awful at SFU, but it’s hardly unique compared to other academic institutions. When research workers across Canada and beyond need leverage to organize for better conditions, they can point to the RAs at SFU to demonstrate that fair compensation and benefits are attainable, necessary, and a feature of Canadian universities. It’s time for well-paid, well-covered, fully-unionized research workers to become a feature of healthy Canadian universities, and for schools without it to feel pressured to keep up.

To turn SFU into a workplace that truly values and justly treats its workers, they need to do more than just meet the TSSU’s demands for RAs. They need to change the way that their pay policy, bargaining commitments, employment status process, and overall worker relations operate. Accomplishing this would make sure that all workers at SFU aren’t treated in the harmful and negligent way RAs are being treated now.  

For students, helping RAs can start with signing the TSSU’s petition available on their website and social media. Additionally, a greater awareness of SFU’s labour practices can be gained from their Human Resources page.