During my five years as a McGill student, I held more work contracts than I can count on my fingers and toes. I’ve worked at the McGill Bookstore, held positions as a recruitment assistant, as a delivery driver, as a zine writer, designed a peer mentorship program, and more. (One especially memorable job was facilitating a Community Engagement Day workshop for which, according to my pay stub, I was paid $162.50 per hour for one hour!) Some of these positions required that I apply over and over again every semester in order to keep my own job, so for one position that I held for two years I had at least four contracts. I was all over McGill scrounging for work wherever I could- my limited French meant that I had few options outside of campus, and my extreme financial need limited my options even more: I couldn’t afford to wait for a job with a decent salary, and I certainly couldn’t afford to risk losing any of my positions by asking for a raise, trying to negotiate better working conditions, or refusing to take on tasks outside of my job description. I was stuck in the work-study cycle: I needed income in addition to my loans, so I took a barely-above-minimum-wage work-study position that still didn’t cover my costs, so I searched out a second work-study job, and then scavenged as many short-term project-based contracts as I could (such as that Community Engagement Day gig). I still often ended up at the Midnight Kitchen’s food bank.
Many of my professors weren’t much help as I struggled to balance my academic and non-academic work. I ended up receiving a C in a class that should have been an easy A because attendance counted for 60% of the grade, but the class time conflicted with my work schedule. When I asked if I could make alternate arrangements or do extra credit work I was told that ‘it wasn’t fair to the other students’ and that there was ‘nothing’ they could do. I was forced to choose between making the grade and making rent, apparently this was the more ‘fair’ option. While I did have the occasional professor who waived attendance grades, granted deadline extensions, and gave me some much-needed words of encouragement, the majority of my academic bosses at McGill seemed either uninterested or unprepared to deal with the realities of low-income working students.
What all of these jobs, including my role as a student, had in common was their precarity. Precarious work is work that lacks the protections and security that we associate with “good” jobs, whether that be financial and livelihood security in the form of a decent, living wage with regular increases, and access to benefits such as health care, parental leave, sick days, and pensions; or the protections that are contingent on the security that comes with permanence: the capacity to stick up for yourself and your rights without the fear that your contract won’t be renewed, being able to plan for the future knowing that that future includes stable work, not feeling and being treated like you’re exploitable and disposable.
The outside narrative of the low-income student worker is similar to that of the martyr: we’re told that suffering is good for the soul, it’s a rite of passage, it’s a necessary step to create a strong moral character, it’s a temporary state of being before we can reach a “higher plain” (in this case, a “real job” in the “real world” after graduation). It’s all bullshit. Students who do graduate into “good” jobs are often the wealthy ones with family connections, who could afford to do unpaid or barely-paid internships, who could afford work on their “professional development” while the rest of us barely scraped by. “Good” jobs are becoming fewer and further between as austerity measures increase, even for those of us privileged enough to have access to post-secondary education. What this narrative of the nobly suffering student-worker does is condition low-income students to accept precarity, low pay, no benefits, psychological harassment, shitty bosses, short-term contracts, insecurity, disrespect, and indignity in their working lives.
We don’t have to accept these terms. Student status shouldn’t be what determines dignity and security in our working lives. Our work for the university is anything but casual- there are student-workers in every building on campus, and our work is essential to keep McGill running. If the senior administration up and left, it would probably take weeks for the average McGill student or employee to even notice. If the hundreds of so-called ‘casual’ workers at McGill decided to stay home for even one day, the university would fall into complete chaos! We have the power to improve our working conditions- through our unions and through our collective action. We do the same work and deserve the same consideration as permanent, academic, and other support staff. A $15 minimum wage at McGill is just the beginning.
This blog is a new initiative of the 15 and Fair McGill Coalition. Curated by MM and MB. This piece was written by guest blogger Molly Swain.