By: Moleen Makumborenga
No one gets a student job thinking they will eventually start to feel unsafe or uncomfortable at work. I do not believe McMaster University thinks that student jobs can be precarious. This would explain why I found myself unprotected and unsupported when my supervisor who works for a research organization on campus tried to illegally demote me in order for my current wage to match a job title and description that was unlike the tasks I completed.
The situation arose from the implementation of Bill 148 also known as the “Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act”. In order for the university and my organization to be compliant with the law that came into effect April 1, 2018, I had to sign a new contract that assigned my work to the new classification model created by McMaster University.
As with any immigrant and international student, my first concern was how this would affect my permanent residence application. To those not familiar with the PR application process, it works on a point system whereby you are awarded more points based on the type of job experience you have. The more specialized your role, the better your chances of earning an invitation to apply for your PR status.
My first concern was about how the last year in this position would essentially be a waste of time as the job title and description they were suggesting I should sign on to was classified as administration work, which is something Immigration Canada does not value.
When I was hired, I had signed a contract that stipulated that I would be the student Digital Communication Specialist. I was intent on taking on the position not only because it matched my experience, but because it would also help with my PR application.
After careful consideration about what my supervisor and the faculty director were suggesting, it was pretty clear these people were misaligning my work in order to keep paying me at the current wage rate. There was no attempt on their part to find a position on the McMaster employment directory that matched my current position or upheld the contract I had signed, which was still in effect.
In a meeting with managers, I brought emails that documented projects I had completed on behalf of the organization, which in their numbers and level of technicality were clearly not administrative projects. Upon this evidence, my supervisor then tried to pass off to the director that she had made a mistake and had not looked at the employment directory carefully, and she realized that perhaps she might have made a minor mistake.
Now this so called “minor mistake” had led me to two nights of sleeplessness because without my PR, I cannot afford to go graduate school. It had caused my family to panic because they had to consider the possibility of helping pay $30,000 for my grad program and undergoing the financially invasive student visa application process to extend my current status.
This worry piled onto the fact that I am in my final year, and only two weeks out from exams and needing to complete all my major final grade influencing, graduate-school gatekeeping courses. One of the moments I remember so vividly in the meeting was when my supervisor said to me in a tone so sarcastic and condescending, “Sorry I stressed you out for those two days.”
And in that moment it became clearer to me, if it had never been in my last six years in Canada, that I am a black woman navigating white privilege waters, and my God, I am drowning. I understood what it is to hold onto your pain in fear of being labelled an angry black woman even when you have a legitimate reason to feel this way. I was reminded I am a black woman and these people will never be conscious of themselves in the way that I am.
And I am not saying my manager and the director are racist, but I am saying they lack a sensitivity and introspection that would make it obvious to anyone of colour that we are faced with varied challenges in life. You telling me a Zimbabwean girl, coming from one of the worst economies in the world, that you are demoting me is not the same thing as telling someone born and raised with a better financial background.
This notion that my manager did not carefully review all the job descriptions and titles is incorrect because meeting notes from almost two months prior show that she knew exactly what the correct correspondence for my current job would be in the incoming job directory. In the meeting, these women belittled me by insinuating that I did not understand the legislative process when repeatedly I said I understood the legal requirements they were trying to meet. They were still misaligning my work with the position they wanted me to sign onto.
I reported the situation to International Students Services, and the head officer directed me to another office who directed me to another office, then another one because no one thought the situation was theirs to handle. It is upsetting to know that as international students we pour so much money into Canadian institutions. Not providing us with people to help us in times of need shows that they see us as cash cows.
The human rights officer said that my supervisor and I have a right to differing opinion on what my job description should be under the new law. And to that I wonder, but did my supervisor not have an obligation to refer to my previously signed contract when suggesting the new position?
The only office that took the situation seriously and saw how this was not just a minor mistake, but potentially gross misconduct was the Ombuds office. They told me if HR does not fix this, she would have to refer the situation to the Ministry of Labour.
Over 40 per cent of jobs in Canada are classified by Statistics Canada as precarious work, and immigrants are more likely than Canadian born workers to be in precarious work. We are talking about the institutionalization of disadvantageous working conditions for racialized minorities.
Whilst this issue is the main reason I brought attention to my unsuitable work environment, this job had historically made me feel uncomfortable. It was only last year my fellow colleagues, white health science students, made jokes about including me in the digital media for the organization because it was clear that they had a “diversity problem”.
One of the jarring lessons from my experience is that white people are the gatekeepers of what constitutes as pain or a problem. That you can tell someone you are uncomfortable and being unfairly treated and it can be ignored because people cannot relate to your racialized experience felt like I was drowning.
So I am speaking up now because I was not sure about the nuances of precarious work then and I was not sure about how my voice would be treated. I think it is time we really look at this problem on our campus and do something.