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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2015

Decent work is a universal value

By Robin Vose
Making less than a living wage. Not knowing where you will be employed in a month’s time, no matter how well you do your job. Lacking an effective voice in how your workplace is run. Putting in long hours of unpaid work for your employer, before even receiving a contract. Paying research and pedagogical expenses out of your own pocket, with little or no recognition — let alone support — from your employer. Lacking the basic tools and support to work to the best of your ability. Facing disrespect and discrimination. These are the daily realities faced by thousands of contract academic staff across Canada, and hundreds of thousands more around the world.

The basic components of “decent work” were laid out decades ago, in article 7 of the UN’s 1966 International Covenant on Econo­mic, Social and Cultural Rights: safe, just, and favourable working conditions; equal pay for equal work; compensation sufficient to maintain an adequate standard of living; and benefits such as paid parental leave and regular holidays, among others. The International Labour Organization’s Decent Work Agenda was launched in 1999, and this summer CAUT helped draft and pass a resolution at Edu­cation International’s 7th World Congress making decent, stable, fairly compensated work a major objective for the education sector in particular. The lack of progress to date in pursuit of these goals, and indeed the regress we have seen at the heart of the Canadian academic sector, with more and more faculty being hired every year on unfair and precarious contracts, should give us all pause.

Unfair treatment of workers affects us all. We cannot allow narrow self-interest or careerism to justify turning a blind eye to the fact that our employers are making the exploitation of precarious labour into a fun­damental part of their business models. We know the result is inevitably an educational system that is itself precarious — with stressed and dissatisfied faculty disconnected from their own campuses and students, increased division between research and teaching, and a loss of collegial governance. Yet employers will continue down this path as long as they are permitted to do so, and as long as “austerity” continues to be their dominant concern.

The only way to effect change is to take concerted, collective, principled action. We need to recognize that all academic work should be decent work, and that the community as a whole benefits when workers receive the respect, compensation, and security of employment they need and deserve. From such principles stem clear strategies and demands for both short- and longer-term gains on multiple fronts — such as were articulated in the German education and science workers’ union 2010 Templiner Manifesto, and which resulted in important gains for post-docs, early career scholars, and contract academics in particular.

United, we can fight for stronger labour laws that force employers to cease exploi­tative and unfair practices. United, we can present employers with demands to cease their overreliance on contractual labour, and to provide fair compensation (including benefits, and appropriate research or other support) on a pro-rata model wherever contractual labour remains. United, we can make our workplaces more fulfilling, safer, healthier and more equitable. United, we can work for an academy, and a world, where decent work for all is not just a principle, but a commonplace reality.