Postgraduate Workers Demand Living Wage and Fairer Working Conditions

News Analysis: News Editor Michael Keating Dake breaks down the fight for postgraduate workers rights. Originally published 24/1/2023

The PCAU (PhDs’ Collective Action Union) has campaigned for a living wage, PRSI benefits, and full employment rights to be extended to PhD researchers in Ireland. In November, we interviewed members of this organisation, gaining insights into the status of these workers under Irish law, and their efforts to organise this cohort of the Higher Education sector. The PCAU is an independent, cross-campus organisation, and is not affiliated with any local or national student’s union, although it has participated in protests alongside other organisations such as the Union of Students in Ireland (USI).

Postgraduate workers play a crucial role in our campus community, providing teaching services, conducting laboratory work, invigilating exams, and contributing to a significant body of research. They comprise a substantial proportion of teaching staff at UCD, and many undergraduate students rely on Masters and PhD students for the provision of tutorials, seminars, and labs.

Under Irish employment law, such workers do not enjoy employee status. Back in November, we interviewed members of the PGWAI (Postgraduate Workers Alliance Ireland) during our coverage of a protest held in Rathmines. These workers informed us of their experiences of feeling overworked, underpaid, and exploited due to a lack of employment rights and legal recognition. The University Observer reached out to similar organisations who are also campaigning and agitating for improved pay, fairer treatment, and legal recognition for postgraduate workers.

the highest stipend right now in Ireland is 18.5 K. And only maybe a quarter of PhD researchers actually get that.

On Tuesday 22nd November, Kyle Hamilton and Jefferey Sardina, President and Vice-President of the PCAU (PhD’s Collective Action Union) respectively, sat for a Zoom interview, discussing their work advocating on behalf of postgraduates. The conversation was broad in its scope, during which the two activists informed us of their efforts to organise and unionise the postgraduate community. They also elucidated the nature of their working relationship with the PGWAI. Hamilton and Sardinia called for full employment rights and PRSI benefits to be extended to workers in this sector. They expressed their interest in pursuing these objectives via judicial channels, referring to the precedent set by workers in other sectors who have sought legal remedies for their employment situation.

Hamilton explained, “We formed in the Summer, in June, mainly in response to an announcement that was made by Simon Harris about a new programme where some small number of PhD researchers would be welcomed to study with a stipend of 28K, and this seemed seemed particularly unjust to existing researchers who are on much smaller stipends, struggling to survive, [...] the highest stipend right now in Ireland is 18.5 K. And only maybe a quarter of PhD researchers actually get that. [...] So our main objective to start with was to increase the stipend to 28K for everybody.”

They have to renew their visas every year, and that sometimes is difficult and they may have to pay for that out of their existing stipends.

He continued, “So that’s the platform that we started out on, but since then we’ve evolved a bit more, and learned a bit more about the kind of issues and challenges that researchers are facing, and what we’re really looking for is employment status. So, not only are we asking for a living wage, we also want all of the rights and protections under Irish law for workers [...] and that actually would solve a lot of problems that specifically non-EU researchers are facing. They have a particularly difficult time because they have additional fees that they have to pay. They have to renew their visas every year, and that sometimes is difficult and they may have to pay for that out of their existing stipends. [...] About a quarter of PhD researchers in Ireland are non-EU.”

When asked about the nature of their relationship with the PGWAI, Hamilton explained, “we’re working closely with them, we’re currently in conversations about merging our two organisations just to get some unity. [...] The PCAU really sprung up because we wanted quick action, we wanted to protest, we wanted to be very agile, and I guess we felt at the time that that might be difficult to do in an existing organisation, but I think our goals [...] are so aligned that, really, it makes little sense to operate separately. [...] So we work with them very closely and we support each other’s endeavours.”

Hamilton continued, explaining that “we don’t have union status because we’re not ‘workers’”, but expressed interest in industrial action. Hamilton that noted PGWAI was working with SIPTU and had some contact with trade unions. Sardina clarified that: “The Industrial Relations Act governs how ‘workers’ can go on strike, we’re not ‘workers’ [...] which means that the entire Industrial Relations Act doesn’t apply to us [...] my personal opinion is that the only way you change things is through industrial action, and I would be very much supportive of exploring that possibility.” Hamilton followed on, arguing that “there’s problems with that, because we don’t have protections under the law, so people may not necessarily be willing to come out for fear of retribution, and this is especially true for non-EU researchers who are particularly afraid of losing their status. And also discrimination, I mean, let’s be frank, it’s difficult without those legal protections.”

We’re doing this for you too. Because, if we can’t afford to eat, we can’t teach you either

Sardina discussed various options that they have considered exploring: “If we had SIPTU on our side, for example, we could attempt to file a lawsuit to say that what we’re doing looks like work under the law, therefore we have to be considered workers. [...] Deliveroo [workers] actually did the same thing. They had a group that represented them who filed a lawsuit and basically said you have to consider these people as workers because what they’re doing resembles work.” Sardina appears to be referring to a case in France, in which the delivery platform was fined after a court ruled it had abused riders’ rights.

Hamilton informs us that PCAU has a number of task forces in place to campaign on behalf of the researchers. Hamilton says: “We are definitely growing and expanding, and getting stronger, and we are not going away.” Sardina argues: “What we are fighting for right now, is for the continued existence of Higher Education in Ireland. Because right now what’s happening is that PhDs are being forced out because we can’t afford to live in Ireland, especially non-EU PhDs [...] but they are being systematically forced out. And what is going to happen in the next five years or so is that nobody will do a PhD in Ireland. That means there’s no Teaching Assistants, there’s no demonstrating, no tutoring, there’s no marking, there’s no invigilation of exams. The entire system would collapse.”

“The fact of the matter is that the current course that the Irish government has sent PhDs on is essentially a massive destructive course for Higher Education. [...] And while we don’t want to have to come to a strike, we are fighting for undergrads too, because, if we are forced out because we simply can’t put a roof over our heads, the entire system falls. [...] We’re at the point now where I’m jealous of people making the minimum wage.” Sardina informs us that, due to low pay, poor conditions, and financial pressure, many researchers have considered dropping out of their PhDs. Sardina argues that, in organising on behalf of postgraduate workers, the PCAU is fighting for undergraduate students as well: “We’re doing this for you too. Because, if we can’t afford to eat, we can’t teach you either. [...] It’s come to the point where some of us have had to make those tough decisions between heating and eating.” Hamilton says: “The path that the government has chosen is in complete contradiction to the message that they’re sending.”

The interview with the PCAU members cast light on the ways in which postgraduate workers lack full employment rights, suffer low pay, and struggle to make ends meet. PCAU and PGWAI, although both distinct, independent organisations, are expected to continue campaigning for a living wage, and full legal rights and recognition in the months ahead. (Note: This interview was conducted in November 2022. Some of the information contained therein may no longer be relevant or accurate.)

As of yet, postgraduate workers are not recognised as full employees. They are not paid a living wage, and they do not enjoy access to union membership or PRSI benefits. Non-EU Nationals working in the sector face additional legal and financial challenges due to their immigration status. In a press release from the Department of Further and Higher Education last year, Minister Harris announced the National Review of State supports for PhD researchers. Dr Andrea Johnson and David Cagney serve as co-chairs of the review.

It is understood that the PCAU has submitted a Fair Postgraduate Researchers Agreement (FRA) to Minster Harris’ review, which is expected to be complete early this year.

Non-EU National Postgraduate Workers who would like to share their experiences of dealing with the immigration process while working as a postgraduate at UCD are asked to email