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“We asked for compliance with the Swiss labour law, instead, we got more precarious contracts”— IHEID Teaching Assistants Protest on May 1

By SIT TAs

(Syndicat Interprofessionel de Travailleuses et Travailleurs – Teaching Assistants)

At IHEID, the Direction has recently announced a change in Teaching Assistants’ (TA) pay and conditions of work, in the context of a renewed commitment to improving transparency and opportunities for professional fulfilment. This change falls within a larger process of transformation of doctoral programmes. For example, in an interview with The Graduate Press, the Direction stated, “[We] made sure to ensure an equitable transition period so that current PhD students would also benefit from these transformations. In particular, we put in place a system of aligning the tuition fees progressively over the next 2-3 years and also improving remuneration for TAs.” According to us, however, the unilaterally enforced changes in our pay and conditions of work do not represent an improvement of the previous TA contracts. Instead, they exacerbate precarity under the guise of a deceptive and minimal pay raise.

As our longstanding concerns remain unaddressed, we, as a group of Teaching Assistants who  are part of the Syndicat Interprofessionel de Travailleuses et Travailleurs (SIT), are voicing dissatisfaction over ongoing precarity and low pay, taking to the streets on International Workers Day (May 1) to demand our rights to be respected.

Why are Teaching Assistants organising?

For years, Teaching Assistants and the Assistants’ Association (ADA) have pushed for fair wages, better working conditions, and more financial and employment security in order to live a decent life in Geneva, both as TAs and as doctoral researchers. For example, through  ADA, we have advocated for full-time work contracts to be minimum wage compliant, reflecting the cantonal minimum wage regulation that came into force in November 2020.1 We have also advocated the elimination of ‘flying TA contracts’ (TA positions covering multiple classes on an ad-hoc basis, often characterised by heightened workload), and a mechanism for receiving overtime pay. We also demanded compliance with the European Charter for Researchers,2 in accordance with the recent Swiss Accreditation Council’s evaluation of IHEID, which entails providing fair wages, ensuring equality, family policies and an end to precarious one-year contracts such as those of TAs.

After years of ignoring our demands, a window of opportunity to amend TA contracts recently opened up. However, the resulting process and outcomes have been grossly unfair. Not only did the process itself lack good faith and any form of collective bargaining, preventing Teaching Assistants from engaging in a meaningful negotiation or providing a counter proposal based on longstanding demands, but it also resulted in exacerbated precarity under the guise of a deceptive and minimal pay raise. We explain our dissatisfaction with the process and outcomes below.

A process lacking good faith

During a meeting of ADA with the Direction in late November (whose content TA representatives were not allowed to share with their constituency), TAs were given 12 days’ notice that the Director would host a TA-only town hall to discuss the remuneration of TAs. This took place on the 8th of December 2021, just before the one concerning the name and logo change. The plan was for this meeting to be hybrid (with both online and in-person attendance) but was switched to in-person unilaterally two days prior to the town hall’s date. No internally available minutes or records of this meeting exist to our knowledge. Despite requests for background information, no information was shared by the Direction ahead of the town hall itself.

During the town hall, the Director presented a set of contract changes accompanied by a series of figures. Neither ADA nor the teaching assistants had access to the source of these figures, and information on the same was not provided except the information that they drew on UNIGE regulations. This meant we, TAs, had only limited contextual information on the sources of the data and lacked important knowledge of the real implications of the new contracts presented at this town hall on our wages, working conditions, and access to social benefits. This town hall lacked transparency and prevented TAs from engaging in any form of collective bargaining.

After that, ADA representatives were invited to meet once with the Direction and once with HR staff to address the many issues raised during the town hall. No clear answer or room for discussion was given in these meetings: HR staff simply provided the TAs through the ADA representatives a factsheet on the working of the new contract. In March, the Direction provided TAs with the opportunity to individually accept or reject new contracts that reflected these changes. If accepted, the new contracts would be enforced on 1 April 2022, and if rejected, would be enforced on 1 September 2022. However, when asked to access a copy of the new contract before signing it, our requests were systematically refused. This means that we were put in a position to decide over signing the new contract without even seeing it beforehand, and without any real choice to reject it or to engage in meaningful collective dialogue, since the new contract was to be unilaterally enforced for all TAs starting from next semester regardless of our individual decision. As a result, even though there were many TAs who did not agree with the proposed changes, they did not see any alternative but to accept them. By framing the responsibility to accept or reject the new contracts in individual rather than collective terms, our collective organising and bargaining power was significantly undermined. 

The opaque and antagonistic posture adopted by the Administration became clear once again when the renewal procedure for TA contracts was recently amended unilaterally by IHEID. Whereas in previous years, renewals were organised into two application rounds, the first for current TAs and the second for new applicants, this April 12, only one application round was opened (with the deadline on 29 April). As a result of this, we are now facing a greater risk of being replaced, losing our income and tuition fee status. We perceive this process and resulting measures as evidence that our demands are not being heard by the Administration, a condition which is negatively affecting our well-being and careers, as TAs, PhD researchers and members of the IHEID community.

Worsening conditions under the guise of a deceptive and minimal pay raise

The new contract strips us of full-time employment, turning us into more precarious part-time workers, from a 100% contract to a 70% contract. This has disastrous effects on our working, living and welfare conditions. The Administration asserted that this reduction makes it possible for us to seek additional forms of employment elsewhere, and therefore potentially increase our income. Nevertheless, we do not view this solution as a sustainable strategy and believe it intensifies our precarity, rather than resolving it. Furthermore, this is at odds with Article 8 of the new contract which, similar to our previous contract, prohibits, from our understanding, further employment beyond IHEID.3 Even if Article 8 was to be amended, we have not received proof that working for more than 15 hours per week – as the Administration and HR suggested we do on several occasions – would not violate the rules applying to most non-Swiss TAs, whose permits are dependent on their status as students and include a limit on  weekly hours worked.4 Further, TAs with childcare responsibilities face additional obstacles in accessing childcare solutions as a result of their part-time status, due to the fact that nurseries and daycare facilities in Geneva prioritise spaces for parents holding full-time rather than part-time work contracts, with waiting lists up to two years or more.

The new contract reduces the share of our time devoted to the PhD thesis relative to the Teaching Assistant position, while it increases the actual time spent on TA work. In our old contract, 62.5%% of our time in a 40 hour week was dedicated to our PhD work, while 37.5% of our time was dedicated to our TA work. With the new contact, our activity rate for our PhD work is decreased to 30%, which results in a significant cut to our time spent on doctoral research by almost half. At the same time, the new contract increases TA work by 1 hour per week. We are primarily doctoral researchers and our admission to the Institute is based on our PhD thesis, but decreasing our main PhD activity to only 30% makes the completion of our dissertation arguably unattainable. This condition is further exacerbated by scant funding opportunities for PhD students to finance the last years of their thesis. 

The new contract continues to exclude us from accessing adequate social protection and unemployment benefits, and perpetrates housing precarity. Similar to our old contract, the new contract operates on a split salary system, according to which only a part of our working activity is paid as a salary, and the remaining part is paid as a monthly scholarship. This means that the employer and the employees only pay social contributions on the salaried portion of our work, but not on the part remunerated by the scholarship, even though our PhD work is work and should be recognized as such. In practice, this system translates into teaching assistants having reduced access to social benefits than their actual take-home pay. This results in lesser unemployment benefits and pensions, which are calculated as a share of our contributions. It also means that teaching assistants face significant difficulties finding housing in Geneva, given that their salary excludes the scholarship portion and thus falls below the necessary threshold enforced by most landlords in Geneva (a salary which should be three times higher that the rent). At the same time, many TAs do not fulfil the requirements for cheaper student housing such as at La Cigüe or in Cité Universitaire, given that they live in Geneva for several years and that the majority are older than 25 years old.

These changes have been introduced under the guise of a minimal pay raise which consists of less than a 4 percent increase in our monthly take-home pay. Our net salary increase would be around 110 CHF net per month, from approximately 2,850 CHF to 2,960 CHF per month after deducting taxes and tuition fees, against an increase in hours of TA work and a significant reduction in our work-time percentage. This would ensure compliance with minimum wage requirements while at the same time failing to provide us with a meaningful pay raise and decent working conditions that would pull us out of precarity. Therefore, we believe that we are bearing the costs of the transition to the new contract and of the wider process of transformation of doctoral programmes.

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, the Direction has claimed that the transition to a system in which the tuition fees paid by TAs and PhD students holding a scholarship benefits current TAs too. For pre-package TAs (i.e. admitted before September 2022), tuition fees will not be reduced until the academic year 2024-2025. Furthermore, while portrayed as a generous concession for TAs this is just inevitable with the packages: since two years are funded with a scholarship and two with a TAship it is clear that it would not be reasonable for post-package PhD students to pay two different tuition fees during their programme. 

What are Teaching Assistants demanding?

In light of all the above, TAs and ADA voted to give SIT a mandate to support us in further negotiations. We demand:

  • The recognition of PhD work as work and full-time employment contracts that reflect the actual workload of Teaching Assistants
  • A fair wage that is above minimum wage and takes into account seniority based on years of doctoral work experience
  • An end to the scholarship-salary division in our take-home pay and full access to social protection and welfare
  • Transparency with the TA selection process and hiring criteria, contract renewal and TAs’ distribution of workload
  • An end to all kinds of precarious contracts for PhD students engaging in teaching assistance tasks

Today and until our rights are respected, we ask you to express your solidarity by circulating this article and amplifying our voice so that our demands are met and bring meaningful change.

1 The Administration made it clear in previous years that they would not be changing TAs contracts as they believed PhD students were a special case in which the law concerning minimum wage did not apply to them (https://www.ge.ch/appliquer-salaire-minimum-genevois/qui-n-est-pas-soumis-au-salaire-minimum). Concerning the minimum wage the law here says something else (see https://silgeneve.ch/legis/data/rsg_j1_05.htm, Chapitre IVB(21) Salaire minimum).
2  https://euraxess.ec.europa.eu/jobs/charter/european-charter.
3 TAs’ requests to clarify this issue has remained unaddressed to our knowledge despite numerous attempts.
4 The issue regarding B permits and the provision of max 15 hours a week of work was also not addressed beyond the statement “we cannot predict what kind of permit you will obtain if you work outside of the Institute.” The canton is clear that we cannot work more than 15 hours thus the supposed benefit of our new contract in being about to work another 30% contract could be misleading. There are exceptions for doctoral students, but these are conditional on  the relevance of additional positions for one’s PhD thesis.

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