Concordia’s Exam Invigilators Want Better Working Conditions

Invigilators Considering Unionization if Concerns Go Unaddressed

Photo Brandon Johnston

As the semester winds down and students start thinking about their final exams, the people hired to supervise those exams want you to know that their job is no piece of cake either.

Vignesh Shankar, VP External for Concordia’s Graduate Students’ Association, says he is meeting with the university administration this week or next to discuss a number of problems brought up by graduate students working as exam invigilators.

Shankar says the GSA may help invigilators unionize if the meeting doesn’t settle those problems.

“I feel this is a very important issue for students who get paid minimum wage and work very hard during the final exams,” he said, adding that most of those hired are international graduate students who have limited access to recourse.

“There’s no union right now and nobody can protect them,” continued Shankar, who has previously worked as an exam invigilator himself.

“So if the meeting doesn’t go as planned, we might get unionized.”

One complaint, shared with The Link on condition of anonymity by two students who have worked as exam invigilators, was having to escort students to the washroom and monitor their conduct.

“I personally felt very uncomfortable,” wrote one exam invigilator in an email. “Yes, maintaining a [fair] examination environment is really important, but I think following the students inside the washroom is not the best way.”

“You have to go inside the bathroom with the students, but you can’t go inside the [stall] with him,” another invigilator told The Link. “Maybe he’s taking two minutes, the usual time. If I have intention to cheat, two minutes is okay for me. I’m not checking inside there.”

Another issue, he said, is that students writing exams are allowed to wear jackets and sweaters, while invigilators are not.

“What kind of logic is this? If they think we’re supplying cheating material to the students, it’s not going to happen.”

The invigilator also said he was harshly reprimanded by his supervisor in front of students during an exam period.

“I said, ‘Okay, you can fire me, you have that jurisdiction, but you can’t say it like this, and in front of all the students.’ The students won’t respect us in the exam room,” he said.

He said that, afterward, when he went to get his jacket from the back room, he was approached by the supervisor.

“She said, ‘Are you scared of me?’ It’s kind of bullying,” the invigilator recalled. “She said, ‘You should be scared of me.’”

He added that invigilators who take complaints about their supervisors to the exams office are not taken seriously.

“They say, ‘If you think we are wrong, don’t argue with us; come to us, we’re going to resolve that.’ And everybody knows they never resolve that,” he said.

The GSA Intervenes

At the Jan. 24 meeting of the GSA’s Council of Directors, a motion was passed expressing concern over “disrespectful treatment of the invigilators” by the university’s exams office and calling for improved labour conditions.

It also mandated Shankar to look into the option of forming a union for invigilators if council does not receive a satisfactory response from the administration regarding its concerns.

Shankar said the GSA has been engaged in “initial discussions” with Teaching and Research Assistants at Concordia, the union representing TAs and RAs at the university. But TRAC is currently involved in protracted collective bargaining negotiations with the administration and may not be in a position to accept the university’s exam invigilators.

“We’ll be talking to other unions in Quebec, and after that we’ll talk to the administration and get a members’ list and we might do it in April,” said Shankar.

That is, “if the next meeting doesn’t go as planned,” Shankar added.

Any attempt at unionization would therefore be after the GSA elections and the upcoming exam period.

The motion was presented to council by engineering and computer science councillor MJF Rupom, who told The Link he has personally received complaints from at least 20 graduate students who have worked as invigilators.

“Grad students have some professional experience back in their country or before their graduation, so they expect a professional attitude from their employer,” said Rupom.

Shankar, accompanied by arts and science councillor Poya Saffari, first met with Stephanie Sarik and Ilze Kraulis from the Office of the Registrar on Feb. 12 to discuss the invigilators’ grievances.

But Shankar says that first meeting was disappointing.

“They didn’t agree to anything, actually,” said Shankar. “They don’t want to talk about pay scale, they don’t want to talk about employees’ treatment, they don’t want to talk about anything. The meeting was not so good.”

Shankar outlined five areas of concern that he and Saffari had brought up at that meeting. He said the administration was only open to addressing one of these: “the lack of a defined and clear hiring process.”

“Right now, it’s only by word of mouth that people know there’s a job and they randomly pick applications and don’t exactly do a proper interview. Nobody really knows on what basis they’re hiring people,” he said.

Other issues brought up by Shankar and Saffari were the invigilators’ lack of breaks, the “disturbing” and “embarrassing” requirement that they monitor the behaviour of students in washrooms, the “enforcement of a problematic unofficial dress code” and allegations of intimidation and bullying.

“Nothing was agreed upon,” Shankar said, “except that they will be giving exam invigilators a job description in the future.”

Regarding the intimidation, Shankar said the university will not act until it has received complaints directly from the individuals involved. But given the precariousness of the job, “everybody is afraid to complain.”

“They want someone to come and give their story,” he said. “They even want a precise date and time, otherwise they won’t take this up.”

Part of the problem, according to Shankar, is that the university classifies the job not as a “temporary” position but a “casual” one, granting invigilators less employment protection under Concordia’s labour policies.

Interim university registrar Stephanie Sarik told The Link that the Feb. 12 meeting was the first time she had heard about many of the problems brought up by Shankar.

“I’ve only been working with this group for about 18 months now,” said Sarik.

“What I’ve learned is that there are concerns on all sides—from the invigilators, from students, from the staff in the exams office—and we need to work together to see how we’re going to move forward.”

Regarding the allegation that invigilators are not given breaks, Sarik called it a “misconception.” She said that there are breaks for all invigilators.

As for the other issues mentioned by Shankar, Sarik said she is willing to discuss them.

“We are trying to set up that second meeting to continue this discussion and continue to address things,” she said.

In the meantime, Shankar said he would like to see the exams office send an informal letter to its supervisors to remind them “that they should treat [employees] properly and with respect.”

Shankar added that anyone who has faced similar problems as an invigilator should contact the GSA.