GSA President Facing Sexual Harassment Allegations
Workers’ Union Grievance Launched, to Address Two Employees’ Complaints
Two women accusing the president of Concordia’s Graduate Student Association of sexual harassment will soon see their case go to arbitration, after filing a grievance with the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
The accusations against president Srinivas Bathini came to light after the two women approached the CUPE, the workers’ union that represents the association, this fall.
A call for Bathini’s resignation was launched at a council meeting in December after their council became aware of the situation, but it failed to pass.
Bathini also declined to comment on the allegations or the upcoming arbitration.
Both women say the things went downhill soon after Bathini began his mandate in June 2017.
In Alex’s* case, the line started to blur when Bathini started texting her frequently. Over the summer, he often texted her late at night, to ask her where she was or to invite her over to his home or to have drinks with him alone. But he would decline once she attempted to invite others to come.
She also described him as being overly “touchy-feely” with her.
“There was so many accidental brushes” she said.
“One of his favourite catchphrases was ‘Let’s forget you are [my employee Alex], and that I’m the President Srinivas, let’s just be [Alex] and Srinivas’” she said.
Alex said she repeatedly turned down the invitations, and the more she did, the more she felt Bathini became hostile to her. Once after being turned down by text, he responded “I don’t like NO,” and that’s when Alex said she felt like things we’re getting out of hand.
Alex’s colleague Emma* also had similar experiences with Bathini over the summer, and said her experiences with him and a hostile work environment ultimately led her to resign in late August.
“It started with little comments,” she said. “‘Why are you so thin? Do you eat enough?’”
Bathini often made comments about her body when he saw her, Emma said, and described numerous times when Bathini would sit across from her while she worked to stare at her.
“It made me feel really uncomfortable,” she said. “It was just such an uncomfortable dynamic.”
When she decided it was time to go, Bathini kept pressuring her to stay, but the way he went about it made her want to leave even more she said.
“He wasn’t really accepting it. He would make comments, at first friendly, ‘The GSA is losing such a beautiful girl if you leave, why are leaving?’”
When it came to sitting down and formally announcing her resignation, Emma said the situation grew hostile. “It was just him and I in his office, and the tension was really weird and aggressive, he was getting really upset eventually,” Emma said.
“We just sat in silence for five minutes, and then you could tell he calmed down, and he looked at me and he said ‘Are you sure you’re eating enough?’ And he started making those comments all over again.”
Attempts at Intervention
At the end of the summer both women approached two members of the executive team, VP Internal Mohammad Taufiquzzaman and VP Academic and Advocacy Thufile Ariful Mohamed Sirajudeen, with their complaints, but both say they were unsatisfied by the way the two chose to deal with the situation.
Neither of the two responded when The Link invited them to comment.
In Alex’s case, the two said they couldn’t do anything about the situation since Bathini was the one at fault. They suggested Alex speak to Bathini directly, though she told them she didn’t feel comfortable being alone with Bathini. Neither would agree to take the president aside to talk, she said, and they weren’t willing to discuss her complaints with the rest of the executive team.
Emma described a similar experience. The two were hesitant to confront the president and told her they “would warn him in indirect ways so that he doesn’t feel too targeted.” Like Alex, she felt the onus was on her to solve the situation. The two then asked her to delete the email she had sent them describing the situation so there was no chance Bathini would find it.
Because of the hierarchy in the workplace, Alex said she felt others on the executive team were too intimidated to step in.
“GSA has a hierarchy, and he’s the president,” Alex said.
Alex also said she felt the two didn’t want her and Emma to contact their workers’ union with their complaints.
By October, Alex said Bathini’s attitude towards her became hostile. He started making her work conditions “hell” by assigning her complex tasks, and began scheduling private meetings with her after work.
She felt like it was an attempt on his part to get her alone and isolated from others, and Alex found ways to ensure other staff members would be in the room when he demanded these types of meetings.
“I could tell he was just waiting for [the other person in the room] to leave,” she said. “My body was on high alert.”
It was then she and Emma decided to contact the CUPE with their complaints.
The GSA’s council of directors wasn’t aware of the situation until a CUPE representative came to one of their council meetings to discuss the grievance they had launched against the GSA.
“It was news to everyone,” said Arts and Science councillor Chloë Williams.
“They didn’t feel like they were getting an honest story from their own executives.” said Stephen Brown, the president of the CUPE chapter representing the GSA and the Concordia Student Union. “So they wanted to speak to us.”
Brown said he was disappointed with how many of the councillors responded to the evidence presented to them.
“There’s a serious lack of understanding of the gravity of the allegations in question. It was very troubling,“–Stephen Brown, CUPE president.
“Honestly, some of the comments from councillors indicates that there is a serious problem, there’s a serious lack of understanding of the gravity of the allegations in question,” Brown said. “It was very troubling.”
Williams later on made a call for the president’s resignation at a council meeting on Dec. 14, but the vote failed to go through. A call for impeachment can only go through general assembly, the highest decision making body at the GSA, but the association has a long history of being unable to hold general assemblies since not enough students show up to reach quorum.
At the same meeting, council agreed to write a code of conduct policy that would lay out how executives are supposed to interact with staff, and agreed this code of conduct would outline how executives should be trained when coming into the job. All of the past and present employees The Link spoke to said GSA executives don’t receive management training before beginning their role.
Multiple Grievances Over the Years
Williams said the council saw the need for concrete institutional changes, since this is not the first time the GSA has gotten itself into trouble.
The Quebec Human Rights Commission is currently investigating allegations of racially based harassment and discrimination against former President Alex Ocheoha, who worked with the association between June 2015 and May 2016, and another CUPE grievance was launched last year after former President Soliman Abu-Samra allegedly suspended an employee for six months without warning.
And the cost of legal fees have been going up each year. In their 2015-2016 financial year, the GSA spent $13,000 on legal fees. The following year they spent $20,000. Now, the GSA budgeted $25,500 in legal fees for the June to November 2017 period, and already spent $17,579 on legal fees during that time.
“This is not an isolated event, not just from this year’s executive, but from the previous years’ executive too, as well as council,” said Brown. “The way that council has dealt with this this time, and they way they’ve dealt with things like this in the past indicates that there are serious structural issues with the management of GSA, in terms of how they interact with employees.”
Williams wasn’t aware of the grievance involving former President Abu-Samra, and said the current executive team shows a lack of transparency.
“There’s been a definite lack of communication, whenever we ask for information they either don’t have it for us, or they don’t prioritize getting it to us, or they just don’t get it to us at all,” she said.
GSA council meeting minutes are supposed to be posted seven days after each meeting, but this year council meeting minutes stopped appearing online.
Through the fall and this winter, council meeting minutes going back to September were missing from the GSA’s website, while minutes for a council meeting in late October only went up sometime in January. All subsequent minutes, including those that discuss Bathini’s resignation attempt, have yet to posted publicly online.
The standard of only presenting executive reports in closed session has also continued past Abu-Samra’s time as president, and has become the norm this academic year as well.
“The most unfortunate thing to me is that there has been no real consequences for the president, for the way that’s he’s been,” Emma said.
Brown wants to see reparations made for the two women involved in the grievance, but wouldn’t confirm if any financial compensation would be demanded for them.
The two women said they hope to see mechanisms put in place to ensure that executives get adequate training on issues like workplace harassment and sexual harassment to prevent recurrent abuses of power by male executives.
Williams’ thinks consent and anti-oppression workshops could also be useful for the council and the executive team moving forward, and said she hopes to see more gender parity in the executive. Right now, the five-member team is composed of men only.
Emma also hopes an internal complaints system could be put in place so those who need help can speak to a third party immediately, as right now the only recourse for employees is to formally bring complaints to the CUPE.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the women who came forward.
This story was funded by the CWA Canada Associate Members and Canadian University Press reporting project.