Job security the 'big thing' for striking Ontario college faculty struggling with contract work

Nearly four weeks into a protracted faculty and staff strike at Ontario's 24 public colleges, one teacher from a Toronto school wants the public to better understand what is at the heart of the dispute.

'Ultimately, the students suffer too,' said sessional college teacher Qasim Alibhai

Qasim Alibhai told CBC Toronto that he personally knows colleagues who have had to struggle with medical bills or other precarious financial situations because of the prevelance of contract work at colleges. (CBC)

Nearly four weeks into a protracted faculty and staff strike at Ontario's 24 public colleges, one teacher from a Toronto school wants the public to better understand what is at the heart of the dispute. 

Qasim Alibhai is a sessional ESL instructor at one of the striking colleges. Since 2010, he has been teaching on two-month contracts, some of which have been extended for up to 12 months. 

"Job security is the big thing. It's so hard living your life contract-to-contract, thinking about whether you'll have a job in two months," Alibhai told CBC Toronto. 

That's because provincial labour law dictates that after year-long contracts expire, administration must hire them on full time if they are to continue teaching. Alternatively, if they aren't given a permanent position, they must wait about a year before they can accept another contract at the same college.

Alibhai estimates that about 70 per cent or more of faculty in his ESL department are working on a contract. 

"I've been working seven years. I've never had any benefits. I've never had any sick days. I've never had any vacation time," he said. 

The ubiquity of contract work for college professors and instructors can only be explained by one motivation, Alibhai argues. 

"We are significantly cheaper to employ, compared to full-time professors. Even though we teach the same classes, and do the same amount of work, and teach the same number of hours. But we get paid significantly less, in some cases less than half of what full-time teachers make," he said. 

The College Student Alliance organized a rally at Queen's Park last week to put pressure on the colleges and the faculty union. (Martin Trainor/CBC News)

A representative of the College Employer Council, which negotiates on behalf of the institutions, told CBC Toronto that both sides in the talks are under a "media blackout" and therefore will not comment. The council and the Ontario Public Services Employees Union returned to the bargaining table last Thursday after a two-week standoff that has students frustrated that the strike may compromise their short-term career plans

Last week Premier Kathleen Wynne said she would potentially consider back-to-work legislation to force faculty to return to teaching if the strike began to significantly undermine students. 

"You never rule anything out in this business, but we really would like to see the agreement at the table," she told reporters. 

Students get short-changed, teacher says

Alibhai understand students' anger, acknowledging the strike puts them in a very difficult position. He added, however, that under the current working conditions at most of Ontario's colleges, students' education is being undercut by a reliance on session teachers. 

"Ultimately, the students suffer too," he said, explaining it's not uncommon for a contract teacher to be handed materials for a course the night before it begins. 

"How would you like it if you were a student who's paying $3,000 for a two-month course and your teacher was just given the materials and the textbook and everything the night before?"

When the strike will end is still front of mind for students. While neither side is commenting publicly, Alibhai told CBC Toronto that "it seems like the teachers and the colleges are still far apart."

With files from CBC's Adrian Cheung