Postgraduate researchers protested at the Dáil on Thursday morning as part of their ongoing campaign for substantial improvements to their pay and working conditions.
Organisers of the event said average pay for those undertaking research, teaching and supervisory work while pursuing PhDs is just €7.88 per hour, well below the minimum wage, and the failure to recognise the roughly 10,500 researchers affected as workers rather than students has excluded them from rent-related and other social welfare supports during the cost-of-living crisis.
“We are workers in all but name but without any of the protections that come with workers’ status such as sick leave or maternity leave,” said Shauna Donohoe of the Postgraduate Workers Organisation (PWO), the product of a recent merger involving two groups representing those in the sector.
“We don’t make PRSI contributions, the effect of which is that we cannot avail of social insurance supports including the recent renters’ tax credit. This will impact us even after we finish our PhDs as we will be heading into the workforce in our late 20s with no social insurance contributions.”
She said non-EU postgraduate researchers are particularly badly affected by the failure to recognise them as workers as they are subject to a requirement to renew visas annually and find themselves unable to leave the country while the process is ongoing. It can then prove difficult for them to stay in the country when their PhDs are completed.
“It makes no sense that we are going to a lot of effort to attract people from around the world, to bring the best talent to Ireland then we are pushing them out the minute that they are finished their PhDs,” said Conor Reddy, another of the organisation’s founders. “We are losing talent because of the way that things are configured at the minute.”
The standard stipend received by those working on a PhD in Ireland is €19,000 but an Irish Universities Association report recommended that this be raised to €24,000 and Trinity College Dublin recently announced that it would pay all centrally funded research workers €25,000.
Mr Reddy says, however, that that commitment would affect just 15 per cent of postgraduate research workers in the university and add to inequalities in the system.
“It’s not enough to increase stipends for State-funded PhDs,” he says. “What the Government needs to do is to set a floor, a basic living standard that all PhDs would be guaranteed.”
The sector’s pay and conditions are currently the subject of a review established by the Department of Further and Higher Education in October and being overseen by co-chairs Dr Angela Johnson and David Cagney.
Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris said he expected to receive their report early this year but Mr Reddy said the latest indication the PWO has been given is that the report will be completed in May or June when it will be sent to the Government. The hope is, he said, that the findings will result in measures being taken to address the situation in this year’s budget.
He said recent engagement with the review’s co-chair gave the impression that they are more open to addressing the pay issue than the worker status one.
“We don’t feel that’s good enough and it won’t solve the problems of non-EU/EEA research workers,” he said.
He said the conditions of similar workers in other countries had been improved significantly recently after campaigns that included industrial action and the PWO would continue its campaign for improvements here until the situation was adequately addressed.