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Bookstore mould triggers student worker rights violation

Management prefers students don’t contact University services

An employee-employer tiff that stemmed from an outbreak of mould in the McGill Bookstore over the summer may be indicative of student employee mistreatments on campus, some students maintain.

A summer Bookstore employee, also a U2 student at McGill, developed a cough and sore throat when the Bookstore installed several dehumidifers. Because he and other employees at the Bookstore were uninformed about the dehumidifiers and unaware of the reason for them, he contacted the University’s office of Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) – the office responsible for ensuring safety and resolving hazards on campus – to determine if the dehumidifiers were treating whatever was causing his respiratory condition.

The student said that he explained the situation to an EHS representative, who said that he should expect a phone call response to his inquiry later that day.

But the student never received a call. Instead, Bookstore manager, Barry Schmidt, confronted the student about his inquiry. Schmidt had been notified about the call by the EHS.

The student, who asked to remain anonymous, said that he was disrespected and resented that his case was not treated professionally.

“That’s the thing I found inappropriate. [I] called this office…asking what I thought to be a reasonable question, and instead of answering directly, [the EHS went] to my boss and had my boss essentially ask me not to call [them]…which I thought was completely rude and dishonest,” he said.

The Bookstore’s mediation of the student’s grievance, according to Schmidt, was not antagonistic, but meant to facilitate the employee’s access to information.

“I suggested to him in the nicest possible way that in the future should he have an issue about a matter in the store…if he spoke with us first, he might get the answer,” Schmidt said.

“If he wasn’t satisfied at that point, he’s more than free to talk to anyone he likes in the McGill organization,” Schmidt continued.

The Bookstore’s management had independently called the EHS to report the mould growth several weeks before the student made the inquiry to report the situation, but the management did not inform its employees about of the issue.

The student employee suspected a collusion existing between the Bookstore and the EHS that violated his rights as a worker.

“They had some vested interest for looking out for the management of the store,” the student said. “I’m not sure why they couldn’t answer my call personally. That’s the part about it that bothered me.”

Over the summer the Bookstore was cleaned and the Bronfman air conditioning system was repaired, resulting in a perpetually colder temperature in the store to eradicate the growth.

While the mould was ultimately decided not to be the cause of the student’s health condition, some are still convinced the situation is indicative of a larger problem for student workers employed by McGill and their rights to information.

Max Silverman, a former SSMU VP External who is organizing the creation of an undergraduate student labour union – the Association of McGill Undergraduate Student Employees (AMUSE) – said that the mould episode fits snugly into a general pattern of disrespectful treatment of on-campus student employees.

“There’s no grievance structure in place [for student employees]. When they try to get answers they end up being reprimanded,” Silverman said.

Although AMUSE does not currently have official demands, Silverman said that if the group is successfully unionized, there will likely be an effort to improve employee complaint structures and to ensure that workers are not forced to go through their direct employers when problems arise.

At press time, the McGill Office of Environmental Health and Safety did not respond.