An underestimated problem: some foreign researchers are working at UGent in precarious conditions

In recent years, we – the university trade union ACOD UGent - have been confronted several times with the precarious conditions in which an estimated three hundred international researchers are forced to live while working at our university. Other Flemish universities are also facing the same problem, but we are now drawing attention to it for the first time as far as our own institution is concerned.

What is this about? There are researchers - mostly PhD students or postdocs - from non-Western countries (China, Pakistan, Indonesia, Ethiopia...) who do not have a Belgian scholarship or employment contract. Instead, they are compensated via scholarships and contracts from their country of origin, even though they are actually employed full-time on UGent's premises.

The allowances to which they are entitled from their home country are often much lower than what an individual with the same employment status and a Belgian contract receives. They have grants of 1,200 € or 1,300 € (Indonesia, China). Even sums of 1,000 € per month (Pakistan) are not uncommon.

Sometimes these researchers are paid nothing at all for their work at UGent. Instead, they combine their work at the university with evening jobs in the hospitality industry or they live off of their own savings. Many of them are only granted a scholarship for a few years and they are forced to deposit a portion of that money in a blocked account at UGent. In this way, they hope to have sufficient means by which to apply for an extension of their visa in order to complete their PhD.

A Belgian PhD or a period of employment at an internationally renowned university such as ours certainly represents an advantage in terms of future professional development. At the same time, however, it is precisely these researchers' willingness to make sacrifices for their scientific careers and achieve significant improvements in both their living circumstances and those of their families back home, that makes them particularly socially and financially vulnerable in our society. Let us be clear: of course, there are also very many cases in which a stay at UGent has had a very positive outcome for these colleagues from the Global South. And naturally, as a trade union, we are not at all opposed to the opportunities offered to them here. But in certain cases, this situation leads to distressing situations.

As trade unionists, we wish to draw more attention to this problem. In recent years, we have been increasingly contacted by researchers who have landed in trouble. When something goes wrong (an illness, the loss of additional work...), their situation can rapidly deteriorate. They can often count on the understanding and support of the professors who supervise them at UGent as well as that of other colleagues. Unfortunately, however, some supervisors take advantage of the precarious and insecure conditions in which these researchers work.

Moreover, the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated this issue: many of these foreign PhD students and researchers at UGent have had to rely on care packages because they no longer had the means to buy food! (see, among others, https://www.hln.be/in-de-buurt/gent/extra-voedselbedelingen-voor-gentse-...) This situation has led to greater awareness of the problem, and this has prompted management to submit a proposal to the Board of Directors in order to provide a solution.

We certainly applaud this demarche, but unfortunately there are many problems with the proposal. For example, management proposed a minimum 'solvency threshold' of €1,200 per month, and UGent would no longer enter into partnerships with foreign institutions that cannot guarantee that amount to incoming researchers. Unfortunately, this threshold is not compulsory; individual promoters could still bring researchers to Belgium who do not have even this minimal level of funding. It is only a recommendation. Moreover, we should be asking why it is that foreign researchers only have to be paid €1,200. Shouldn't they simply receive the same income as a Belgian researcher doing exactly the same work?

ACOD certainly considers it a positive sign that people are thinking about better social protections for foreign researchers. However, we believe that the proposal currently on the table is not sufficient, and in some instances risks creating even more precarious situations. Therefore, we have urgently requested negotiations with the university administration regarding these proposals. Indeed, we are convinced that the work situation of certain foreign researchers at UGent actually amounts to a form of illegal employment. And we have already discussed a number of these files with the Social Inspectorate. In certain specific cases, filing a formal complaint with the Labour Prosecutor, which has jurisdiction in this area, is certainly one of the possible remedies.

Foreign researchers deserve proper working conditions too. We therefore reiterate our urgent request that the university administration enter into full negotiations with us on this matter. We also ask for solidarity with these people from all of their UGent colleagues and other Flemish researchers. Finally, we would like to reiterate that this is certainly not a problem that is unique to UGent. This issue also needs to be tackled at the other Flemish universities.