(For more information on this story please visit the original Spectator story here by Susan Clairmont. )
Last Friday Jan. 28, McMaster flew its flags at half-mast in honour of the death of Ljubica Savic. Ljubica Savic was a McMaster cleaner, a mother of two, and a Croatian immigrant. On Jan. 20, she died of cancer at Juravinski Hospital. I was saddened to hear of her passing, but angry to see such a short post in the university’s Daily News sharing this news. And I want to tell you why.
Last year, Ljubica Savic complained to the university that her supervisor, Godson Okwulehie, had physically assaulted her during a late-night shift. She claimed that he had yelled at her and then proceeded to physically harass her. The university dismissed her allegation against Okwulehie, and he continued to work for the custodian services at McMaster. Human resources and the security department did not report the incident to the police.
With the help of the Building Union of Canada that currently represents some workers at Mac, she laid a private charge against him in court. Unfortunately, because of her death, she was not able to testify and all the charges against him will be dropped.
Since Savic was brave enough to come forward, an internal security report conducted by McMaster found that since 2000 there have been ten individual complaints against the same supervisor by women who worked for him, creating a pattern of sexual and physical harassment.
The university released a report last year that stated that the female cleaners thought that these allegations had not been addressed properly. The supervisor is only now on leave, and a McMaster spokesperson says there are no plans for his return. These allegations are not proven in court. And because of Savic’s death, Okwulehie will not face his day in court, and maintains that all allegations are false.
But the gravity of the situation lies in the number of allegations against Okwulehie, ten to date, and the university’s inactions when faced with them. All of these allegations were made by the most vulnerable members of the McMaster community, who have to support themselves and often other members of their family on a job that only recently started paying a living wage.
I’m not writing this to speak on behalf of Savic’s relatives, her children or her family. But as a member of the McMaster community, I am nothing short of disgusted. When we talk about gender issues, violence against women, we’re not just addressing sexual assault or harassment against female students. All women should be safe and respected at McMaster, and sexual harassment or assault allegations should never be ignored. It shouldn’t take 14 years and ten allegations to start treating the people who clean up after you like they mean something.
This case shows not only a complete disregard for the wellbeing of workers, but also a despicable level of disrespect towards staff members. The Ministry of Labour conducted an investigation which concluded the university has the programs in place to deal with these issues. Yet Susan Clairmont, a reporter for the Hamilton Spectator, reported that the investigation “failed to determine whether the program is being implemented.”
In my opinion, the university did not act to protect these workers, and in doing so, failed to show its commitment to creating a safe and equitable campus.
Savic died without getting her day in court. She also died without the university acting to protect her. To lower the flags in “honour” of Savic and fail to address the issue at hand is utterly hypocritical. To have honoured Savic would have meant to have treated her with the respect and due diligence she deserved when she came forward. It would have meant to not let ten instances of sexual and physical harassment go unaddressed by failing to react to each individual case. Andrea Farquhar, a McMaster spokesperson, said that the President and Vice-President of the university were not aware of the internal report and “this has to change in the future.” There is no excuse for this lack of responsibility and the university needs to be held accountable.
So I’m asking the university to address this issue publicly. I’m asking them to release a statement explaining how something of this degree could take place and why it’s taken 14 years for the university departments to finally see “the big picture” as Farquhar said. Why should we believe that we attend a university where this will not happen again? And what will it do in the near future to show its commitment to the fight against gender-based violence and to address issues of sexual harassment and assault on campus?
Of course, the issue does not lay solely in gender-based violence. This is, above all, a labour issue. It is utterly despicable to pay Labour Studies professors hundreds of thousands of dollars to research inequity in the workplace, and to run a university that appears to perpetuate these very same problems. As a student, this event tells me that our academy doesn’t believe in its own theories, and more importantly, that it doesn’t value the lives of our workers.