Toronto workers demand more than the bare minimum

Three years after it was promised, the minimum wage has gone up to $15. Now, many are saying it should be much higher 

Years after they fought for it and won, workers in Ontario are finally getting the $15 minimum wage they were promised. But they’re not stopping there. 

“When I started organizing workers here [in Regent Park], it wasn’t easy,” says Workers’ Action Centre community organizer and case worker Nadira Begum on a snowy day outside the recently closed community hub Paintbox Bistro. 

“People were thinking we are helpless, we are hopeless. Many were bringing the stigma from back home [in the countries they immigrated from] that if we raise our voices or participate in a political movement, maybe we’ll be targeted. They didn’t know they could come together collectively and make change. Now, the same workers are coming to me and asking what they can do.”

Begum speaks from experience. After earning a masters degree and building a career as a registered social worker in her home country of Bangladesh, Begum immigrated to Canada and found herself working three part-time jobs in the nonprofit sector just to scrape by. Employers rarely recognized the experience she had, and she found herself facing racialized discrimination in the workplace. 

And she was earning minimum wage, which she and her family could only afford to live on by working multiple jobs. 

So in 2017 she joined the Workers’ Action Centre and the Fight for $15 and Fairness movement. It was tough at first, but the campaign worked: Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government released a plan to increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2019. After an extensive review of labour conditions in the province, it also issued a major report to change the conditions around paid vacation, sick days, precarious work and discrimination. 

“It was like a day/night change,” Begum says. “It was a huge victory for us. It showed what we could do if we raise our voices. People were getting involved and bringing more people into our network – not just Regent Park, but Victoria Park, St. Jamestown, Moss Park and all over the city and province – saying come join this action, we can come together and do more.”

The minimum wage was supposed to go up to $15 by 2019, but it never made it there. After he was elected in 2018, one of Doug Ford’s first acts as Ontario Premier was to cancel the previous Liberal government’s employment legislation. 

But the WAC never stopped fighting for better wages and better working conditions. Now, they have a campaign called Justice For Workers, which is advocating for a $20 minimum wage that will go with increases to cost of living, along with a whole suite of other employment protections to increase the quality of work for everyone across the board. 

This time, it’s not such a struggle, says Begum. WAC did surveys and petitions, phone calls and case studies, asking people what they wanted to demand and fight for. 

“Justice For Workers is really famous in this community,” she says. “Workers are excited. They are feeling ownership, saying ‘this is our campaign.’ And they’re bringing in people from across the province.”

Nick Lachance

Nadira Begum is a community organizer for Workers’ Action Centre in Regent Park. She says the Justice for Workers campaign has become famous in the neighbourhood.

The minimum wage is not a living wage

The WAC’s network is part of a growing group of workers, activists and citizens in solidarity who are awakening to the reality that $15 is not enough to live on. Not even close. 

In Toronto, a living wage is actually $22.08. So even with the raise, a worker making minimum wage – including many we’ve taken to calling “essential” or “heroes” – is short by more than $7 every hour of what it takes to make ends meet. 

That’s according to the Ontario Living Wage Network (OLWN), which calculates the cost of living for 29 regions across the province. They take into account housing, food, transportation, childcare, government taxes and other essential things like internet and phone access. Toronto’s living wage is by far the highest. 

“I’ve had conversations with people who are surprised to learn – or employers who pretend not to know – that the minimum wage is not a calculation,” says Craig Pickthorne of the OLWN. “It’s a politically set number, not based in cost of living or inflation. It’s arbitrary.”

It’s also three years late. After freezing the minimum wage at $14 (eventually raising it to $14.35), Ford, flanked by union leaders from Unifor and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) outside a grocery store this past November, made a surprise tactical announcement that it would finally go up to $15 at the start of 2022 – six months before the provincial election.

That delay was costly for workers, not only due to inflation, food prices and rent increases. Economist Sheila Block at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives calculated the amount of money each minimum wage worker lost due to the delay: $6,000 for someone working full-time, and $3,170 for someone who lost hours due to the pandemic. To make up that amount of income loss, the average person would have to work an additional 9.5 weeks in 2022 just to reach the amount they were promised.

“When the minimum wage originally went up [to $14 in 2018], there was a tsunami of opposition from the business lobby,” Block recalls. “They were making all sorts of predictions about negative impacts on the economy, business expenses and employment. 

“But when you compare 2017 to 2018 [when the wage went up], you could see all their basic numbers were wrong. There were increases in full-time employment and part-time employment, and a decrease in the unemployment rate. 

“But then the number froze.”

“Working constantly to survive”

For many workers making minimum wage, one job isn’t enough. 

Julie Chowdhury lives in Regent Park and is doing work as part of phase four and five of the neighbourhood’s revitalization project. She’s also a screener at a hospital. She’s on call at both jobs, jetting between them whenever there is work available. As a mother of a seven-year-old, she’s had to balance that with childcare, including virtual schooling. 

“It’s not easy,” she says. “You have to be working constantly just to be able to survive.”

She rarely has a moment to do anything that isn’t necessitated by money, she says, especially as expenses have gone up during the pandemic – food, gas and rent costs all went up before the minimum wage did.

Chowdhury hasn’t been able to afford her son’s favourite fruit – strawberries – since the prices went up from $1.99 to $5.99 per pound, and she’ll travel out of her way to grocery stores in different neighbourhoods to buy cooking oil based on sales flyers. 

When she talks to her family back home in Bangladesh, they have trouble believing her, she says.

“They think, Canada is supposed to be one of the top countries in the world. How can you be struggling?”

Chowdhury is a member of WAC and does outreach in Regent Park, where many people she knows are working six or seven days a week to get by. 

That includes health-care workers, grocery store workers, cleaners, personal support workers, warehouse workers, and many others we’ve deemed “essential” – people the pandemic has shown we all rely on to stay home and healthy, whether or not we’re underwaged. 

“You have to take care of the people who take care of you first,” Chowdhury says. “If you’re sick and I’m not there [at the hospital], no one is there to screen you. You’re able to sit on your computer at home and get food because [a minimum-wage worker] is providing it. 

“Without us, nothing will run.”

Julie Chowdhury
Nick Lachance

Julie Chowdhury, a worker in Regent Park, says many of her friends and neighbours have to work multiple part-time jobs to survive on minimum wage.

Justice for Workers

WAC’s Justice for Workers campaign is advocating for a $20 minimum wage that will go up with increases to cost of living. 

But it doesn’t stop at the number.

They’re advocating for decent work across the board: equal pay for equal work (including among full-time, part-time and temporary workers), 10 paid sick days, the end of race and gender-based discrimination at work, better hours and scheduling, better protection for migrant workers and an end to the misclassification of gig workers as “self-employed.” 

It also includes an end to subminimum wages. The liquor servers’ wage was recently eliminated, meaning restaurant workers will earn the same $15 minimum as everyone else (see page 10), but there’s still a subminimum for workers under 18.

Many of these policies were in the employment legislation that Ford cancelled in 2018 along with the wage hike.

“We’re demanding $20 minimum wage, but this is so much more than that,” says WAC’s executive director Deena Ladd. “It’s about public health, it’s about racial justice, it’s about pay equity, the rights of migrant workers, about decent work for the most vulnerable among us, but also all of us. So this is a holistic approach to tackle all of those inequities.”

Organizing and collective bargaining has historically been one of the best tools to ensure those rights, but many of the lowest wage workers don’t have access to unions or are actively blocked from unionizing. 

This time around, though, the Ontario Federation of Labour, which represents 54 unions and one million workers throughout the province, is working with WAC on the Justice for Workers campaign. 

The OFL also recently made an emergency appeal to Ford’s government to legislate 10 permanent paid six days and an additional 14 during the pandemic. 

Chowdhury experienced their need when she recently came into contact with someone with Omicron and had to quarantine. Though she eventually tested negative, she couldn’t get access to a PCR test and thus lost 14 days worth of hours and pay.

“Nothing,” she says. “Zero.”

The NDP has been the first political party to respond, with Ontario leader Andrea Horwath promising a gradual increase towards $20 with an increase of a dollar every year from 2022 until 2026. 

The gradual approach isn’t the immediate $20 activists are asking for, but Begum says it could help dull the backlash for vulnerable workers, the ones who often bear the brunt of opposition. Racialized workers are much more likely to work for minimum wage, which makes them doubly vulnerable.

“When the minimum wage went up [to $14 in 2018], a lot of women came up to us and said ‘I am going to lose my hours. I’m going to lose my job,’” she says. “’We are scared.’”

Some employers responded to the increase by blaming workers, she says. One Tim Hortons franchise in Cobourg, owned by the heirs to the company, made headlines by asking employees to sign away their benefits, paid breaks, even their free Timbits. Other locations took similar actions. 

So WAC showed up at 250 Tim Hortons locations across the province on Valentine’s Day, handed out chocolates, and told them they had their back. Tim Hortons’ stock dropped, and many joined the cause.

Despite loud opposition from the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses (CFIB), it’s typically the large employers, ones with over 100 workers, that pay the least, says Block, “the Walmarts and the Loblaws rather than your struggling warmhearted mom-and-pop shop.” 

Raising the floor for everyone

Still, there’s a misconception about who earns minimum wage, says Pickthorne.

He and the OLWN have been working with various municipalities to become certified as living wage employers, which often includes making deputations at council meetings.  

“People say it’s just teenagers, people who have no bills to pay, that kind of worker, when we know that’s not true,” he says. “It’s people with bills to pay, households to support and, more often than not, people of colour. 

“When you raise the wage, you’re not just giving more money to a teenager – which, by the way, what’s wrong with that? They’re looking down the barrel of higher education costs and inflation and all sorts of other things. But if you raise the floor, it helps everyone whether or not they’re making minimum wage.

“I’d like to stop having that conversation,” he continues, “and instead make it ‘Do we need the work done? Yes? Then pay a living wage!”

That sounds simple enough, but until recently it’s been received as a radical notion by many employers and politicians. But the pandemic has shown many people how important decent work and decent pay are. More Canadians than ever are earning some form of employment insurance, first CERB and now the Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit. When you have to pay $2,012 just for rent (the current Toronto average for a one-bedroom), $270 after tax per week – or $1,080 per month – is not enough to live on.

That makes this a crucial time for Justice for Workers and their demands, says Ladd. There’s more awareness, if not solidarity, across the city, province and country.

“Raising the rate is raising the floor up for everyone, and that starts with the ones who have the least power in the workplace, who cannot rely on other methods to raise their wages. It makes things better for all of us.”

Read more

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Toronto restaurants have a hiring problem – and it goes way beyond CERB


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