The mood outside Dufferin Mall on Saturday afternoon was festive, with an Afro-Brazilian drum band banging out songs, kids playing carnival games, and free popcorn and samosas served to the crowd of about 60 people.
It looked more like a street party than a protest, but the message of the event was serious enough. Poorly paid workers and their supporters had gathered to demand an increase to the Ontario minimum wage, which has been frozen at $10.25 since 2010.
At pay that low, advocates say, full-time minimum wage labourers are living 19 per cent below the poverty line. Increasing the minimum to $14 an hour would allow them to climb 10 per cent above it.
“It’s not enough to live on. We’ve got people trying to decide whether to pay the rent, buy food, get new clothes for their kids. It’s simply impossible,” Edward Lantz of ACORN, one of ten groups that organized the rally, told the crowd. “Kathleen Wynne, put your pen to the paper, sign in the legislation [for] $14 an hour and tie it into the cost of living. We can’t live like this anymore!”
The protest, one of two taking place in Toronto, was part of a province-wide day of action for a $14 minimum wage that saw rallies in about a dozen different cities. Several targeted big name employers like McDonald’s, Tim Hortons, and Toys R Us, which labour groups accuse of actively lobbying to keep pay low even as they post record profits.
Of all Canadian provinces and territories, only Nova Scotia ($10.30), Yukon ($10.54) and Nunavut ($11) have higher minimum wages than Ontario. But Ontario is one of only three jurisdictions that has no formal mechanism for adjusting the pay rate.
In July, the province appointed a special advisory group to study the wage system. The six-person panel — which includes representatives from labour groups, business, and academia — is expected to release its findings by early 2014. But protesters say it’s already obvious that the rate needs to be increased, with future raises linked to inflation.
“Living in a city like Toronto, after you pay rent there’s hardly anything left over,” said Sonia Singh, spokesperson for the Workers Action Centre, another of the protest’s organizers. “People are having to work two or three jobs just to pay the basic bills, and that’s having an impact. It’s urgent and we need to see the increase now.”
According to Singh, 544,000 people in the province subsist on a pay of $10.25 an hour, and more than 750,000 earn around $11 or $12 an hour. Despite the common perception that it’s primarily young people who make the bare minimum, Singh says that many low-wage earners are older and have families to support. They are also disproportionately women, recent immigrants, and people of colour.
Singh argues that employees wouldn’t be the only ones to benefit from a more generous wage policy. Because many families are already going without basic goods, she contends, they would likely spend any additional money they pulled in right away, which would boost the economy.
“It puts money in people’s pockets, that money goes back into local businesses,” she said. “This is something that would be good for the economic recovery of Ontario.”
Protestor Estina Sebastien gets emotional when she talks about struggling to make ends meet on the $10.25 she earns as a personal support worker. Although she put herself through a year of schooling to earn her certification, she has only been able to find part-time work, and now splits her time between two temp agencies.
“I’m almost in tears now, because it’s depressing. Living like this, people will tell you that they can suffer from mental health issues,” said Sebastien, who immigrated to Canada six years ago and has two children aged 16 and 20. “My choice is to deny myself everything. I make do with the basic bare things in order to give my children.”
Sebastien’s friend Julia McDonald is a similarly rough place. She does factory work, and though her children are grown up, she says it’s a strain even for a single person to survive on a stagnant minimum wage when the price of daily necessities continues to rise.
“It’s ridiculous because every year the landlord increases his or her rent, TTC increases its fare,” she said. “You can’t even afford to buy groceries.”
Article by Ben Spurr for NOW