Minimum wage hike key to cutting poverty
TheStar.com – news/canada
Published On Sat Dec 17 2011. Laurie Monsebraaten, Social Justice Reporter
Lilia Martinez is happy to clean offices, cook in a restaurant, look after children — you name it.
But the 52-year-old Mexican immigrant, who has done all of these jobs, has had trouble finding a Toronto employer willing to pay her the minimum wage.
“I like to work. I won’t take welfare,” Martinez says through a Spanish interpreter. “But in the past, I have found they only want to pay cash.”
“I can’t survive on what they pay,” adds the social worker and former factory owner, who came to Canada in 2008 to escape a violent 30-year marriage.
The truth is, however, Martinez and most other Ontario workers struggle even when employers pay the provincial minimum wage of $10.25 per hour, say workers’ rights advocates.
They are hoping Queen’s Park makes good on its election promise to appoint a minimum wage advisory committee as part of its annual progress report on poverty reduction, which is being released Monday.
They also want the government to make permanent a two-year, $6-million labour ministry initiative launched in 2010 to clear the backlog of workplace violation complaints.
Now that the backlog is cleared, advocates want the money pumped into proactive enforcement of Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, the province’s minimum workplace regulations protecting low-wage, vulnerable workers from abuse. Currently, there are only 20 ministry investigators working in this area.
“The government says the best route out of poverty is a job,” says Deena Ladd of the Workers’ Action Centre, a non-profit, worker-based organization. “But people working full time earning minimum wage are still having trouble paying the bills.”
Between 2003 and 2010, the McGuinty government raised the minimum wage from $6.68 to $10.25. There was no increase this year.
Meantime, TTC fares are going up by 10 cents, rents are rising by 3 per cent, and services are being cut.
“Increases to the minimum wage are the only pay raises people like Lilia Martinez ever get,” Ladd says. “That’s why it is important minimum wages reflect the cost of living.”
And enforcement is key to ensuring workers get what they are owed.
“Any initiative the government takes to alleviate poverty for low wage workers has to be backed up by enforcement,” Ladd adds.
A survey of 520 low-wage Ontario workers released earlier this year found about one-third were victims of wage theft, either because they weren’t paid the minimum wage or weren’t paid for the hours they worked.
The report urged Ontario’s labour ministry to proactively target employers in high-violation industries such as hospitality, cleaning, retail and construction, which attract newcomers, young workers, visible minorities and other vulnerable workers.
In June, Martinez found an office cleaning job that pays minimum wage. She is delighted to be bringing home an official paycheque and proud to be paying taxes in her adopted country. But because she works just five hours a day — from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. — she only earns about $1,100 a month. It’s not enough to make ends meet.
Martinez realizes she would have more options if her English was better, but she can’t afford to go to school on such low wages.
“I am desperately looking for full-time work,” she says. “My story is the story of a lot of Latin American women living here. We are trying to make a contribution, but it’s hard to find employers willing to treat us fairly.”
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