'It's been a real struggle': Workers across Canada fight for $15 and fairness

Amber Slegtenhorst stands out in black while rallying for workers' rights. Suppl

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Workers across Canada fighting for better job conditions take to the streets today for the annual Fight for $15 and Fairness day of action.

rabble labour reporter Teuila Fuatai speaks to those at the heart of the campaign.

 

Acsana Fernando, 35, Group home worker, Scarborough, Ontario

Life in Canada hasn't been easy for Acsana Fernando. Originally from Bangladesh, Fernando arrived in Canada in 2002 hoping to build a better life for her and her family.

At the moment, the George Brown College social work student -- due to complete her two-year full-time course next week -- works overnight and weekend shifts as a group home worker when she isn't at school. Employed through a temp agency, Fernando earns Ontario's minimum wage rate of $11.25 an hour.

Her income, which is not guaranteed from week to week due to the precarious nature of temping contracts, must also support her brother and father. The pair cannot work due to injury and chronic illness.

"I don't know if I have enough hours to maintain the bills next time or enough money to buy tokens for the metro," she says. Balancing her family's needs, her studies and work is exhausting. "I'm in a constant battle. I barely sometimes can tell what day it is."

As an organizer with the Workers' Action Centre in Toronto, and a member of the Toronto Young Workers' Network, Fernando is a tireless campaigner for a $15 minimum hourly wage and fair working conditions. A wage at this rate would help "break the cycle" she's trapped in, she says. Taking some time out and enjoying simple things like a nice meal with her brother and father might also become an option.

 

Liz Puchailo, 24, University marker, Winnipeg, Manitoba

University of Winnipeg modern languages student Liz Puchailo began working as a marker at her school in the fall semester. She landed the job after enquiring about a poster advertising for a marker.

Taking the gig, which pays the province's hourly minimum rate of $11, was never about the money -- with Puchailo so far receiving only about seven hours of marking work over a 12-week semester. "I definitely expected to be offered to mark all of the tests, including exams. It would benefit me as a [language] student to mark the tests."

Instead, she says she has only been given the opportunity to mark tests from the second part of the semester. She also never took part in marking of final exams. "I didn't sign an official contract. I thought I would get at least 20 hours work for the semester. It's all spurious work."

Puchailo's experience demonstrates the importance of securing fair work contracts with clear employer obligations regarding hours and job expectations, as well as decent pay, she says. Today, she will be among the marchers for the Fight for $15 and Fairness day of action in Winnipeg. The rally, organized by a range of workers' advocacy groups and unions including the Manitoba Federation of Labour and PSAC, will be presenting the university with its petition of at least 500 signatures.

 

Grace Iyobosa, 44, Daycare worker, Ottawa, Ontario

As a daycare worker employed through a temp agency, Grace Iyobosa is always unsure about her work schedule. At $15 an hour, the solo mother-of-two plans on getting about 40 hours of work a week, but says her days can usually range between five to eight hours' work. "Sometime they call me, and sometimes they don't."

Trying to plan for her family's costs is difficult, and results in Iyobosa accepting whatever hours she is offered -- even when she is sick. "I'm working very, very hard to pay my rent…and pay everything else. Sometimes, I'm confused, tired and depressed."

Iyobosa, who moved from Nigeria in 2009, says things are so bad sometimes she is unsure whether leaving was the right move. However, the girls like it here, she says. "I want to set a good example [for them], but they see me…always working and tired."

A full-time job with sick days and benefits -- something she has been unable to secure -- would ease the stress on Iyobosa and enable her to spend more time with her daughters, she says.

 

Amber Slegtenhorst, 41, Restaurant supervisor, Ottawa, Ontario

Former office administrator Amber Slegtenhorst is back in the workforce following a two-year break due to health and family issues. The 41-year-old, who began her new full-time job less than a month ago, relies on her $12.50 hourly wage to support her and her five youngest children aged between three and 13 years. "It's okay. When I went into it, I guess I thought it would have a bit of a higher [pay rate] considering the position, but work is work."

Slegtenhorst, who is co-chair of Ottawa ACORN's Overbrook chapter, says a raise to $15 an hour would make a huge difference for her family. "First of all, we could probably get by a bit better. I could actually do things with the kids [and] could put them in programs which I can't right now afford to do. Right now, I can't even save for a contingency fund, for that emergency just in case 'what if" happens'. I basically live paycheque to paycheque," she says.

Slegtenhorst will be at the Capital's Fight for $15 and Fairness march today, kicking off at noon.

 

Jonethan Brigley, 28, Kitchen staff at A&W, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

Jonethan Brigley spends about half his paycheque on rent for the apartment he shares with his girlfriend. The full-time A&W kitchen staffer, who is also the chair for ACORN Nova Scotia's Dartmouth chapter, is paid $10.75 an hour. He has been with A & W for two years.

"Rent is about $585. That's basically more than half of my pay cheque. Then you have to add in the cost of transport and the cost of food -- it's been a real struggle," Brigley says.

In addition to this, his girlfriend -- who declined to be named -- has been unable to find a job after being laid-off two years ago. "She's been doing programs through social assistance…but there's no jobs around."

A raise in the minimum wage would make life a bit easier for the couple, Brigley says. "[We'd] buy healthier groceries, for sure…and maybe go out for a meal once in a while."

The Fight for 15 Coalition in Nova Scotia will be holding rallies and marches along Spring Garden Road in Halifax today.

 

Read Teuila Fuatai's series on the minimum wage in Canada:

Part 1: Wages vs. workers: How Canada's minimum rates compare

Part 2: Scraping by on the minimum wage and the Fight for $15

Part 3: Canada's minimum income experiment and the fight against poverty

Part 4: The business of the living wage

Part 5: Despite campaign pressure, minimum wages remain stubbornly low

Teuila Fuatai is a recent transplant to Canada from Auckland, New Zealand. She settled in Toronto in September following a five-month travel stint around the United States. In New Zealand, she worked as a general news reporter for the New Zealand Herald and APNZ News Service for four years after studying accounting, communication and politics at the University of Otago. As a student, she had her own radio show on the local university station and wrote for the student magazine. She is rabble's labour beat reporter this year.

Photo: Amber Slegtenhorst stands out in black while rallying for workers' rights. Supplied by ACORN Ottawa.

 

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