Forced to find work through a temp agency, Lorraine Ferns has been pushed over and over again into accepting jobs with less pay than permanent employees and without benefits. 

“I’m just another precariously employed worker struggling to make ends meet,” said Ferns, speaking at a rally of community members and labour activists in Toronto on Monday outside one of Canada’s largest temp agencies as part of a province-wide day of action for a $14 minimum wage. 

“All which leads to continuous instability.”

Click here to see more photos from the rally.

One of thousands of workers in Ontario facing similar situations, Ferns said she received 40 per cent less than a permanent employee doing the same job. 

Often making minimum wage which is currently set at $10.25 an hour in the province.

“Even at $11 an hour this will still be 16 per cent below the poverty line,” said Ferns. 

On June 1, for the first time in four years, the Liberal government will increase minimum wage to $11 an hour with a promise to tie future increases to the rate of inflation.

“I need $14 an hour and I need it now. I really do need it now. Anything less is truly degrading and it’s forcing me and many people to live in poverty.”

An increase to $14 an hour would push minimum wage workers like Ferns to 10 per cent above the poverty line.

“The minimum wage is so low right now that many temp workers are working just to eat,” she said. “Not to live, but just survive.

“Is this government so out of touch that they haven’t seen the price of gas, food, rent, bus fares?”

At $14 an hour, she and other minimum-wage workers could afford the basic necessities of life that everyone else takes for granted rather than feel beaten down by a system that constantly leaves them stressed about trying to make ends meet. 

Ferns remembered working full-time through a temp agency for over a year without public holiday pay.

“The rents are so high I constantly worry that I’ll have to rent a room for the rest of my life,” she said.

“We deserve a better life.”

But as the temp help agency industry continues to grow and flourish, Ferns’s dream of a better life is quickly melting away.

“Temporary help agencies provide employees to client businesses that require staff on temporary assignments,” said the government on its website.

“Initially, these agencies provided mostly clerical workers, but today, they supply workers in a wide range of occupations, including manufacturing, construction, service, and information technologies.”

Leaving Ontario with more of a just-in-time workforce.

“Yet the government won’t do anything about it,” said Ferns.

So on a blustery spring afternoon, the Campaign to Raise the Minimum Wage brought its message outside the doors of one of Canada’s largest temp agencies.

“We’ve done these actions in the heat of August, the bitterly cold in December and we can do it in a bit of wind in April,” said Deena Ladd of the Workers’ Action Centre (WAC).

The Campaign to Raise the Minimum Wage was launched in March 2013, with communities across Ontario demanding the government break the freeze.

“Our communities aren’t going to accept just a measly 75 cent increase in the minimum wage. So the fight for $14 continues in cities across the province.”

The fight for decent wages and working conditions.

“Now,” said Andrea Babbington of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council. “Not four years later.”

Babbington’s heard too many horror stories from temp agency workers. “If they get hurt they just discard them,” she said. “Because they’re no good anymore.”

But Babbington warned the Liberals during her speech at Monday’s rally that if they don’t begin to stand up for workers, they’ll be the ones “discarded” at the next election.

Last fall, the Liberals introduced Bill 146, the Stronger Workplaces for a Stronger Economy Act, to better protect workers hired by temporary help agencies and unpaid interns, co-op students and trainees.

“The proposed act will also eliminate the $10,000 cap on the recovery of owed wages and increase the period of recovery from six and 12 months to two years for employees,” said the Toronto Star.

“And it will make temporary help agencies and employers jointly liable for employment standards violations and workplace safety. The move would help decrease the number of companies that hire temp agency workers solely to toil in unsafe conditions. It would also ensure those workers are properly paid.”

Clerical workers aren’t the only ones stuck in temporary, minimum-wage jobs.

“Our (retail) workers make $10.25 an hour working part-time,” said Sue Holdaway, with UNIFOR Local 414, a retail local.

“Most of them work two and three jobs just to make ends meet. They go to work every day and they’re still living in poverty.”

Seventy-five percent of retail sector workers are women.

“That’s a very high percentage,” said Holdaway. “They can’t even afford licensed daycare, never mind city transit.”

Many college, graduate and undergraduate students in Ontario also work in part-time, minimum wage jobs.

“My generation will be the first generation in over a century to live worse than their parents,” said Alistair Woods, chairperson, Canadian Federation of Students – Ontario (CFS-Ontario).

Working longer hours in precarious jobs for less pay in a province that continues to get more expensive to live in.

“So $11 (an hour) is an insult to working people (trying) to make a living wage so they can pay their bills and make ends meet. $14 now or else.”

Or else face the consequences at the ballot box in the next provincial election.

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.