Photo: theilr/flickr

Walmart is holding a food drive for its… wait for it… own employees.

A Walmart store in Ohio is asking employees to give out of the goodness of their hearts to ensure that their fellow associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner (which in the United States happens this Thursday).

Walmart’s head office is attempting to sell this as a feel-good story. “Just look at how generous and thoughtful our employees are,” says the public relations department. “We have clearly fostered an atmosphere of generosity and caring among coworkers. Our employees rally together and take care of each other in times of ‘extreme’ hardship.” This, apparently, is the Walmart spirit at work.

True, we all want to live in a society that cares and shares during times of great hardship. The part of this story that is disquieting is this: at least 13 associates (that’s how many bins can be counted in this picture) are experiencing extreme hardship. Their low-wage job leaves them unable to afford the holiday ‘basics’ — like a turkey. In this case, the extreme hardship they are facing is actually a low-wage job.

This situation is nothing new. Ontario’s low-wage and precariously employed workers have been forced to turn to charity and the goodness of others to meet their basic needs for years, and this trend is increasing.

The Daily Bread Food Bank recently reported that almost a quarter of all people who visited a food bank in the GTA between April 2012 and March 2013 had at least one family member who was working.  Put another way, at least 250,000 people in the GTA have jobs and can’t afford to feed their families.  They don’t all work for the minimum wage either.  Some earn more than $15 an hour but can’t get enough hours in to earn a decent living.

Some would have us believe this is the new normal, that low wages are simply the cost of doing business and attracting investment.

Here’s the message that sends to low-wage workers, new immigrants, recent graduates, and women re-entering the workforce: go out there and get a job, but don’t expect to get ahead. Just be grateful that you have a job at all.  And when you can’t meet your basic needs — even when you are working full-time — you better hope and pray that a neighbour, a local church or a charity will help you get by.

More of Ontario’s workers are facing extreme hardship — while holding down a job.  Here are a few facts about Ontario’s work force:

1.  Over 500,000 people in Ontario work for the minimum wage.

2.  Almost 1.5 million of Ontario’s workers make at or below poverty wages.

3.  22 per cent of all employees in Ontario are experiencing some form of precarious employment.

4. A full-time minimum wage job in Ontario provides enough income for a single person to live 25 per cent below the poverty line (Ontario pre-tax LIM).

5.  In 2010, one third of all children living in poverty had at least one parent who was        working full-time, full-year.

6.  Ontario’s fastest growing industries tend to create part-time, low-wage jobs.

On all of these fronts, the situation is getting worse, not better.

Raising the minimum wage to within 60 per cent of the average industrial wage is one step the current provincial government can take to begin to help lift a large proportion of low-wage workers out of poverty and help to ensure that full-time, low wage workers don’t have to turn to charity in order to make ends meet.

Learn more about how raising Ontario’s minimum wage to $14 an hour would be good for workers and for business here.

Kaylie Tiessen is an economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Ontario office. Follow her on Twitter @kaylietiessen.

Photo: theilr/flickr