Scraping by on the minimum wage and the Fight for $15

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British Columbia resident Amanda Sillanpaa is working to make a better life for her and her mother.

The 25-year-old Burger King employee, who earns $10.45 an hour, hopes to one day become a software and program designer.

Today, she is among the hundreds of thousands of Canadians forced to make ends meet on a minimum wage rate. According to a 2014 study from Statistics Canada, minimum wage earners make up at least 6.7 per cent of the workforce.

The Burnaby resident's mother, who declined to be identified, is unable to work due to health problems. She lives with Sillanpaa, whose wage supports both of them.

Sillanpaa is a member of BC ACORN, an organization advocating and campaigning to improve the living and working conditions of struggling families and individuals. Sillanpaa joined the Fight for 15 Campaign after connecting with BC ACORN. 

"I have to resort to living in a one bedroom apartment which is actually really small for two people," Sillanpaa says. 

"It's been really hard. My rent is $900 and that doesn't include utilities. Even though my mom's on disability, that doesn't pay for much.

"It doesn't help that I'm also a student," she says. 

Sillanpaa, who also suffers from chronic epilepsy, dedicates about five hours each day to an online computer programming course.

"Sometimes, I do 10 hours overtime [each week] just to try and make a living.

"I actually have to look for another job to put my mom and I into a better living situation," Sillanpaa says. 

Irene Lanzinger, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour -- the organization sponsoring the Fight for $15 campaign in B.C. -- says Sillanpaa's low wage forces her to live below the poverty line.

Research published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) last year found minimum wage workers like Sillanpaa in B.C. earned $5,441 below the poverty line.

Conducted by CCPA associate and University of British Columbia Vancouver School of Economics professor David Green, the research also identified that about three in four low-wage workers -- those paid less than the $15 hourly rate deemed necessary to be earning above the poverty line -- are above 25.

Lanzinger also points to research showing 27 per cent of the B.C. workforce earn below $15 an hour.

"It's people in every age group: 10,000 people over 55 earn minimum wage," she says.

"It's more women than men: 63 per cent of minimum wage earners are women while 60 per cent of under $15 [per hour] are women.

"It is often workers of colour, new Canadians… and certainly lower skilled workers than higher skilled ones," Lanzinger says.

National figures from Statistics Canada also show nearly two thirds of minimum wage earners work in retail trade or food and accommodation services. Those working in industries with higher rates of unionization are least likely to be paid minimum wage, according to the data.

Pam Frache, an organizer with the Workers' Action Centre and Ontario coordinator for the Fight for $15 campaign, says addressing issues around decent wages would also help close the pay gap between men and women, racialized and non-racialized workers as well as recent immigrants.

In Ontario, nearly 55 per cent of employees on minimum wage are women, figures from Statistics Canada show.

And at least one in three minimum wage earners are racialized workers, despite only accounting for 23.9 per cent of employees. Furthermore, recent immigrants -- which make up about seven per cent of the Ontario workforce -- account for 15 per cent of minimum wage earners.

The Fight for $15 campaign, which has mobilized in provinces across Canada and is part of a larger global movement pushing for living wages, is essential in ensuring workers achieve fair wages and working conditions, Frache says.

"Workers are going further and further underwater every year the minimum wage is frozen … If you look at the minimum wage over the past 20 years, you can see the minimum wage [in Ontario] has been frozen for 12 of them.

"Those moments where the minimum wage increased were moments where there were concerted campaigns to raise the minimum wage."

The increase in the general adult hourly minimum wage from $10.25 to $11 in June 2014 -- just over a year after the Fight for $15 campaign launched in Ontario -- was a big step forward, Frache said.

"The minimum wage had been frozen for more than four years by the time the wage actually increased."

The Changing Workplaces Review, which was announced last February, is another significant step, Frache says.

Tasked with reviewing Ontario's labour laws for the first time in 20 years, an interim report summarizing the review's progress is due out this month.

Recommendations from the review are due to be tabled in October.

Frache says all workers, regardless of their background, job or age deserve to be earning a living wage.

And for Canadians like Sillanpaa, earning $15 an hour is the first step towards a better life.

"I could afford a two bedroom, so I'm not having to sleep in the living room," she says.

"I could afford food and I could help pay for my mom's medical needs.

"If everyone had the same minimum wage across all of Canada, then we'd all be seen as equals."


Follow this series on Canada and the minimum wage:

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: flickr/ Anna Waters

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