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By Shay Enxuga
Sitting in a McDonald’s off Lacewood Drive, Joof tells me that he has been working the backshift as a cleaner at the Halifax Shopping Centre for the past six years. When I asked why he prefers working backshift, he explains that it’s because the night shift gives him the opportunity to get another part-time job.
“It’s a lot of work but that’s what you have to do in order to survive,” says Joof, who has been working at least two jobs for the best part of the last thirteen years, sometimes pulling in up to 135 hours every two weeks.
“Minimum wage, as it is structured here, is not enough for anyone to live on a single job. It’s a starvation wage because you just cannot live on it. It cannot sustain anybody, at anytime.”
According to research conducted by the Nova Scotia office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), if minimum wage in Nova Scotia had kept pace with the rate of inflation from it’s high in 1976, it would be now be $15/hour!
The reality, however, is that the real dollar value of minimum wage has decreased by more than $2.00 over the past 25 years. This means that the purchasing power of minimum wage today buys almost 30% less than it did in 1976.
According to May-Dan Johnston, a researcher with the CCPA, “For a long time, the minimum wage was not actually pegged to inflation. That’s a relatively new measure in the last fifteen to twenty years. They realized that [minimum wage] hasn’t been keeping up with the cost of living and people are starting to slip further into poverty.”
The reality is that life has been getting harder for Joof and thousands of other minimum wage workers. Often women, and predominately people of colour, it is low-waged workers who most acutely feel the sting of rising inflation and stagnant wages.
Joof explains that over ten years ago, “You could go to Sobeys and you could get enough groceries for $75 to last you for two weeks. But that’s not the case anymore. You cannot live on $75 for two weeks. It’s a very difficult situation for people living on minimum wage. They find themselves between a rock and a hard place.”
Fighting for Change
Back in February, Joof spoke at a panel about raising the minimum wage in Nova Scotia. The panel was the kick-off event for a campaign called Nova Scotia Needs a Raise, organized by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), the Halifax-Dartmouth District Labor Council (HDDLC) and Solidarity Halifax. A coalition of union members, students, and low-waged and un-waged workers, the campaign is fighting for a $15/hour provincial minimum wage and a municipal living wage ordinance.
Joof spoke as a Justice for Janitors organizer and a member of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2. He proudly told me that him and his co-workers formed a union at their workplace two years ago. “We were the first group to join SEIU at my workplace, we were one of the founders.”
Since then, their union has improved conditions in the workplace because it has as forced a change in the interactions between workers and management. “Gradually, as workers begin to understand the opportunities that the collective agreement provides for them, they are becoming more and more motivated. It’s great and it keeps improving.”
A History of Struggle
However, this is not the first time Joof has been involved in the struggle for social and economic justice. Originally from Gambia, Joof came to Canada twelve years ago to escape persecution in his home country. He was the elected President of the national Gambian Student Union (GAMSU) in April 2002 when the students organized a peaceful demonstration against violence and murder at the hands of their government.
His voice takes on a sombre tone as he begins to recount the story.
“A thirteen-year-old girl was raped by a paramilitary officer, an armed unit of the police force. This girl was thirteen years old.
A couple of days before that, an eighteen-year-old student was tortured by a unit of the police force which was then called the Ambulance and Fire Service. The student [Embria Barry] had a problem with his teacher and, according to the information that we were given, and the teacher instead of dealing with it in the school decided to hand the student over the officers of the Fire and Ambulance Service for punishment, which is unheard of. It’s never done. No one had ever done it. But that was not the worst part of it.
This student was made to carry fifty loads of fifty-kilogram cement from one spot to another. And when he was done with that they allegedly put some cement in water and forced him to drink it.
Within 24 hours the guy was dead.”
Shortly afterwards, the GAMSU organized a peaceful demonstration to demand that the due process of the law was followed. However, the government responded with lethal force and opened fire on the students.
“The president of the country gave orders that we should be shot up with live ammunition. Fourteen people were killed… including twelve students and a four year old girl who was allegedly killed by a stray bullet.”
The day after the demonstration, Joof was forced to flee the country.
The Ill-Gotten Gains of Capitalism
Joof reminds us that the struggles of working people across the world are all connected. Citing a recent statistic, he points out that in a very short time more than half of the world’s wealth will belong to less than ninety people. For Joof, the issue is not just poverty, but also income inequality.
“The reason that the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer is because the gains of the poor are being undermined and are taken away from them whereas the gains of the rich have been increasing exponentially.”
Beyond simply raising the minimum wage, Joof argues that more systemic change is needed. “All that has been done with capitalism is to tinker with it and deal with the problems at the superficial level. There has never been a real revamping so that it can address the needs of the majority of people in the marketplace, and those are the consumers, the workers.”
Instead, Joof argues that there needs to be responsible intervention from municipal, provincial, and federal levels of government to ensure that all people have a decent standard of living.
“Some people don’t like it because they talk about the free enterprise, or the undesirability of the government intervening in with the economy, but you realize that for the past decades and centuries that we have had capitalism there has always been this situation of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. The conditions of working class people have not been improving at an acceptable level. What has been happening is corporate society has become filthy rich. It becomes almost like they live on ill-gotten gains.”
“Now that’s all from capitalism. That’s why I say that capitalism has failed the world.”