By Denise Leduc, Rankandfile.ca Writer/Organizer
In the 1970s a person working full-time making minimum wage would live 10 per cent above the poverty line. Today, that same person would be living approximately 12 per cent below the poverty line. In the past few years the Fight for 15 and discussions around living wages and a guaranteed basic income have been advancing dialogue about workers’ wages and economic fairness.
In 2015, 70 per cent of the people living in poverty in Canada were employed. Many of these people were taking on second or third job just to try to make ends meet. In the past two decades there has been a dramatic increase in the number of workers earning minimum wage. Whereas in the mid-1990s 1 in 40 workers made minimum wage, that figure is now around 1 in 8. Canada has one of the highest levels of low wage workers compared to other industrialized nations.
Many of the workers making minimum wage work in the retail and service industries and 70 per cent of all low wage workers work for medium to large employers. In 2013, 39.6 percent of minimum wage earners were over the age of 25 and about 60 percent were women.
Additionally, many workers living in poverty face precarious, “nonstandard” employment. These jobs are insecure, unstable, unprotected, and poorly paid and can include temporary, part-time or contract work. An increasing number of middle income workers have been forced to take on precarious work. A 2013 report conducted by the United Way and McMaster University found that more than half of GTA/Hamilton workers worked these type of jobs.
In an interview with Rankandfile.ca Nick talked about what it’s like to be a precarious worker in Saskatchewan. With two part-time jobs in the service industry he works full-time hours yet struggles to make ends meet with the low wages he earns. He considers himself to be part of the working poor. Nick is also enrolled in school part time. His net income each month is approximately $1550 but fluctuates depending on the number hours he gets. His biggest expense each month is rent, at $850. His utilities cost another $75 per month. Nick says he would like to find cheaper housing but recognizes that with the recent boom in Saskatchewan the cost of housing remains high. He admits that he skimps on groceries and often buys cheaper, less healthy food than he would like in order to pay rent. Nick doesn’t think he can afford a car and relies on public transit, a monthly bus pass is another part of his budget. These are all basic needs that workers should be able to afford.
Nick would like to be able to go to school full-time so he could finish sooner, however he does not feel that would be a practical decision at this juncture in his life. He would also prefer to work just one full-time job instead of two at part-time. The service industry is fine, he says, because he enjoys working with public and could see himself happy in management. But, Nick admits he had more time for a social life, and expressed embarrassment at his current situation in life.
Saskatchewan’s minimum wage is the second lowest in the country even though the cost of living has been going up for nearly a decade. In fact, the province has witnessed record cost of living increases, a symptom of the so-called economic boom that has just come to an end. Between 2011 and 2015 the cost of shelter in Saskatchewan rose 10 percent and utilities have gone up another 20 percent. Furthermore, childcare, tuition and car insurance have all gone up between 15-18 per cent.
Stats Canada recently reported that supermarket prices jumped by 4.6 per cent in January from the same time last year. Throughout the country fresh produce was up by about 15 per cent in just this past year. This is why each month 850,000 people in Canada rely on food banks to help meet their needs. More than a third of these people are children and youth. In Saskatchewan 17.9 per cent of food bank users are those whose main source of income is a job.
The cost of living squeeze is even being felt by the middle class. Charlotte is one of the many Canadians working full time who struggles to make enough money to pay for her basic needs. Earning a gross income of $40 000 last year she considers herself middle class. Yet, as a single mother she notices that finances are tight. Last year she worked two jobs, one full-time in health care and the second part-time in retail averaging about 50 hours per week. With two preteen children she has decided it is in their best interest for the family to spend more time together so has cut back her hours and quit her part-time job. Yet, she worries how she will make ends meet and that she may have to return to working more hours.
Charlotte also admits that she is in debt, in large part due to the cost of her kids’ sports activities. She earns too much money for any government assistance, but she insists that these activities are important for her children’s overall development. Her biggest concern when it comes to her monthly bills is groceries. Buying healthy foods, particularly fresh produce, has become a challenge. Living in a small prairie town she finds that grocery stores in her area charge more than stores in the city. In recent years she has started travelling to the city more for things such as doctor and dental appointments as well as to stock up on food.
Charlotte has already completed post-secondary education but would like to do more schooling to add to her skills and be qualified for a better job. However, she finds the time and money this would require to be an obstacle.
Nick and Charlotte are just two examples of people in the province of Saskatchewan struggling despite their best efforts. And by every measure they are doing what they are supposed to. But their realities do not match the depiction of economic life in the province portrayed by the government in recent years. The strain of trying to earn enough money to pay for their basic needs means that they have to make sacrifices in other areas of their lives. Is this what we want as a population? In a country with socialized healthcare things such as affordable healthy foods and opportunities to physical fitness, recreation and social activities benefit us all. Families should have time to spend together. Furthermore, the opportunity to further one’s education should never be out of reach for ordinary Canadians. These are basic demands and part of what can be achieved through a living wage.
In 2016 many workers are having a hard time just paying for the basics. While the minimum wage in Saskatchewan is $10.50, the living wage for Saskatoon is $16.77 and $16.46 in Regina. Yet there is hope, conversations around this issue are taking place and solutions are being offered. Trials on a basic income are beginning in Ontario. In the meantime though, workers like Nick and Charlotte continue to struggle.