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Minimum wage squeeze

Tony Best

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After almost a quarter of a century in Canada, 51-year-old Doreen Clarke, a Bajan, has become an interesting statistic.
The personal support worker, who has had a succession of low-paying jobs in recent times, is among the nine per cent of people in Ontario’s labour force earning the minimum wage of CAN$10.25 (BDS$19.47) per hour or slightly higher. In the past decade, the share of workers there toiling for low pay has more than doubled, going from 4.3 per cent in 2003 to nine per cent today, according to a study conducted by the Wellesley Institute.
The Bajan’s case has attracted significant attention in Ontario because she fits the profile of the almost 1.2 million workers earning at least CAN$10.25. More and more of them are 25 years and over; are women; visible minorities; and are immigrants from the Caribbean, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Europe, Africa, China and other parts of Asia including the Philippines.
Just as intriguing is the route Clarke took to put bread on the table, a roof over her head and clothes on her back. Sometime ago, she had a job that paid CAN$13 an hour but walked away from it because she wasn’t getting the hours that would boost her pay and enable her to make ends meet.
“I now have full-time hours with another agency,” Clarke told a reporter at the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper. “But when they told me the pay is $10.25 [an hour] I had to cry. I have worked in grocery stores, shelters, evenings, days. It is hard work but the pay gets worse.”
The sad part is that women, immigrants, blacks and other minorities, like the Barbadian, are almost 50 per cent more likely to be employed in jobs that pay lower wages than the general population, according to the Star and the study. And if you are a recently-arrived immigrant, chances are you would become another statistic, a member of the 20 per cent of the labour force being forced to take minimum wage positions.
That’s because the lack of a robust Ontario economy is compelling employers to cut expenses and that in turn means reduced employment, a fact of life in Barbados as well.
The growing use of minimum-wage workers is fuelling a drive to get the provincial government and the legislature to hike the base-pay, something Kathleen Wynne, Ontario’s Premier, is reluctant to do. Activists are pressing her to increase it to $14 an hour but she expressed concern that such a move would force companies to hire fewer people.
“The worst thing we could do is to raise minimum wage to a point where we actually lose jobs, and that is the fear of business and, quite frankly our government, she said last month.
A decade ago Ontario’s minimum wage was CAN$6.85 an hour. But since then it has risen to CAN$10.25. However, the minimum wage issue is just one of a number of employment hurdles Bajan and other Caribbean immigrants face when they land in Canada. Newly-arrived foreign-born residents, many armed with degrees from accredited universities and colleges back home, run into a brick-wall when they are told they don’t have on the job “Canadian” experience.
Imagine landing in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver or Edmonton with a degree in computer science from University of the West Indies and a dozen years of experience gained at the Nation newspaper, Sagicor or Sandy Lane only to be told by a prospective employer that you couldn’t be hired because you don’t have “Canadian” experience.
It’s a common excuse that forces highly trained immigrants to drive taxicabs, clean toilets or accept other menial jobs. It happens to physicians, engineers, attorneys, accountants, chemists, you name them.
“This (Wellesley) study shows that it is not just students who are working for minimum wage,” explained Sheila Block, the report’s author. “It shows that more than half of workers who would benefit from a $4 increase in the minimum are over 25” years of age.
“In a time when governments feel their budgets are constrained, minimum wage in Ontario is something that can address income inequality,” Block added.