Toronto, ON - Hundreds of workers joined forces on Saturday, May 1, to call for urgently needed changes to labour law to address the crisis unfolding in workplaces across Ontario.
“COVID 19 has shown us that precarious employment is a health hazard for everyone in Ontario,” said Deena Ladd, Executive Director of the Workers’ Action Centre. “Doug Ford and his Conservative government have made it clear that they are working for big businesses and not people. Since starting in office, Ford’s government has repealed the $15 minimum wage, rolled back protections for workers, and eliminated paid sick days. Our movement has only grown stronger in response, and pressure is mounting on this government to do what is right.”
“We’re putting Ford on notice,” said Janice Folk-Dawson, Vice-President of the Ontario Federation of Labour. "Essential protections for workers are long overdue. Your neglect of workers and their communities is unforgivable. Make no mistake: we will make sure you are a one-term Premier.”
Other workers shared heartbreaking yet inspiring testimonies. Each worker explained what protections were needed, urged politicians to step up, and vowed to keep fighting to make work better for everyone. The workers who spoke knew firsthand how bad jobs harm workers, families, and communities.
Sixty-one-year-old Mayte initially fled Colombia and is an undocumented worker. Since arriving in Canada, she and her 16-year-old daughter have been consigned to an endless stream of terrible jobs. “My 16-year-old daughter and I had no option but for both of us to start work accepting exploitative working conditions through agencies as they pay me cash. My daughter should be going to college, but it just isn’t possible. And now, my daughter suffers from severe depression because of how we have been treated at work.”
For the past two and a half years, Ayesha has worked as a Personal Support Worker, but because she works through a temporary agency, her wages are low, and she has no job security. “I travel to people’s homes and take care of them,” she says. “I make $16 per hour, but I have been getting $2 more per hour for pandemic pay. So for the past months, I have been making $18 per hour. But the agency gets $35 an hour for each hour of my work. Meanwhile, I have no benefits, and I don’t get paid sick days.”
Hong has been working in a laundry facility cleaning for hospitals and hotels for the past ten years. Although he is permanent, the company relies heavily on temp agency workers. "Even though I have been working here for ten years, I make only $14.75 per hour. None of us have paid sick days. At the beginning of this year, my coworker, Mr. Lee, was not feeling well. Mr. Lee could not afford to take a day off as his wife was not working. So he kept coming to work coughing but thought maybe it was allergies. Very quickly, the situation got worse for Mr. Lee, so he had to be rushed to hospital. He was COVID positive, and he ended up dying on February 8.”
Retail worker Kanti explained why she is fighting for a $20 minimum wage. “I’m a retail worker. Although I’ve been working in the same retail job for more than five years, I only get paid a bit more than $14.25. I have no benefits and no paid sick days,” she said. “I support two teenage children, and one has special needs. It is very hard. If Ford hadn’t cancelled the $15 minimum wage, I would have at least been making $16 this year. Ford should give us back our $16 wage now, then raise the minimum wage to $20 as soon as possible. No one can properly survive on less.”
Before the pandemic, Purnima was juggling four part-time jobs at the same time while also taking care of three children. “Because I got a childcare subsidy, I had to be working a certain number of hours per week. But each job gave me very little hours. None of the jobs had paid sick days. So I had to keep getting another job and then another job and then another job to make a full-time job. This has been very difficult for me as a mother also to take care of my children.”
Janis works through a temp agency at a long-term care home and wants the government to ensure employers follow the law. She has been paid wages far below the minimum wage, from $7.50 to $10 an hour. “At the beginning of the pandemic, I worked through an agency to disinfect and clean nursing homes and Long Term Care Homes. I was working six days per week, and sometimes our hours were doubled without notice, so we were working 16 hours per day. We got no overtime pay. Many of my co-workers have gotten sick with COVID. The agency promised us $ 500 in compensation if we got sick, but then, when one of us got sick, they did not give $500 or pay for sick days if we had to stay home.”
Kris used to work at the boutique luxury Hotel X on CNE grounds. But he and 200 other workers were laid off at the beginning of the pandemic. “They promised us our jobs back when the hotel reopened, but that didn’t happen. Hotel X replaced all of us with short-term contract workers before reopening and terminated all 200 of us. They were able to do this by using subcontractors to avoid any responsibility as a direct employer.”
RM Kennedy is chair of the Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology (CAAT) Academic Division of the Ontario Public Service Employees Unions. Kennedy pointed out that colleges and universities engage in the same kinds of hiring practices as other employers. “Because it is legal to pay people less money and deny benefits based on the nature of their employment contract, there is a powerful financial incentive for employers to create precarious, part-time, and contract employment rather than good, full-time jobs with benefits,” said Kennedy. “Public institutions are no different than many grocery stores, replacing full-time jobs with part-time workers. Whether we are talking about contract faculty or part-time support staff, we see people doing the same work for dramatically different wages. Black, Indigenous and people of colour are all too often the ones on a contract or hired part-time.”
Folk-Dawson reminded participants that unionized and non-unionized workers have a shared interest in raising the floor of wages and working conditions through the Employment Standards Act. “We need to make it much easier for workers to join unions and bargain collectively with their employer,” she added. “We also need a system of broader-based bargaining so that workers can organize across franchises and across sectors to improve their wages and working conditions.”
Rally participants made hundreds of direct calls and sent hundreds of emails to their elected representatives.
In addition to sounding the alarm about working conditions, Saturday’s action marked the official transition from $15 and Fairness to Justice for Workers - the next phase of the Ontario-wide campaign for decent work. To learn more about the demands, visit www.Justice4Workers.org/movement.
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For more information, or to arrange an interview with rally speakers, please contact:
Justice for Workers: Rajean Hoilett