Posted February 18, 2015
When Omar Joof arrived in Nova Scotia in 2002 minimum wage looked pretty good. Until the bills started to roll in, that is.
Pretty soon he was working two or even three shifts a day as a janitor.
“I told my boss I couldn't do it anymore. I started to have health problems,” said Joof. “I don't call that minimum wage, I call it starvation wage.”
Joof, now a SEIU organizer with Justice for Janitors, was one of the speakers at last Thursday's kickoff of the Nova Scotia Needs a Raise campaign. The public event was held at the George Dixon Centre in North End Halifax.
The campaign is spearheaded by a coalition of student, labour and community groups that calls for a $15/hour living wage, as opposed to the $10.40/hour minimum wage currently in place.
$15.00 per hour is what it would take in Nova Scotia to experience at least a minimal level of material comfort and dignity, the group argues.
Women, indigenous people, racialized workers, seniors, and people who live with disabilities disproportionally make up the low wage workforce.
For Darryl King, a minimum wage earner and board member with ACORN Nova Scotia, $15 per hour would make a tremendous difference.
“It would do a lot for my self esteem,” said King. “Minimum wage really limits you as to what you can do. I struggle and $15.00 would allow me to get involved more, do more for the community.”
Michaela Sam is the chair person for the Canadian Federation of Students – Nova Scotia.
A minimum wage summer job to pay for university simply doesn't cut it anymore, said Sam.
In 1975 300 hours of work in the summer would typically pay for tuition. Now, with Nova Scotia tuition fees the third highest in the country, it takes 600 hours to accomplish the same.
75 per cent of all students work during the semester, typically for minimum wage. To add insult to injury, students are often deemed “inexperienced” and as such get paid $0.50 per hour less than the standard minimum wage for the first three months, Sam pointed out.
“Work more, study less, this has to stop,” she said.
“Since the 1980s an increasing share of economic growth is profit, rather than going to workers” said Mary-Dan Johnston, a researcher with the Nova Scotia office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
The economy is expanding, productivity is up, workers are working harder and are working more, yet their wages are declining, she said.
“Had minimum wage kept up with the rate of inflation since 1977, it would be $15.00 per hour now,” she said.
Almost half of all minimum wage employees work for large corporations, said Johnston, dispelling the myth that it's mostly small businesses who can ill afford the added costs of a living wage.
A lively discussion followed the panel presentations.
Many spoke about how hard it is to even find a job.
Why should I go back to work?, asked one person living on social assistance. “I don't like it, but if you're not healthy how can you go back to work and get your health back up?”
A lot of trans people, facing discrimination and unable to find a job, turn to crime or sex work,” said one of the 40 or so people who attended the meeting. “It's very dangerous, and they do so out of desperation.”
A young woman labeled as living with intellectual disabilities spoke of her struggles with discrimination, preventing her from landing a job, let alone receive a living wage.
“The word disability comes up (during a job interview), I was honest, and as soon as I mention that, the answer is, oh, I am sorry, but it is too fast-paced here,” she said.
One person reminded the panelists that it's not just salaried workers that are in need of a living wage. Many self-employed farmers and fishers in rural Nova Scotia are equally deserving, she said.
A few people talked about how turning to a life of petty crime should be understood in the context of poverty, discrimination and starvation wages.
“A couple of people tonight talked about criminals,” said one speaker towards the end of the meeting. “Keep in mind that some people who pay their workers minimum wage earn more in one day than those workers do in an entire year.”
“I am a social worker, I am a mom, I don't recommend that anybody sell weed to make a living,” she said. “I think there really are criminals in this story. But they're not the people who we are alluding to.”
The Nova Scotia Living Wage coalition consists of ACORN Nova Scotia, the Canadian Federation of Students – Nova Scotia, the Halifax Dartmouth District Labour Council, and Solidarity Halifax
Article by Robert Devet for Halifax Media Co-Op