News / Politics

York food service workers win highlights minimum wage struggles of women and minorities

The minimum wage labour force is overrepresented by most vulnerable groups in Canada

By: Julia Mastroianni

On March 6, York University food service workers won a $15 minimum wage, some health benefits, and fair working conditions. This set a precedent for fairness in Ontario and across the country.

After experiencing a mix of bullying, racial discrimination, poor working conditions and low wages the Aramark workers organized their efforts with the labour movement, Fight for Fifteen and Fairness (an organization currently fighting for an Ontario minimum wage of $15 per hour). This would prompt a one-day strike on Feb. 2.

They would follow this with an indefinite strike on Feb. 16, working with support from on-campus student and faculty groups.

Malka Paracha, one of the food service workers, said at a Fight for Fifteen and Fairness meeting on March 31 that they were like “walking dead bodies” before the strike. Now, she says, she can see a change. “That’s my win; not just $15, but my self-respect, my dignity, and a very nice working environment.”

The fight for a living wage is one that has ties in both racial and gender equality movements. In Ontario, almost 60 per cent of minimum wage workers are women, while the share of racialized employees earning minimum wage is 47 per cent higher than in the total population.

With such disparities in earning, the racial and gender income gaps will continue to grow. With the current minimum wage levels across Canada, it isn’t possible for most workers to live on minimum wage even working 40 hours per week.

To measure how much it would cost a person to achieve a basic standard of living, Statistics Canada uses a “market basket measure,” an amount representing a basket of goods and services necessary for a single person to achieve food and shelter security.

According to the cost of that basket, which includes things like shelter, food, transportation and clothing, earning minimum wage is often not enough to achieve this. In some cases, working full-time would reach this mark, but many employers are unwilling to provide full-time hours.

Considering the overrepresentation of women and minorities in the workforce, it’s clear a non-living wage contributes to the continued stratification of women and minorities.

A majority of women in Canada are now working in the labour force, but are often segregated into lower-paying jobs. In 2009, women accounted for 80 per cent of all health-related jobs and 57.5 per cent of all sales and service roles.

Despite occupying slightly over one half of the paid labour force, women made up only 40 per cent of managerial positions and 25 per cent of natural and applied science-related occupations (both of which offer greater chances for financial rewards and promotions).

The addition of parenthood further complicates this wage gap. Despite their growing participation in the workforce, women still do a majority of at-home work, including housework and childcare. Known as the “second shift,” women will do paid work throughout the day and come home to the work of unpaid childcare, cooking and cleaning. Even with a second parent, according to a study performed by the UK Office of National Statistics women perform 60% more of this type of labor in a western setting.

In single-parent households, the burden is even greater. Women already make up many of the groups in Canada with high rates of poverty (including First Nations women, women with disabilities, and immigrant women), while 21 per cent of single mothers specifically live in poverty.

These single mothers must often work part-time or temporary contracts to juggle housework and childcare. Many of these jobs pay minimum wage, with little opportunity for advancement and no health benefits.

An increase in minimum wage to $15 and fair work contracts similar to what the York food service workers won is essential for the lives of women, immigrants, and minorities who are disproportionately represented in the minimum wage workforce. At $15, minimum wage workers will be working for a living wage, instead of wages that leave them in precarious positions and sometimes in poverty.

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