Fair Minimum – Eye Weekly (3.8.07-3.14.07)

TEN BUCKS OR BUST

For one woman, making $10 per hour would make life a lot easier. The first in a series of stories on the campaign to raise the minimum wage

NIMA DIRIE STANDS BEHIND A MAKESHIFT CONFERENCE TABLE, ADDRESSING A CROWD INSIDE THE SOMALI IMMIGRANT AID ORGANIZATION OFFICES. The panel, which includes Parkdale/High Park NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo and Toronto and York Region Labour Council president John Cartwright, awkwardly straddles the opening between two adjoining boardrooms. Clumped together in approximate semicircles of mismatched chairs, close to 100 residents of the Weston/Mt. Dennis community surround them, split evenly by the dividing wall. From either side of the room, the other half of the crowd is virtually invisible. But they are all transfixed on Dirie.

In a quiet voice, Dirie explains that she has taken the evening off work at Pearson International Airport to come to the rally, giving up an extra shift and some overtime pay to be here. Her nervousness subsides as she details her situation: the long hours working for $9.13 per hour, her days off spent covering extra shifts. Although her schedule is from noon to 8pm, she is usually up at 6am to take any early shifts that might become available. “Six in the morning?” a woman up front exclaims, and the room fills with sympathetic applause.

The crowd has assembled for a community meeting to rally support for DiNovo’s Bill 150, a private member’s motion to raise the minimum wage to $10 per hour. Like Dirie, they have all made their way to the second floor of a strip mall on Weston Road, exhausted from work, to give up their evening for a political cause that directly affects them.

Dirie continues, eliciting further applause with her despair at spending all her time working, unable to see her family, and still barely making enough to pay the bills. “People might think $1 is not a big deal, but if you add up all those dollars it is something. A lot of people might look at $9 and $10 as the same, but it’s not really the same. That extra dollar would mean so much to me. It would look great on my paycheque.”

BY NOW, ALMOST EVERYONE IN ONTARIO IS FAMILIAR WITH CHERI DINOVO’S QUEST FOR A $10 MINIMUM WAGE. What began as an ambitious attempt to translate her by-election victory into immediate action gained traction when it passed second reading at Queen’s Park. It has since provoked a barrage of coverage on the working poor in the Toronto Star and forced the Liberal government to reconsider the goals of its own minimum-wage legislation.

Along the way, two significant factors have helped put the minimum wage in a new perspective: the government MPPs voting themselves a 25 per cent raise last December, and the final 25-cent increase to the current minimum wage, bringing it to $8. With such tangible numbers appearing in the daily media, DiNovo and her supporters have made a public appeal to consider the practical reality of significantly raising the minimum wage. That the bill will most likely be defeated only intensifies the ongoing debate.

Government opposition to the bill has been constant. They cite everything from the potential loss of 66,000 jobs to the plight of small business owners to the notion that most of the people working for minimum wage are just students living at home making extra cash to buy themselves luxury goods. After all, Ontario’s newly raised minimum wage of $8 per hour is one of the highest in the country; and it’s been raised four times in four years. Why should the government accept a private-member’s bill when they have their own agenda firmly in place?

A number of experts and studies have taken up the question, refuting the government’s dire economic predictions and categorizations. In the coming week at eyeweekly.com, I’ll be discussing the life of Nima Dirie as she and her family try to get by on less than $10 an hour, and exploring the campaign’s economic arguments that she shouldn’t have to.

For DiNovo, it boils down to something simple. “People who work for minimum wage should be able to feed their family.” This is not about political standards or comparative numbers, but an attempt to ensure that anyone working full time should at the very least be able to breach the poverty line.

For someone like Nima Dirie, the reality is complicated. Dirie’s job as a customer assistant at the airport pays $9.13 an hour – well above the current minimum. But she and her sister combined earn a monthly income of roughly $3,200, which is just barely enough to support a household that includes their mother, 17-year-old brother, another sister who is attending U of T, and a divorcee older sister and her son.

Low wages are one of the single most limiting factors in her family’s way of life. For the three generations of her family living together in Weston, everything – groceries, higher education and time together – hinges on an employment situation completely out of line with the basic needs of a Canadian family. Trying to earn enough by working as hard as she can, even when her paycheque is clearly not enough, is as difficult for Dirie as it is admirable. “I know that I can go out and work,” she says. “I try my best to come up with it. I try always.”

Read the rest of Fair Minimum – CHRIS BILTON’s look at the campaign to raise the minimum wage and the life and hard times of Nima Dirie at eyeweekly.com/daily:

Fri, March 9: “We cannot expect to have decent workplaces free of charge.” At home and at work with Dirie, and how she fits into the “new economy.”

Mon, March 12: “It’s not like we can do a regular grocery shop where you go every week.” Canada’s answer to the poverty line and how Dirie struggles to balance her budget.

Tue, March 13: “About 97 per cent of minimum wage workers were better off when wages went up.” What a raise to $10 would mean to Dirie and the economics of higher minimum wages.

Wed, March 14: “No worker should be paid so little that after working full-time they still find themselves with less money than they need to live at the poverty line.” The campaign to raise the minimum wage gains momentum.

This was published as a serial in Eye Weekly.

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