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Are we valuing work enough this Labour Day?

This week's Market Squared pauses to reflect on work, legislated poverty and all the things we're not doing to make life more affordable this Labour Day
2018 09 03 GT -  Guelph Labour Day Picnic 2018 – TB 09
The Guelph District Labour Council’s information and food ticket table at the 2018 Labour Day Picnic. Troy Bridgeman for file photo

I saw a funny tweet the other day. Somebody who works at a dine-in movie theatre, a type of cinema that’s essentially a restaurant where you watch a movie, posted a picture of a paper tab given to one patron who didn’t offer the server a tip. Why? “You came in the middle of me crying,” they wrote with a sad face drawn underneath.

You guessed it! It’s time for the Labour Day column.

First, let’s acknowledge the moment. For much of the last eight months we’ve been awash in labour action from all quarters. The Metro workers in the GTA are heading back to work after the long weekend, but TVO employees are still on the picket line. Grand River Transit drivers up the road in Waterloo Region were on strike back in April, and at least some of the teachers might go out sometime this fall.

Aside from the one-day CUPE strike last November, and maybe some impacts from when the Public Service Alliance of Canada were picketing in the spring, Guelph has been largely spared the “summer of the strike”. Perhaps that’s why our local labour leaders felt no need to organize a Labour Day Picnic this weekend.

It’s kind of hard to believe that there’s not going to a Labour Day Picnic in Riverside Park this year when there’s all kinds of labour tumult going on around us. I’m not sure who’s to blame and I’ve heard a lot of different things about why there’s no picnic this year, but local labour organizers have really dropped the ball by not seizing the (labour) day.

A couple of weeks ago in this space, we talked about some of the actions that the Government of Ontario could be taking on housing and affordability aside from unethically tearing apart the Greenbelt. What didn’t make the cut in that column was ways that the government could make living in an unaffordable world easier, and Labour Day seems like a good time to talk about that.

Let’s start with the Ontario Disability Support Program, or ODSP. The good news is that people in Ontario on ODSP saw a bump in their payments in July, but the bad news is that bump was a mere $81.

According to Feed Ontario, an advocacy group that supports Ontario’s network of food banks, the now maximum payout for ODSP is $1,308, which, adjusted for inflation, actually makes those payments less valuable than they were five years ago. They also note that the poverty line in the Toronto area, adjusted for the needs of people with disabilities, is around $3,091.

If you’re on Ontario Works, it’s even worse. If you’re a single person on OW, you get $733 per month, and if you’re a couple you get $1,136 per month. Got a kid? If you’re single, your payout increases to $1,135.91 and if you’re a two-parent household it’s $1,324.91. Families with children got an $8 increase this past July, but otherwise, these rates have also remained unchanged for years.

“Ontario Works (OW) incomes remain stagnant and well below the official poverty line for every family type,” notes the Income Security Advocacy Centre. “Despite this inflation-related increase, ODSP incomes are still far too low to adequately cover food, housing, transportation, medication, costs related to disability, and other necessities of life.”

Last year, the Ontario Living Wage Network set the living wage for the Guelph/Wellington area at $19.95. Reminder, the living wage is not a minimum wage, it’s the hourly wage a worker needs to earn to cover their basic expenses and participate in their community, and the last time that Guelph was anywhere near the current minimum wage of $15.50 per hour was 2013, when the living wage was $15.95.

If you’re reading these numbers and are confused about how any one on ODSP, Ontario Works or are making minimum wage can afford to live in Guelph, you’re through the looking glass. And while the provincial government is working overtime to enrich a few select land developers, they’ve continued to let these lagging indicators of economic health stagnate.

You might have heard the term “legislated poverty.” Well, this is what it means, and it’s entirely within the government’s ability to control. They set the rates for ODSP, Ontario Works, and the minimum wage, and it they want to change it, they can use a lot of the same arguments they’re using on housing about how this is an affordability emergency, and we need to make sure that people are taken care of.

The Ontario government can also increase funding to universities and colleges so that young people are not having to take out larger and larger student loans to get a now-necessary post-secondary education. Heck, let’s just say it, they could go a step further by making the first two years of post-secondary education free. It would be a start.

The federal government could lean harder on corporations that take home massive profits for those in the C-suite while paying the people on the floor a pittance by comparison. It’s strange that all three grocery corps in Canada could give their employees a living wage at the height of the pandemic and still make record profits but they can’t do it now.

We could also stop undervaluing certain types of work. We called those grocery workers heroes during the pandemic, we called them essential, but the rest of the time we don’t see them that way. They’re reliquaries for abuse like that server mentioned above. We make judgments about their ability because why else would they be a cashier, or a stock clerk, or a server if they weren’t deficient somehow.

The morass of our affordability crisis was created from many different ingredients, and while housing is a big one, it’s not the only one. This Labour Day, we need to rally around the idea of being paid a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work, and if there’s a reason why someone can’t work, we should still make sure that they can be taken care of. It’s literally the least we can do.


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Adam A. Donaldson

About the Author: Adam A. Donaldson

In addition to writing his weekly political column for GuelphToday, Adam A. Donaldson writes and manages Guelph Politico, frequently writes for Nerd Bastards and sometimes has to do less cool things for a paycheque.
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