Promoting Fair Wages: A Community Action Leader in Action

I am an internationally trained physician from Bangladesh. Like many internationally trained doctors, I could not get a job in my field and am currently working as a pharmacy technician in Toronto.  While my situation is not ideal, I quickly realized that people around me have it lot worse. This is my story of how I mobilized people in my community who were stuck in low wage jobs to successfully convince their employers (two medium sized companies) to introduce fair wages and benefits.

As a skilled immigrant, I came to Canada with many dreams and hopes, knowing that this is a land of opportunity. A physician from back home, I was eager to enter into the healthcare system in Canada.  However, I have realized that it is not that easy to get into the system, as the health care authorities have made the path very restrictive and difficult here.  I took some courses related to my field (clinical research and pharmaceutical), but I continued to be frustrated and feel like the job market is not supportive for internationally trained medical graduates like myself. I am currently working as a full-time pharmacy technician while juggling some clinical research and online medical service jobs on the side. At the same time, I am also trying hard to get my medical licensure in Canada.

After going through a few years of facing labour market barriers, and seeing a lot of suffering of new immigrants and citizens who have been in similar situations as me, as well as those who are still working in low paid jobs, I was searching for something that might help them. I decided to get involved with Access Alliance to work with them as a Community Action Leader and to get involved in the Campaign to Raise the Minimum Wage. I began learning a lot about the present economic situation of the people living in Ontario, their sufferings, basic needs not being met and how Access Alliance is advocating to promote fair wages for working families.

My involvement with the Campaign to Raise the Minimum Wage inspired me to raise awareness about the Campaign, and speak about the impacts that low wages has on health within my own community,  particularly with those who are working in food industries and retail shops. In my community, many people came to Canada as skilled immigrants. They are Doctors, Engineers, Pharmacists, Business folks, Accountants in this community.  Most of them are struggling to settle down and trying hard to cope with the present situation. To support their family they have started doing survival jobs.

In speaking to them about the issues that they are facing, I found that there are many factors that are affecting their quality of life and the lives of their families. The factors are mainly related to their low wage jobs. They don’t have enough money to buy good foods, medicine and necessary things to maintain a healthy lifestyle. They have also said 50% of their earnings are spent on rent as Toronto’s house rental rates are higher than other places. For some, due to social status back home and pride, they are not able to take the food from food bank and also not involved in getting social benefits from the government. Social status is like a great wall for them. All of them had a good job and status back home. But in Canada they have to start from the beginning. They are leading their life below-average over here but do not want to take any help from others due to pride.

Based on these stories, and the things I was learning about how income affects health, I began sharing with them some ways that they can approach their employers in advocating for fair wages in a respectful manner, using evidence. Over a couple months, I spoke to about 25-30 fellow community members in two medium-sized companies (food and retail), who then took it upon themselves to speak with their respective employers.

These are some of the elements of our journey together:

  • Be united together as a team. It can reduce fears and is easier to advocate together than alone.
  • Set up a series of meeting with the employer. The people I worked with arranged more than three meetings with their employer, the first meeting was to speak about the income and wages.
  • Speak to their employer about the health impacts of low wages.  People identified health-related problems like weakness, cold and fever, high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol. Some of them are taking chronic medications, but due to high price of the medicine they are not able to buy essential medication. Also some need multivitamins to maintain good health and keep fit for work. As the company doesn’t have any drug insurance, it is very difficult to cover all of this with minimum wage that is below poverty line. Also there are family needs like spouse and child sickness and their nutritional supports. As they are low income employees, it is almost impossible for them to provide the necessary medication and supplements as well as balanced nutritional support.
  • Explain to their employer what they have done for the company and what more they could do with an income that supports them to live above the poverty line.
  • Explain to the employer about the benefits of fair wages above the poverty line. It can bring more business; employees will be more fit for the work if they are getting the proper nutrition and peaceful family life.

After 4 months of constructive dialogue, both companies responded positively and decided to raise the wages of 60% of the people whom I engaged, to a rate that is fair and above the poverty line.  Wages of other employees are also under review. The employers have also assured them that they will provide more employee benefits in addition to wage increase. However, the employer needs some time to add benefits to the company policy.

It feels really great to have been a part of this small movement. Though it is a small change that is happening in my community, I believe it might help others to learn something from the process to make some changes to their community as well. I think with a good understanding about the benefits to both the employees and employer of fair wages, respectful communication and follow-up, strength in numbers, people can make changes where they work and live. I hope one day we will all see that these small, grassroots advocacy efforts can and will make a huge difference in people’s lives in helping them to live with health and dignity.



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