“A Fair and Decent Life”: Interview with Community Action Leader Sayema Ahmed

A newcomer perspective on why Ontario needs better employment protections

Sayema Ahmed is a Community Action Leader with the Community Works! Working Group, a group committed to promoting economic security for newcomers and their families. She arrived with her husband and young daughter in Canada in November 2012. In Bangladesh, Sayema worked as a dentist and her husband was a lawyer, but they both struggled to find work in Canada. Eventually, needing money to survive, her husband applied for work in general labour through a temporary work agency. There he initially worked in a packaging plant, until he was laid off. The temp agency later placed him in a food processing plant, where he was injured lifting sacks of flour. While her husband was working for the temp agency, Sayema’s whole family suffered from the mental and physical health effects of low wages and job insecurity.

Sayema and her husband’s story is far from unique. An increasing number of people, particularly newcomers, are only finding work in temporary jobs in Toronto. A recent article by the Toronto Star, reported that the number of temporary workers in Toronto had increased by 33% since 2004, while the number of permanent workers had only increased by 12% in the same time period. Temporary workers are often paid less for the exact same work as their permanent co-workers, have less job security, and less access to benefits. Research by Access Alliance in the past has found that precarious employment, including temp agency work, is associated with a number of poor health outcomes, such as increased risks of coronary heart disease and diabetes, and higher rates of fatal occupational injuries.

Sayema shared her family’s story with in order to provide a personal perspective on the issues with temporary agency work. The interview corresponds with the movement to improve employment standards in Ontario, in light of the provincial government’s ongoing Changing Workplaces Review. Interested community members and organizations are encouraged to share their opinions by attending public consultation meetings or submitting comments to the Ministry of Labour.

In the interview, we discuss Sayema’s family’s experiences with the labour market in Canada, including temporary help agencies, and its effect on their well-being. Sayema also recommends a number of policy changes. You can listen to the interview here or download a transcript.

Highlights from the Interview

The challenges of temporary agency work:

The first issue you experience is uncertainty. You never know whether you will have a job next week. You sign up for the temporary agency and they don’t give you any commitment that you will have any work for one month or two months. You could be working for them for two weeks, three weeks and then they say there is no work because of layoffs.

Health Impacts of Temporary Agency Work on her Husband:

It affected both his physical and mental health. Physically, he got high blood pressure. One time he had to pull more weight than what he was told he would. In his commitment, he was told he would only lift 40lbs, but the employer asked him to lift weights of 80lbs. He was so afraid that if he didn’t do it he would lose his job, so he did it. He had back pain and muscle pain for almost three months.

Effects on her family’s well-being:

You can’t have a fair life or good life or decent life when you’re working for minimum wage. It affects the whole family. Not only the person who is working for the temporary agency, but also all the people who are related to that person. All the time that you are depressed, you are stressed, it affects your family. After working so hard for a week, eight hours a day, you don’t even know after paying my rent, after paying my TTC, how can I have my groceries done? You don’t have any money for recreation. You can’t think of any luxury or travel, like any vacation. When I went to the shopping centres, I didn’t even think of buying any toys for my kid. That was so stressful. You can’t have a fair or decent life.

In discussing policy changes to help temporary workers, Sayema echoed many of the recommendations made by the Worker’s Action Centre in their report Still Working on the Edge, including:

  1. Limiting the percentage of pay that temporary help agencies are able to take from their worker’s wages and require them to report these numbers.
  2. Making employers responsible for the pay, benefits, training and liability of temporary workers alongside temporary help agencies.
  3. Ensuring that temporary agencies find replacement work if you are “laid off” or they give you termination pay.

Suggestion for the creation of paid training programs for internationally trained professionals:

[Employers] are looking for Canadian experience; they are looking for a Canadian degree. How can I have Canadian experience if I don’t work in Canada? So there should be specific on job training so that after coming to Canada I have a job or internship. The pay might not be much, but enough that I can survive, I can maintain my family and at the same time I can have training to upgrade my skills. It would be helpful if there was funding for that. 

Importance of raising the minimum wage to $15/hour in Canada:

My opinion is very clear on this issue. The government is raising the minimum wage to $11.25 this October. If you calculate when I’m getting $11.25, if it is raised to $15 and I am working 8 hours a day. It is almost a four dollar raise. Four dollars per 8 hours per day is almost thirty dollars, a week is 150 dollars and a month is almost 600 dollars. So, if you do simple math, this six hundred dollars, I can think of my groceries after paying my bills, after paying my rents. I can think of a decent life, a fair life. It’s not that people are thinking of luxury, of doing luxurious things. This is the basic needs. If you raise the minimum wage to fifteen dollars, you will have a decent and fair life. At least I don’t have to cut my daughter’s child tax benefit to maintain my groceries. At least I can think of some recreation. At least after paying my rent, TTC, I can think of think of a little vacation, I can think of a little toy for my chid. That is a basic thing. The main thing is, if you raise the minimum wage to 15 dollars, you can have a decent and fair life. At least you can live above the poverty line.

Written by Michelle Hayman (MSW Student), interview with Sayema Ahmed (Community Action Leader)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s