I became involved with DWHN and $15 and Fairness as a healthcare provider, as a student, and as someone who grew up in a household where my parents were working precarious jobs. When we first landed in Canada, I remember being in elementary school and barely seeing my parents because they were balancing working multiple part-time jobs. And slowly I saw firsthand what the impact of working in unstable, low-wage jobs was on my parents’ health.
This is what drew me towards the fight for decent work – that it impacted real people. In Canada, 1,253,000 workers earn minimum wage or less according to the Government of Canada’s survey in 2015. And of these, women are disproportionately represented – nearly 60% of minimum wage earners are women and 35% are workers of colour.
In Ontario prior to 2018, the previous minimum wage was just at $11.60. But it’s not just about increasing wages but also improving the condition of the work environment. We spend 50% of our waking hours at work, and the accumulative stressors at work can add up to impact our health. For sick workers in Ontario, there were no laws protecting workers from job losses – some could be fired from work for missing a single day due to illness. How could we allow our workers to live this way? Particularly workers with low wages, who tend to be women, immigrants, people of colour?
My parents were fortunate to have the social networks to be in a different place now compared to before. But many others are not this fortunate. I recently met a patient, Ms. K, in the emergency department who just received a diagnosis of ectopic pregnancy – this meant that the pregnancy was developing outside of the uterus. The condition can be life threatening for the mother, and also means that the pregnancy cannot continue. After receiving this devastating news, Ms. K asked “how many days would I need to be off work? I need to let my employer know so I don’t get in trouble, I can’t afford being fired.”
We need to create a system where we allow people the decency to take care of their own health, regardless of the type of job they work. Through $15 & Fairness and Decent Work and Health Network, we were able to successfully advocate for equal pay for part-time casual and temporary agency workers and 10 days of job-protected emergency leave with 2 that are paid. We have also won improved scheduling provisions and increased minimum wage. These will disproportionately benefit women workers, particularly since women still bear the majority of caregiving for children and ill parents.
In the emergency department that day, Ms. K had a difficult decision – she had to choose between taking time off, caring for her physical health, grieving her pregnancy loss, or going back to work immediately to ensure that she has job security for the future. As a health provider, I will continue to fight for decent work so that my patients, like Ms. K, do not have to make these impossible decisions in the future.
Mei Wen is currently a medical student studying at the University of Toronto and a LEAD Scholar completing MSc in System Leadership Innovation at Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation. Mei is interested in the link between poverty and poor health and connecting the world of medicine and public health. She has worked on several research projects on homelessness and has worked with Decent Work and Health Network for the past two years to advocate for better working conditions for better health. Mei is passionate about writing and has published in Scrub-In, CMAJ Student Blogs and HealthyDebate regarding health equity issues. Follow Mei on Twitter: @MeiWWen.