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Disabled Ontarians are fighting for fairness too

Melissa Graham

September 23, 2016

On October 1, 2016 activists from across the province will be gathering at Queen’s Park in Toronto as part of the campaign to Fight for $15 and Fairness. In the context of the Changing Workplace Review, the demands of this demonstration include promoting full-time permanent work, fair scheduling, three weeks paid vacation, paid sick days for all workers, protections for the right to organize, protections from bullying in the workplace, and of course a $15 minimum wage, with no exceptions.

Disability oppression

The demand to increase the minimum wage is especially important for those most oppressed by capitalism: disabled people, migrant workers, racialized and Indigenous people, all of whom disproportionately earn a minimum wage that continues to fall below the poverty line.

Even where employed, people with disabilities are 1.5 times more likely than people without to live with low income. For people with disabilities who can and are able to find work, the choice to work is a difficult one, because, without adequate workplace benefits, workers with disabilities must pay for expensive medications and equipment repairs out of pocket from wages that are already too low. Such expenses are covered if a person is on social assistance.

For the two-thirds of working-age disabled Canadians living on social assistance, these costs -- and the costs to their own health -- are a significant factor in remaining on Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support program. As of October 2015, a single parent on the Ontario Disability Support Program would receive a maximum of $1,638 per month. On Ontario Works, the maximum the same family could receive is $1,062 per month. 18.4% of working-age women with disabilities in low-income households are lone parents. Meanwhile, an adult minimum wage earner who is lucky enough to find a 35-hour per week job would earn only $1,596 – before tax – for four weeks.

Although a person is permitted to supplement social assistance with modest earnings, the precarity of persons with disabilities has contributed to their being exploited at work or even having to work without pay. This helps explain why, although sheltered workshops are shutting down in Ontario, thousands of intellectually disabled adults in Canada are still earning less than $2 an hour under similar programs.

Divide and conquer

The frustrating irony in Ontario is that many legislators have used the low minimum wage to keep social assistance rates even lower, insisting that a raise in social assistance would necessitate either disincentivize work or provoke a minimum wage hike that would supposedly ruin the economy. In other words, a low minimum wage floor acts like a ceiling on social assistance levels.

It’s time to turn this around. The evidence shows that a stronger minimum wage creates a stronger economy, and a higher minimum wage can help raise social assistance rates. When workers with and without paid work have more money to live, the whole economy improves.  That’s why wages and social assistance must provide a decent living for all.

It was a step forward when, in 2014, the movement forced the Ontario government to index the province’s minimum wage to the rate of inflation so that the wage no longer loses its value as prices rise. We need to demand the same for all forms of social assistance.

With that in mind, we can all fight for $15 and Fairness, where fairness means:

1.     Increasing the minimum wage,

2.     Providing adequate workplace benefits that accommodate all workers’ needs,

3.     Raising social assistance rates and/or shelter components to provide more adequate and dignified standards of living.

4.     Indexing all social assistance to the annual cost of living to ensure that income does not lose its value over time.

That’s why we all need to support the Toronto Disability Pride March on Saturday September 24 starting at 1:00 pm at Queen’s Park and the demonstration for $15 and Fairness at Queen’s Park, Toronto on October 1. The Queen’s Park Rally is at 1:00 pm, with pre-rally contingents start gathering at 12:00 pm. There will be a variety of campaigns connecting their issues with the Fight for $15, from migrant workers to climate justice, and we should add fairness for disabled people.

Together we can make our communities stronger.

Sources: Income Security Advocacy Centre and the Council of Canadians with Disabilities.

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