A year ago, I joined forces with other teachers, students, parents and members of a local community organization, Parkdale Organize. We gathered to challenge excessive rent increases that threatened to affect many local families. Teachers at Queen Victoria Public School were outraged when we learned community members were facing monthly rent increases of up to $150. For three days, we demonstrated at a busy intersection before school with signs and slogans, music and media. Eventually, our efforts were successful and the landlords backed down, opting to raise rents in line with provincial guidelines.
Although I don’t have to get involved in events that affect the lives of my students outside of school, I choose to do so because I understand the positive power of collective action.
Most recently, I have been involved in learning and teaching about another decision that will benefit many of our students’ families, Bill 148.
What is Bill 148?
Also known as the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act 2017, Bill 148 became law at the end of November 2017 after many months of organizing by workers, teachers, unions, economists, faith groups, activists, politicians and others. The passing of this bill is our democracy in action; without the commitment of people from different communities, sectors and industries working together to ensure better working conditions for all, these important changes to labour law could not have been achieved.
Bill 148 will ensure significant improvements for some 1.7 million workers in Ontario currently earning less than $15/hour. It includes an increase to the minimum wage as of January 1, 2018 and again on January 1, 2019; equal pay for equal work for full-time, part-time, casual and temporary workers (including those employed by temp agencies); fairer scheduling, leave benefits for emergencies, paid vacation, critical illness and parental leave; better access to union protection and more scrutiny of employers who misclassify employees as “independent contractors.” (Learn more about what has changed here: ontario.ca/page/plan-fair-workplaces-and-better-jobs-bill-148).
Bringing the Impacts of Labour Law Reform to the Classroom
These changes to labour law in Ontario matter a great deal to me because fairness matters to me. I live and teach in the vibrant neighbourhood of Parkdale in Toronto. Parkdale has traditionally been a magnet for new Canadians who are trying to find their footing in a new country. For many families, changes brought about by Bill 148 will ease the choices about which bills to prioritize, what to buy at the grocery store and whether they can afford to pay for their children’s field trips. With Bill 148 fully in place, these choices will not be so onerous, and this will undoubtedly have a positive impact on everyone in the family.
Like many educators, I try my best to understand my students. This includes recognizing that they are people who bring their rich, complex lives with them every day when they enter the classroom.
As part of our grade eight language program, we explore current events. Recently, during one of our readings, we examined the effect that proposed scheduling changes under Bill 148 might have on their families. I began by asking them to think about what schedules they have. Students talked about what they do in the morning, their afterschool sports activities, picking up younger siblings, their homework routines and what they do on the weekends, such as attending language classes.
I then asked them to consider what their day at school would be like without a schedule. They talked about being confused by not knowing which teacher’s class they should be in, missing out on school work, gym or extra-curriculars, and being frustrated by the chaos. They quickly understood that not having a schedule would be a huge source of stress. When we considered what it might be like for a worker who didn’t get their work schedule ahead of time, they were able to empathize and understand how stressful that could be.
What would happen if someone’s boss called them up at the last minute and asked them to come in, but the worker couldn’t? Students talked about the challenges someone might face arranging child care, especially with short notice, and the high cost of paying for unexpected child care. Sometimes, especially if someone is working a minimum wage job, the costs of paying for child care versus going in for a shift just don’t balance out, especially if it’s only a short shift.
Students understood the other implications as well; if someone turns down a last minute call into work, that could put them in an even more precarious situation. What would an employer do if someone wasn’t able to fill in at the last minute? They would likely find someone else to fill that position.
Students discussed lack of sleep and the inability to socialize with family and friends as a result of an unpredictable schedule. They recognized that socializing is an important aspect of a meaningful life and that worrying too much about work and wages could lead to physical and mental health complications.
I asked my two grade 8 classes if they knew an adult who worked two or more jobs; half of them did. One student shared that she really looked forward to Sunday since it was the only day she had to spend with her father. There were times, however, when he got called in to work, which meant that she would have to wait another week to connect with him. This created disappointment for her and her father. Other students said they rarely got to see their parents because one parent worked all night and the other parent left early to go to work. Unfortunately, these scenarios are all too common for students across Ontario, not just those in Parkdale.
I believe students always have the right to respectfully ask their teachers why they are learning what they are learning. Similarly, sometimes I will ask them “Why do you think we are learning about this?” or “Why might this be important to you?” When I introduced Bill 148 into our classroom, we started by talking about how much minimum wage is. I informed them that because of public pressure and organizing, Ontario was at a turning point. Labour law was being rewritten for the first time in decades. This meant significant changes that would affect many of their families. They were curious.
Many of the parents of the students I teach are newcomers, and the vast majority are racialized. They face systemic barriers and discrimination in the work force. According to the Wellesley Institute, over 58 percent of minimum wage earners are women, and 35 percent are racialized. Furthermore, the share of racialized employees earning minimum wage is 47 percent higher than in the total population. Changes to labour law through Bill 148 will create conditions that work towards balancing these discrepancies. It will be up to all of us to continue to work towards spreading awareness and educating one another.
The Importance of Education
Education and awareness about Bill 148 were vital to getting the bill passed. According to 15 and Fairness, polls show that two out of every three people in Ontario support an increase to the minimum wage. The benefits of minimum wage increases include lower job turnover, higher productivity, greater job satisfaction and less disparity between what higher and lower paid workers earn. A decent minimum wage is a crucial part of an anti-poverty strategy, which can only serve to benefit our students and their families (www.progressive-economics.ca).
There have been opponents to the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act. Not surprisingly, big business lobbyists campaigning against the bill suggested that improvements to working conditions for ordinary workers will devastate the economy. They called for a slower phase-in for the $15 minimum wage. Prior to the third reading vote, former Ontario PC Leader Patrick Brown pledged to delay the phase-in until 2022 if he wins the upcoming provincial election.
As a language teacher, I make choices every day about what materials I use in the classroom. I have chosen to structure part of my language program around topics that directly affect my students’ lives such as Bill 148 and other important legislation such as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (in particular section 15, which refers to equality rights). My hope is that in learning about our rights, students will become better informed citizens and have greater control of their futures. It is also my hope that they will share what they’ve learned with those around them, including their family members. It is essential that we now work to spread the word about changes to the legislation and focus on our next challenge, ensuring that, in this year’s provincial election, Ontario elects a government committed to raising everyone up.
Call to Action
June 7 is the next Ontario general election. Workers in Ontario, unions and grassroots organizations, such as 15 and Fairness and the Workers’ Action Centre, know that getting Bill 148 implemented is a top priority. We need to ensure that gains won through the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act 2017 remain law, and that planned increases to minimum wage are respected by whichever party is elected.
One of the ways educators can be involved in enshrining more equitable working conditions is by teaching about democracy and fairness in your classroom. Studentvote. ca provides teachers at all grade levels with free bilingual resources to help you teach and learn about the electoral process with your students. “Coinciding with government elections, students learn about government and the electoral process, research the parties and platforms, discuss relevant issues and cast ballots for the official election candidates. The results are shared with the media for broadcast and publication following the closing of the official polls.” (studentvote.ca)
According to Studentvote.ca, 83 percent of students who learned about elections with Student Vote said they will vote in the future. Ninety percent of the same students said they believe that it is our responsibility as citizens to vote in elections. Perhaps just as significantly, 90 percent of parents said the program gave their families an opportunity to learn more about politics and 28 percent of parents said the program positively impacted their decision to vote. One hundred percent of teachers said they would like to participate in Student Vote again. I am one of those teachers.
As this issue of Voice goes out, I am facilitating conversations and debates about democracy and the party platforms. I am also getting ready for our grade 8 graduation trip to Ottawa in May. One of our most important stops will be the House of Commons to see democracy in action. It is gratifying for me as a teacher to know that I have played a small part in informing my students of their rights and responsibilities as citizens, including the rights of their parents/ guardians to a fair minimum wage and respectful working conditions.
Hayley Mezei is a member of the Elementary Teachers of Toronto.