Worker’s Profiles: Below the Minimum Wage

By Sara Jaffri and Harshita Singh

An endless supply of alcohol, good music, pool tables, and friendly strangers – these elements seem like a recipe for a fun time. For those of us who frequent bars and pubs, this kind of environment is exactly what we look forward to at the end of a long day or work week.

Imagine working at a bar. It seems natural that bartenders would enjoy their upbeat surroundings at work as much as their customers. Now, imagine being the only worker at a bar. You alone are responsible for cleaning the bar, controlling drunk customers, serving food, buying supplies – everything all alone during an overnight shift.

Looking out for brewing tensions could interrupt any enjoyable conversation you have with a customer. There is no one there to share your burden when many groups are demanding service. No one to have your back when your boss holds you accountable for anything from bar fights or damages to property or shrinking profits – basically for any mishap that they can pin on you by virtue of their authority.

Most workers have experienced how much willpower and stamina it takes to endure long and challenging shifts at any kind of workplace all alone. BASICS spoke to Helen*, a courageous bartender who shared what it’s like to be in her shoes. Helen spoke of the rewarding relationships she has with many people in the community who visit the bar frequently. To make sure her customers have a good time, and are able to let loose and have fun, she is constantly multi-tasking on her own.

It is so important to recognize that it is still easy to be overworked even when you are working in a recreational or ‘fun’ community environment. Helen works tirelessly to balance all the duties of serving food and alcohol, while also keeping an eye on everyone in the bar to make sure her customers feel safe and secure. She shared stories of breaking up fights and fending off threats from customers.

In the past Helen has had to leap across the bar table to protect items on the inner shelves. When asked what would happen if she were not able to prevent a theft, Helen replied, “the customers have never been able to [steal from the bar]. I jump their asses if they try to steal one of the expensive bottles. I don’t make enough to pay it back.” A worker can be made responsible for the replacement of their boss’s goods, even when they earn so little. Workers are forced to protect and guard property that belongs to their bosses, while having no form of support if the things that they rely on to work are damaged on the job.

As the only worker at her bar, Helen has to be physically fit, emotionally strong, mentally resilient and efficient all at once- and all for pay below the minimum wage!

The necessity of sacrificing time with one’s family in order to work for others is not normal, healthy or fair. However, it appears to be a common reality for people living in Markham and Eglinton and other working class neighbourhoods throughout the city.

Helen described her schedule of working at the bar over the weekend. Her shifts on Friday usually begin at 5PM and end at 4AM. After working a demanding 11-hour shift, she shows up for her next shift beginning on Saturdays starting just 7 hours later, at 11AM. The Ontario Ministry of Labour stipulates that workers must have a minimum of 8 hours break between 2 shifts, if the combined hours of both shifts exceed 13 hours. Her shift hours on Friday and Saturday combined represent a total of 19 hours worked, with only a 7 hours gap in between.

This clearly does not fall within the provincial standards, yet she has no choice as the bar owners hire only one worker per shift and expect the burden of long hours to be carried by a single worker alone. For each hour Helen spends bartending, cooking and enforcing bar security simultaneously, she earns $6.50. What justifies a below-minimum wage pay for one worker doing the job of three?

On top of her shifts working alone at the bar, she also balances another demanding set of freelance jobs during the week. She works in the upper class Beaches neighbourhood doing housekeeping, pet keeping, gardening and landscaping for various clients. Once again she works alone in isolation without the support of other colleagues, and travels by herself with her own favourite cleaning and gardening equipment to tend to the needs of well to do software engineers, schoolteachers and other working professionals.

During peak periods, especially in the summer, she balances the work of 12 or more clients at the same time. These clients recommend her to others on a word-of-mouth basis. But why would someone who is already overworked take on additional jobs with unpredictable schedules? The answer has to do with the fact that the working class is squeezed into precarious and low pay part-time jobs with little or no control over their own time and wages.

Helen commented that it is difficult for her to juggle various job schedules, and to find time to spend with her family. She mentioned not being able to attend her daughter’s birthday because she was working a bar shift, even though it was a public holiday. It is ironic that she toils hard in the Beaches for other families to take care of their homes and contribute to maintaining their personal lives, while being forced to sacrifice her own.

These families have the means to send their children to daycare while hiring Helen to help with other household errands. The difference in the day to day lives of workers like her compared to the lives of the wealthier people she works for are glaring.

The necessity of sacrificing time with one’s family in order to work for others is not normal, healthy or fair. However, it appears to be a common reality for people living in Markham and Eglinton and other working class neighbourhoods throughout the city. Why is spending time with family or taking a day off to relax so unobtainable for one group of people, but not for another?

Helen’s daily struggle is not unique – it is a struggle that we as a whole class of working people are engaged in. If you don’t work at a bar and as a homemaker, you might work as a babysitter and a cashier, or a receptionist and a gardener. What these experiences have in common is a lack of control over one’s own life, and all because one individual owns the bar, the store or the supermarket, while the one who needs to work in order to make a living does not.

Whatever our daily schedules as workers might be, the reality is that not having control of our days or nights off means that choosing to spend time with family or to relax is not a simple decision. It entails a sacrifice of a paid shift, and being forced to work for wealthier people and willingly walking their dogs or watering their plants so that they can enjoy more time with their families. These imbalances are all indicators of the inequality in our lives – a class inequality. We must learn to think and fight as a class if we ever hope to end the injustices that are robbing us of a meaningful, fulfilling and self-controlled life.

*At her request, we have given Helen a pseudonym for this article.




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