Since moving to Canada from Bangladesh as a refugee in 2002, 33-year-old Acsana Fernando has not been able to earn much more than the minimum wage.
She has worked in restaurants, security and factories. She now works night shifts at group homes where she helps care for physically and mentally disabled residents — employment secured through a temp agency.
"When I came here, I thought any sort of job will help me to reach my goal," she says. "But now I realize it’s not easy. I’m working so hard, and still I am working poor."
Fernando makes $10.25 an hour at the group homes, the minimum wage in Ontario. Her usual monthly take-home pay after taxes is between $1,100 and $1,300, she says. The family gets a small amount of extra money from Fernando’s father’s monthly disability cheque.
The money goes quickly: $850 a month goes toward rent on a subsidized apartment Fernando shares with her father and brother, who also can’t work because of his health, she says. She buys groceries when she can, but often uses a food bank to feed herself and her family, which costs her two transit tokens — and a few hours of waiting in line — a visit.
Fernando says she can’t afford to pay $133.75 at the start of the month for a bus pass, and struggles to find money for transit tokens to get her to and from work. “If I get off [the bus] coming from school to the grocery store, it’s an extra token, which is very significant,” she says. “A token is almost like gold to me.”
Life was even harder a few years back. She needed to save $33,000 to sponsor her father coming to Canada, so she bought a second-hand car and began sleeping in it to save on rent. “I was sleeping in the car, and doing two full-time jobs, earning the minimum wage, so I can [afford] the required amount,” she says.
Fernando moved to Canada in 2002 to find “safety and dignity.” She says she left Bangladesh to escape an arranged marriage with a man who already had three wives. “If I don’t say yes,” she says, “either abuse will happen to me or they will attack me and nobody will know.”
Fernando says her father ultimately sold his taxi to afford a visa for her to come to Canada. “Back home it was very bad,” she says. “My dad had to take my brother and hide somewhere because they burned our house, and my mom was burned alive.”
Her father and brother ultimately joined her in Canada. And Fernando says now she is firmly focused on her future. She likes helping the residents at the group home.
“I am making a difference in their life,” she says. “At a few houses I’m regular, and when [the residents] see me, they are happy.”
She says her work has inspired her to study social work, and she has started to take English classes in preparation.
When she has the time, she also tries to volunteer for a Catholic charity and a labour group called the Workers Action Centre, which helped her father when he injured himself working at a restaurant in Toronto.
She hopes one day to get off minimum wage. But for the foreseeable future, there will be no idle weekends, no fancy meals out and no vacations. For now, “I am working poor,” she says.
Source for minimum wage figures: Statistics Canada.