This week, thousands of young adults across Newfoundland and Labrador will begin or continue their post-secondary studies and, if they haven’t already done so, most will enter the workforce. For many, this early foray into the “working world” will be an unpleasant, if not traumatic, experience.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
With tuition and the cost of living skyrocketing, heavy loads of student debt and insufficient student aid programs, post-secondary students are working out of a sheer necessity to live. They are not working for disposable income or pocket money. They are working to offset the gouging cost of an education and meet their basic needs. Rather than caring for their mental and physical health by having sufficient time to dedicate to their academics, proper rest, and spending time with friends and family, they spend their time working for poverty wages.
To meet these rising costs, most students will work in the service sector, mainly in restaurants, bars, and retail outlets, which means they will earn minimum wage or close to it. Even when minimum wage increases to $15 an hour in 2023, it will be well below a living wage. Consequently, almost a quarter (23.2 percent) of those 18-24 years of age live at or below the poverty line, and almost 10 percent live in extreme poverty (9.4 percent)—the highest incidence rate of any age group on both counts.
There are further challenges for migrant student workers who pay significantly higher tuition fees, and often have legal restrictions on the number of hours they can work, making them more vulnerable to less-than-ideal working conditions or employers who may take advantage of their circumstances.
Aside from poverty wages, student workers will experience other workplace injustices such as wage theft, unfair scheduling, and no paid sick days.
Wage theft occurs when an employer withholds wages or tips due to a worker in direct contravention of the Labour Standards Act. Wage theft is deducting the cost of broken dishes, wrong orders, customer theft, or cash shortages from a worker’s paycheque. Wage theft is demanding that workers be at their place of work without pay for any reason. Wage theft is making any deductions from tips due to workers other than statutory deductions (income tax, CPP, EI). Wage theft is a common experience of student workers.
Student workers also struggle to make ends meet due to inconsistent, unpredictable, and punitive scheduling. Wildly fluctuating hours from week to week make it hard to budget. Many workers receive their shift schedule with less than a week’s notice which makes it hard to plan a life around school and work. Punitive scheduling—that is, being consistently scheduled for undesirable shifts, insufficient hours, or not at all—is a common experience of student workers and an intentional act of employers.
On top of all this, student workers rarely have access to anything more than the seven unpaid sick days legislated in the Labour Standards Act. In the absence of paid sick days, the majority of student workers will work while sick in order to be able to pay their bills. If they are sick for more than seven days, it will constitute broken service and delay eligibility for benefits, pay increases, and vacation time. Employers are not required to treat it as broken service but the majority do, to the detriment of the health of their workers and public health at large.
That far too many students do not know their rights in the workplace exacerbates all of this. As weak as the Labour Standards Act is, it does provide some rights to workers—as does the Human Rights Act and Occupational Health and Safety Act—and these rights are violated on a regular basis.
This is why the Workers’ Action Network of Newfoundland and Labrador is working with the Canadian Federation of Students Newfoundland and Labrador to inform students about their workplace rights. An educated worker is an empowered worker. A worker aware of their rights is more likely to stand up to an employer who violates those rights. Workers aware of their rights are also more likely to organize to fight for better workplace rights. Our labour standards are weak because, over the past four decades, governments have consistently placed the demands of corporations and business owners before the dignity and well-being of workers.
This has to change.
Now is the time for workers in low-wage and unstable, precarious jobs to demand that the government proactively enforce existing labour standards legislation, and to legislate stronger decent working conditions that respect the dignity of all workers in the workplace. Now is the time for student workers to come together in solidarity with all workers with a loud and unified collective voice that governments and employers cannot ignore.
This is the mission of the Workers’ Action Network: to educate workers about their rights in the workplace, to support workers as they stand up for their rights in the workplace, and to build the collective voice of workers in the ongoing fight for decent work. In solidarity we have power!
Student workers can connect with the Workers’ Action Network at campus events this month or through our website (WorkersActionNL.ca).
Gaayathri Sukantha Murugan (she/her)
Chairperson, Canadian Federation of Students – Newfoundland and Labrador
Mark Nichols (he/him)
Community Organizer, Workers’ Action Network of Newfoundland and Labrador