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From the Archives: Students need jobs that pay a living wage

"Students are part of the work force, but have become marginalized."

From the Archives is The Gateway’s ongoing series of recounting historical articles written by the publication from years past.

Affordability is a top concern for students, Albertans, and Canadians alike. Students have continually faced tuition increases. Grocery prices are increasing, and the Campus Food Bank is helping record numbers of people. This is all happening amidst a national housing crisis. It’s true when they say that $100 is the new $20.

This article written by Brendan Bruce in 2004 shows that students 19 years ago shared the same concerns we do today. It also shows the kind of job experience that many students still face — a marginalized workforce, the majority barely scraping by amidst an economy that is nothing but concerning.

The following article is taken from the October 21, 2004 edition of The Gateway and was written by Brendan Bruce.

If you’re like most students, you probably spend most of your free time carrying a heavy and crowded tray or slinging coffee for eight hours straight. Maybe you have the pleasure of guarding a cash register and wrapping gifts you’ll never receive. Or you might be working on the dreaded phone, or over a hot grill. As students, most of us have to work.

If you’re lucky, you’ll get a job that receives tips, or a few dollars more than minimum wage. But since most of the jobs I described are in the service sector, you’ll probably be happy to have a job that pays $8 or $10 an hour, maybe with a few side benefits. The service sector can devalue students’ labour, as our choice of work is limited; a students’ schedule is restricted by classes, and we don’t usually have geographic mobility to find a better-paying job.

Most of us need our jobs for more than extra spending money: we need them to help pay our rent, grocery bills, and tuition. To make matters worse, the price of tuition and housing in the university area goes up every year, but the province’s minimum wage doesn’t.

Some students say, “I’ll make more after I graduate, so it doesn’t matter what I make now.” This sounds like good logic, since there are some stats that claim university graduates make more money than those without a degree. But that passes the problem off to the next set of university hopefuls. And there are other problems for the working student: student loans are affected by your job, and can make you more dependent on that job. Another difficulty is that time spent on the job takes away from time that can be spent on studying and assignments.

The few people lucky enough to be able to give up their jobs to focus on school usually have some other source of income: their parents, that high-paying summer job that you never seem to get, or an even bigger loan. For most students, the scales holding their work, school, and social lives seem to always be precariously balanced.

In the service industry, where most students work, the managers hold all the cards, while workers are subject to their whims. Pay raises are usually unsubstantial; a fifty-cent increase rarely affects your standard of living. Overtime is not always paid because those hours are moved to another day or week instead; if you don’t believe me, ask a server.

Breaks, a minimum of 30 minutes on a five-hour shift, are often missed or not given because of the wording in the Employment Standards Code: if “…urgent work is necessary…it is not reasonable for the employee to take a rest period.” This clause allows managers to expect servers not to take their breaks because the shift is busy, whether it was understaffed or just had an unexpected flood of customers. The recourse to deal with these problems doesn’t exist or is ineffective, since these service-sector jobs are often non-unionized. This means there is no mediator during conflicts, and Canada does not recognize Weingarden rights, which is the right of an employee to have a witness present during all meetings between them and their boss.

Students are part of the work force, but have become marginalized. They are not in a position to make demands of their employer because they need to maintain their source of income. The abuses are piled on and nothing is done about it.

Students do not need a higher minimum or subsistence wage, but instead need a living wage: a wage with which a student can purchase their requirements for a healthy and fulfilling life while allowing school to be their top priority.

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