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Multifaith vigil to call for fair wages, poverty reduction

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Ted McMeekin at ISARC vigil 2014
Then-Ontario minister of community and social services Ted McMeekin addresses an ISARC Interfaith Prayer Vigil in April 2014 PHOTO COURTESY ISARC

Faith groups, including representatives from the Jewish community, will gather at Queen’s Park Oct. 6 to pray, and press for poverty reduction and fair wages.

The annual prayer vigil, to begin at 11 a.m., is presented by the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC), a provincial network of faith groups working together “for greater social justice,” its website says.

This year, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and others are expected to address the issue of the working poor. The vigil’s timing is auspicious, as the Ontario government is slated to raise the minimum wage on Oct. 1 from $11.25 an hour to $11.40, a figure the religious groups say is still too low.

Members of the faith communities are taking an active role in the Campaign for $15 & Fairness, a movement to raise Ontario’s hourly general minimum wage to $15.

The Toronto Board of Rabbis (TBR) discussed the campaign to achieve the $15 mark at its annual general meeting in June, said Shalom Schachter, a Toronto labour lawyer and ordained rabbi, who, along with Rabbi Michael Satz of Holy Blossom Temple, is taking the lead on the issue for the TBR.

“This was an introduction of the campaign to the TBR, an initial exposure,” Rabbi Schachter said.

A rally calling for the minimum wage to be raised to $15 will take place Oct. 1 also at Queen’s Park. But since that’s a Saturday and the day before Erev Rosh Hashanah, Jewish involvement will be largely precluded.

However, Rabbi Schachter noted, the timing affords Jews the opportunity to reflect on a recent Torah portion on treating workers fairly, “which the Ramban has interpreted as requiring workers to be paid a living wage. We believe this is an issue that should be concerning us as well as the general community.”

In the coming days, a faith leaders statement is scheduled to be issued in support of the $15 an hour wage increase. The three Jewish signers are rabbis Tina Grimberg of Congregation Darchei Noam; Lawrence Englander, rabbi emeritus at Mississauga’s Solel Congregation; and Elizabeth Bolton of Or Haneshamah, Ottawa’s Reconstructionist congregation.

The figure of $15 an hour comes from the mathematical calculation of what someone would need to earn per hour, assuming they worked 35 hours a week, in order to have an income 10 per cent above the government’s low income measure figure, Rabbi Schachter explained.

However, so-called precarious workers are not given the opportunity of working the full 35 hours each week, he noted.

A “large number” of clergy from faith groups are expected to sign on to the campaign, he added, and their views will be presented in November to two “special advisers” who are conducting a legislative review of the workplace in Ontario. One of the advisers, labour lawyer Michael Mitchell, is a past-president of Congregation Darchei Noam and was the first Canadian president of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation.

In August, ISARC submitted to the review its suggestions on personal emergency leave. Signatories included Darchei Noam and the TBR. The review’s final report is slated for December.

The ISARC prayer vigil and the minimum wage campaign roughly coincide with World Day for Decent Work on Oct. 7, a global effort to mobilize trade unions and raise awareness of workers’ rights. Oct. 1-7 has also been designated in Ontario as Decent Work Week.