Jan Wong was on-line earlier today to discuss Maid for a Month, a five-part series in which she chronicles her experience taking a job as a maid to find out what it's like to live as a low-income Canadian. For the past month, Jan and her sons Ben Shulman, 15 and Sam, 12, have been living in a basement apartment in Scarborough while Jan has worked as a cleaner making about $1,300 a month - an annual salary of less than $15,000 a year. In her first piece , Jan wrote about learning surprisingly intimate things about her clients, and about the hard lessons one learns living at minimum wage. "I had never considered Canada to be a poor country," writes Jan. "But it turns out that despite ever-higher educational levels and productivity, we have one of the biggest proportions of low-paid workers in the world, defined as those earning less than two-thirds of a country's median annual earnings."
In last Saturday's paper, in the second in the series, Jan writes about her first day on the job and about her new colleagues. "At Maid-It-Up, my co-workers do call themselves maids, with all the self-abnegation that implies," writes Jan. "They are sweet and lots of fun. But some can't calculate the GST, or spell, or navigate the Toronto transit system. Many can't deal directly with clients. A few don't even look up when they speak."
Next week, Jan shops for $1 meal deals at No Frills while her sons mooch dinners at their friends' houses.
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Michael Snider, globeandmail.com: Hello Jan, and welcome to your first on-line discussion. We're really happy to have you on. We already have dozens of questions and comments from readers who've read parts one and two of Maid for a Month, so let 's get right to it. First, though, I have a question: I'm curious what your inspiration was (beyond your own curiosity, of course). Was there a specific incident or occurrence that made you wonder what it would be like to live as a low-income Canadian? And why did you chose cleaning houses? Where there any other options? Did you consider applying at Wal-Mart or something?
Jan Wong: Hi Michael, The minimum wage was going up in Ontario on Feb.1, from $7.45 to $7.75. An editor asked me to write about that and I figured the most compelling way was to get a job at that rate. And then I thought that would be meaningless unless I also tried to live on the budget. And then I thought I should bring my kids into it because women dominate low-wage jobs. And single parents account for one in five food bank users in Toronto.
I had also read Barbara Ehrenreich's best-seller, Nickel and Dimed . Sam gave it to me for my birthday two years ago. (I'd requested it.) And about five years ago, someone I'd interviewed over lunch had told me maid agencies were always looking for maids. I had planned at some point to work as a maid. It all came together when I couldn't get any other job. And yes, I did apply to Wal-Mart.
Ralph McGreevy, Yingkou, Liaoning, China: A Chinese friend asked me if there were poor people in Canada, and I assured her that there were. Jan Wong really shows what some people have to do to get by. At least she can get out of it in a little while, but the other ladies will likely be stuck cleaning other people's toilets. Sad business, isn't it?
Jan Wong: In China, people assume everyone is rich in the west. And most Canadians are indeed richer than most Chinese in China. Poverty is always relative. That doesn't make it any easier to bear. And yes, you're right, Ralph. I knew the entire time I was cleaning that there was an end in sight, with a comfortable home, a good job and lots of security waiting for me.
Leslie Doucet from Kingston writes: I'm curious about two things. First, how long do these women usually stay in these jobs, and what reason do they have for leaving, i.e. better jobs or family obligations? And second, how cognizant are these women about their rights as workers?