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Armira Varga moved to Canada from Colombia 23 years ago, built a life for herself and her kids and faced the challenges of job loss and having to start a new life. (Moe Doiron / The Globe and Mail/Moe Doiron / The Globe and Mail)
Armira Varga moved to Canada from Colombia 23 years ago, built a life for herself and her kids and faced the challenges of job loss and having to start a new life. (Moe Doiron / The Globe and Mail/Moe Doiron / The Globe and Mail)


The poor in Toronto: They're working but not getting any richer Add to ...

Armira Vargas could be mistaken for a Canadian-dream poster child.

She moved to Toronto from Colombia in 1989, parlaying her work visa as a nanny into a job at a formal-wear shop. After years of sending money home, she could afford to bring her three children to join her.

She and her two sons got jobs at Progressive Moulded Products – well-paid, full-time gigs assembling plastic car parts. They earned benefits and paid into corporate pensions. They bought a house in Maple, north of Toronto.

PMP declared bankruptcy as the auto industry foundered; its liquidation auction, in the fall of 2008, was billed as the largest plastic injection moulding sale event in Canadian history.

With three breadwinners out of work, the Vargases sold the house and went their separate ways: The daughter is now living in a basement apartment with her own 12-year-old; one son landed an engineering job in Kitchener; the other is still seeking work.

Ms. Vargas juggled multiple jobs for as long as she could, working full-time at another manufacturing plant in the Toronto area while holding down a part-time gig at Wal-Mart. Then it was just Wal-Mart – sometimes as little as 12 or 16 hours a week, barely enough to cover the rent on her apartment on the city’s northern edge. Her English isn’t good enough to qualify for the provincial government’s Second Career program: 25 years working in trades means her office and computer skills aren’t up to snuff in a 21st-century workplace.

“I want to work. I want to earn money. I want to do something useful – a livelihood. This is no life.”

Ms. Vargas’s predicament is no anomaly. Across Canada, a job is no longer a ticket out of poverty, or a safeguard against it. And the number of people working but unable to make ends meet is growing in the country’s most populous urban hub – far faster than in Ontario or Canada as a whole. A study by Toronto researchers provided exclusively to The Globe and Mail provides a granular glimpse of working poverty at the census-tract level.

The Metcalf Foundation study, the first of its kind in Canada, documents the changing face of the Toronto area’s workforce.

And it isn’t pretty: Even during times of economic prosperity, from 2000 to 2005, the number of working people unable to make ends meet grew by 42 per cent in the Toronto area.

The exacerbation was especially pronounced in the city’s transit-starved east end. But rates grew fastest in the suburbs: Cities like Mississauga, Brampton, Markham and Vaughan are dealing with working poverty they’ve never faced before.

A deep recession and sluggish recovery haven’t helped.

“We’ve got a lot of people who are working very hard, and they’re still poor. So what’s up with that?” says Sandy Houston, Metcalf’s president.

“Maybe if we can better understand … we can start to better address the implications of that situation.”

More jobs, few good ones

The number of Torontonians working hard and hardly earning was growing even before a global financial crisis pummelled the province and brought the region’s manufacturing sector to its knees.

In theory, the economy is back on track. In neighbourhoods across the Toronto region, not so much.

It’s crunch time for employees. Public support for higher wages, benefits and unionized labour is low. Caterpillar’s London closure, and Toronto’s showdown with its outdoor public workers give a sense of the squeeze: There’s little leverage to be had in a take-it-or-leave-it bargaining situation.

Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey last month looked ugly compared to a year ago: Toronto’s unemployment rate edged up by just a third of a percentage point, and its labour force dropped by more than a quarter, indicating people are giving up the job search altogether. Both labour force numbers and unemployment are significantly better than at the recession’s nadir.

But what if the jobs being created aren’t up to par – not good enough to pull an economy through a sagging recovery, and not good enough to keep thousands of working people out of poverty?

A CIBC report last month found the jobs being created are getting worse: Low-paying gigs are growing faster than well-paying ones; more people are identifying as self-employed, which often translates into lower wages. And that drop in quality is most precipitous in Ontario.

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