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Feature: Torontonians at Women's Day march call for minimum wage rise

by Phoebe Ho, Yan Zhonghua

TORONTO, March 8 (Xinhua) -- All women were asking for at this year's International Women's Day march on Saturday is an opportunity and a fair chance for bettering their lives.

Armed with banners and a determination to make a change for women in the Canadian city of Toronto, thousands gathered for the annual event, themed "Women Taking Power," to march in solidarity and to shine the spotlight on some key issues women are facing.

They rallied to demand a minimum wage increase from 10.25 to 14 Canadian dollars, to protect public services and to help the many young women who are ladened with high students loans and struggling to find a decent job and housing.

A new report titled "Working Women, Working Poor," was published on Wednesday to draw attention to the difficulties women face with precarious and poorly-paid work in the Greater Toronto Area. The study shows that job opportunities for women in the city are on a decline and that younger and older women have been most affected by the recession.

Forty-four women were interviewed to talk about their experiences in the job market. One of those was 27-year-old Viktoria Bitto, one of the speakers at the International Women's Day rally.

Bitto has had to work three part-time jobs to pay for her education at George Brown College and has racked up 24,000 dollars in student loans.

"How can we afford housing, student debt, quality child care, when 14 dollars is not our minimum wage? How?" Bitto asked during her speech on Saturday. "We deserve an opportunity for a better future, we demand our future."

"But we will work for it. This is not a plea for pity, this is not a plea for handouts, women don't need them. But we do need a chance and we do need an opportunity," she continued before the crowd broke into applause. "A future that begins with fair opportunities, accessible resources, quality childcare and a higher minimum wage. This is what we demand because this is what we deserve."

Andrea Calver, one of the event's organizers, said all women are asking for is a fair chance. Wages have remained stagnant while the cost of living has skyrocketed, making it impossible for women to raise their families. She pointed to statistics which show that young people are entering an ever-changing job market, with nearly 40 percent of people in the Greater Toronto Area working in precarious jobs without security or benefits.

"It's expensive to get an apartment and it's really hard to start your normal life. If you have a family, how are you going to pay for childcare?" she asked. "So there are so many barriers today towards women really playing an equal role in society. To do that, we need good jobs."

Women like Pinky Paglingayen, a single mother who's had to work three minimum wage jobs at a time to support her child, also spoke out.

Paglingayen, who has taken on cleaning and babysitting jobs in order to feed her five-year-old son, has managed to make it work. But the stress of living paycheque-to-paycheque has also taken a toll.

"It has been like everyday constant stress, thinking how would I be able to pay my bills? What will be my priorities? Like once the money is in your hands, what will be the first thing to do? To buy food, or pay rent? To pay bills, or to do something else?" she said.

"Even just as simple as taking your child to McDonald's is a luxury for me," said Paglingayen as she teared up at the thought. "It's always difficult, talking to a child, telling them that we can't afford it."

After an hour-long rally, the women took to the streets to march for issues nearest and dearest to their hearts, including childcare, harassment, equal pay, sexual assault and many more.

"Each of those issues are incredibly important," Calver stressed.

But Calver said they'll need the support on all levels of government to make a real change.

The International Women's Day has been observed since the early 1900's and is now a national holiday in some countries such as Russia, Vietnam and Cuba.

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