Sixteen years ago I was working for Maclean’s magazine in Ottawa when we started publishing an editorial about a “living wage.”
We thought the idea of a living wage was innocuous. Fairly well-intentioned. A concept that might even help underprivileged communities—because it could do something, somehow, to lift people out of poverty.
But it didn’t sit right with many in the publishing industry. Everyone knew higher paid jobs were going to come at lower wages. The logic went that higher paid jobs needed more expensive labor. Books—or whatever—would be more expensive to create, and if someone felt giving one person a raise was a direct cost to others, so be it.
It didn’t take long for everyone to realize that minimum wage was actually the normal minimum wage—that we actually didn’t want to address that “fairness” issue. It was an unwarranted effort to highlight a number that required action, but one that wasn’t worthy of a meaningful conversation.
As a CBC story published in 2003 explained, “the vast majority of workers haven’t received a raise in several years, and the problem is worsened by an influx of seasonal workers and immigrants, who often fill lower paying jobs.”
Canada’s provincial and territorial governments raised the national minimum wage in 1996. There was a feeling that minimum wage was an incentive for businesses to behave better. The bigger businesses could afford to increase their prices without fear of losing the labor they needed, since the cheaper labor would have gone elsewhere. It was an offensive idea that taxpayers weren’t also footing the bill.
In Canada, minimum wage is about half of what it is in the United States. As the CBC reported in 2014, the disparity between minimum wage in Canada and the United States was costing the Canadian economy $18 billion annually. The same story outlined that Canada’s higher minimum wage was “hastening the decline of small businesses and their employees.”
But in Ontario, the Ontario government has just doubled its minimum wage to $15 an hour, which will be in place on Jan. 1, 2020.
“You can’t have a meaningful conversation on social inequality without raising minimum wage,” Economic Development Minister Jim Wilson told the Globe and Mail earlier this year.
On the day that the Ontario government announced its increase, I was in a union meeting. The members, mostly people living in low-income households, reacted to the news with mixed emotions. Some shouted “ka-ching!” in celebration. But others were openly livid.
At the bottom of their poster on their table was a woman’s face holding a sticker that said, “This is my life right now.” And that was it. The woman’s face was the only reminder that there are people in the room who are struggling. One woman was crying, and began to explain how no one should live in poverty.
That woman is one of the 80 percent of Canadians who either live in poverty or just above it. For most of the rest of us, no matter what we read or hear in the media, our lives are pretty much on autopilot. Sometimes we forget that other people out there need help.
“How do you not raise minimum wage?” the woman asked our union organizers. There was silence.
“You make one,” one organizer said. She then went on to mention that many retail stores, which often employ minimum wage workers, also pay a benefit, health and wellness, to their employees.
“But with minimum wage,” one person at the table protested, “who cares?”
“Well,” the worker replied, “I do.”
She went on to explain that a typical retail store has to hire many more people than it needs in order to achieve a fair wage. It’s a ridiculous situation, she went on, and it’s only going to get worse unless something is done.
“We should just raise the minimum wage for everyone,” another woman at the table said.
After ten years of talking about the living wage, Canadians finally seem to be making the push to catch up with the rest of the developed world. The Ontario government has acted not only to increase the minimum wage to $15, but to institute a “fair share” system that’s going to help those at the lowest income levels.