In defence of a living wage

poverty

Imagine the child

I admit, with me it’s personal, regarding the Ontario government’s Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, Bill 148, and especially its provisions to increase the minimum wage to $14 per hour on January 1, 2018, and then $15 a year later.

If the Legislation is approved, which seems likely with the Canadian province’s current Liberal government still in a majority position, the increase to $14 will go ahead. But there’s an election coming next year and opponents of the projected $15 increase are hoping the government of Premier Kathleen Wynne goes down in defeat so another party in power can at least cancel the $15 hike, and thus mitigate the alleged job-loss consequences.

That other party would almost certainly have to be Progressive Conservative, not NDP (New Democratic Party).

A preliminary report just released by the Keep Ontario Working Coalition, which includes the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, Food and Beverage Ontario, Ontario Federation of Agriculture, and the Retail Council of Canada, paints a grim picture of job losses and the supposed negative economic impact of Bill 148, especially as a result of the minimum wage hikes.

The report warned 185,000 Ontario jobs would be at risk if the provincial  labour reforms proceed as planned. That includes 1,270 jobs in Grey County and 880 jobs in Bruce County over the next two years

The report said Bill 148 could cost businesses $23-billion within two years, largely due to the minimum wage increases.

That is indeed a bleak outlook. But it gets worse.

Peter Reesor, the chief executive officer of the Owen Sound & District Chamber of Commerce, thinks local retail businesses are already fighting a losing battle to survive:

“We are in a world economy. Rather than me going to Fulfords and buying a drill at a higher price because of the minimum wage increase, I can go online and buy that out-of-province, get it shipped to me for less,” Reesor told the Owen Sound Sun Times.

He said it’s happening already and studies indicate unless you’re a specialized market, “the retail sector as we know it will be dead in 15 years . . . And this adds to the spiral, the death spiral.”

The preliminary report was prepared for the Keep Ontario Working Coalition by the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis. A final report is expected in a month. Hopefully, it will include some positive ideas and creative suggestions about how business could conceivably live with higher minimum wages for workers who have lived on poverty-level incomes for too many years.

I would argue that the concept of a “minimum” wage, at least as far as calling it that is concerned, is out of date. Call it a “living wage,” or anything, so long as it doesn’t come with a stigma, a “minimum” label that identfies people as impoverished, and keeps them there, by constantly falling far short of what people reasonably need to pay for a life that can be considered fundamentally healthy.

Whatever some might say critically about the “living wage” idea and the people who would benefit from it, there should be no disputing the fact that no child should be raised in a state of poverty that leaves them vulnerable to a host of health and other adverse consequences.

The continuing socio-economic cost of that is far more than anything that might come as a result of raising the minimum wage, even to the level of a healthy living wage. On the contrary, in the broadest socio-economic context either would no doubt save a huge amount of money. In other words. It would be cost-effective, as well as morally right.

Recite after me, every child is born equal and deserves the best start in life they can get. Child poverty is a huge waste of society’s most precious human resource. Those should be regarded as self-evident truths.

One of the first of many ill-considered actions of the so-called Common Sense Revolution of the Progressive Conservative government of former Ontario Premier Mike Harris comes to mind. After being elected in June, 1995 The Harris government soon slashed welfare benefits by 21.6 percent. There was no consideration of how that might impact individuals, families and especially children already trying to live and survive on monthly welfare payments that fell far short of the cost of the basic necessities of life.

Let them eat tuna, in so many words, was the infamous advice offered by one member of the Harris government cabinet to the poor.

As a child many years ago, I had first-hand experience with growing up poor. And so did my parents, like many people raised during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Actually, both my parents were raised in poverty before that.

My mother’s Thompson family lost all their money in the collapse of the Home Bank of Canada in 1923, as did many other Canadians. On the positive side, to this day it’s the reason why the country’s strong and well-regulated banking system weathered the global economic crisis of 2008 better than most.

My parents both left school early as teenagers to help support their families. They found work at a paper-bag factory in Toronto for the princely sum of $5 a week, and they were lucky to find work at even that rate.

They both suffered greatly from the effects of being raised in poverty and the family stress and turmoil related to it.

Later, as a single mother, Mom struggled to make ends meet, often unsuccessfully, on the meager wages paid women, even though she worked day and night at three jobs in the 1950s.

The arrival of the monthly “mother’s allowance” cheque, was a big event. It wasn’t much, certainly not by present day child-benefit standards, less than $10 for one child, if memory serves me right. But it was cause for celebration. We treated ourselves to a delicious meal of take-out fish and chips, wrapped in newspaper, of course.

That was a bonus for an inquisitive, growing boy. I read what I could of the grease-stained articles. That’s probably where my interest in journalism began.

We survived. Indeed we did. But at a cost I wouldn’t wish on anyone. And neither should anybody else.

A version of this was originally published in The Sun Times in August, 2017.

2 thoughts on “In defence of a living wage

  1. The ‘business community’ & the politicians they influence, spread fear. Their statements are full of could’s & might’s that portray a country in economic distress because our least valued workers want a living wage. Our majority federal politicians are pushing hard to keep Canada as a petro state, dependent upon oil prices set beyond our control, This is where our economic distress is sourced, not legislated poverty wages.

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