In the Blog
Minimum wage needs a raise
Campaign image from http://raisetheminimumwage.ca/
I first started working for minimum wage when I was in high school to help relieve my mother of some financial costs. By no means was I earning enough to help pay for household expenses or other necessities. Still, the main reason I started working as soon as I legally could, was to help pay for at least some of my personal expenses. During the summer months, I would work full- time hours and make enough to pay for summer activities and save some money for the school months when I couldn’t work as many hours. Even as a 16 year old, I was astonished as to how my adult co-workers at the movie theatre were able to stretch their paycheck far enough to pay for rent, bills, food, transportation and other daily necessities. I remember going home after receiving my first paycheck and showing my mom in awe of how little I received after busting my butt serving and cleaning at the theatre for all those hours. I remember asking my mother how people live on this amount. My mother’s only response was that it’s incredibly hard and that’s why she is so adamant about me getting higher education, so that I can earn a decent living one day.
But the harsh reality is that so many people, young and older workers are working minimum wage jobs that leave them living below the poverty line. When this is pointed out in condemnation of such poor minimum wage laws, we are told that minimum wage workers are mostly young workers who will eventually find themselves in higher paying jobs. There are a few things wrong about this assertion. First, it assumes that all young workers have parents to rely on for financial support. Not all young workers are as fortunate to have that safety net. And even if we do have this kind of support, so many 20-somethings like myself cannot afford to move out on their own, particularly as students. Second, although many minimum wage earners are young, a growing number are older workers with familial responsibilities and trying to raise children on poverty wages, which means the reliance on food banks has grown in Ontario and the rest of Canada among other negative impacts such as deteriorating health.
The Campaign to Raise the Minimum Wage in Ontario was launched on March 2013 and is demanding a $14 minimum wage that is adjusted to the cost of living year. So as the cost of products and services goes up, so does the minimum wage. The campaign members got together with a basic principle—that is to lift working people out of poverty. They believe, people working full-time hours (35hr/week) should not be living in poverty and that it is shameful that labour laws today are legislating poverty wages. Until June of this year, the minimum wage had been frozen since March 2010 at $10.25 which means minimum wage earners were living 20 percent below the poverty line. After rigorous social and economic research and consultation with minimum wage earners, $14 an hour was the number that was proposed by the Campaign to Raise the Minimum Wage, as it lifts individuals who are working 35 hours a week just 10 percent above the poverty line or the low-income measure (LIM).
After a year of tireless organizing on the part of low-wage workers, Kathleen Wynne felt the pressure and announced in January 2014 that the Liberal government would introduce legislation to increase the wages to $11 an hour on June 1st and have it indexed to the cost of living. The indexation bill was erased when the provincial elections were announced shortly after, but just a few months ago, the indexation bill (Bill 18) was re-introduced by the Liberals and campaign organizers are now focusing on making sure the bill passes. Had it not been for the campaign, the raise in minimum wage, however small, would not have been on the political radar and would have never have happened. The campaign organizers consider indexation as a step in the right direction, but argue $11 is unacceptable as it leaves workers 16 percent below the poverty line, and therefore does not meet the basic principle of giving minimum wage earners a fair wage.
The campaign was initiated by the Workers’ Action Centre (WAC) a low wage and precarious worker’s rights membership based organization in Toronto. Organizers at the WAC, routinely hear workers expressing frustration towards poor working conditions and low wages. These stories are expressed at monthly members meetings and through the workers’ rights phone line. Workers call the centre on a daily basis seeking guidance for reporting their employer’s workplace violations. Both members and workers who call the phone lines have long been expressing their frustration with growing employment precarity and earning a minimum wage that leaves them locked into poverty. This prompted organizers to begin asking members their thoughts on launching a campaign that addressed their concerns regarding low wages and precarious work in the province. Members were eager. Simultaneously, the organizers at the WAC began reaching out to other anti-poverty groups across the province, asking whether they were hearing similar frustrations from their members and service users. After consulting with various grassroots organizations, social service agencies and labour groups, a large base of support was garnered for building a campaign and a steering committee was formed. A consensus was reached with $14, because it honored the basic principle of lifting people above poverty that all campaign members agreed on. A suggestion for a more sustainable demand was raised—that is to have the minimum wage be adjusted to the cost of living automatically every year. This also meant the fight for a minimum wage increase would not be a reoccurring struggle for workers in Ontario.
As for youth under the age of 18 years who are earning student wages, a raise in the general minimum wage would also mean a slight raise in the student wage, as we saw when in June the student wages increased by 70 cents from $9.60 to $10.30 per hour. So the fight to raise the minimum wage directly impacts youth as well, and there are many opportunities for youth to get involved.
The campaign organizes actions with distinct and creative themes in order to keep things exciting and new, but also as a way to demonstrate the multiple faces of the campaign and the different groups of workers and sectors this issue directly impacts. The ripple effects of poverty wages impact the overall wellbeing of society. Some actions the campaign organizes have been ongoing, such as petition signing, constituency visits to MPP offices and sending post cards to the premiere’s office which are available for people to download off the campaign website here. Other actions include public forums, rallies and marches. The campaign organizers hold regular volunteer/allies meetings at the Workers’ Action Centre and are looking for greater youth participation. Please get in touch with Deena Ladd at Deena[at]workersactioncentre[dot]org if you are interested in getting involved. There’s still so much to be done and if we just look at the successes of minimum wage campaigns in different cities across the US, we can be reassured that we are not alone, our demands are not unreasonable and we can bring our politicians to meet them.