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Businesses that can’t afford to pay a living wage can’t afford to operate

OPINION: Ontario’s minimum wage is set to go up to $16.55 an hour. That’s not nearly enough. But businesses will still say it’s too much, too fast
Written by David Moscrop
According to the Ontario Living Wage Network, the living wage in the province is, on average, nearly $20 an hour. (OFL/Flickr)

In October, the minimum wage in Ontario will rise to $16.55 an hour. That’s nearly a 7 per cent boost from the current rate. The increase is more than you might expect from the Doug Ford government and competitive with rates around the country. It might even sound like a lot. 

It’s not. And it’s certainly not enough. 

In the fall, Ontario’s minimum wage will be just under the federal rate of $16.65 and Yukon’s $16.77. The federal minimum wage, which is indexed to inflation and covers federally regulated industries, rose on April 1. Ontario’s new rate will be higher than that of every other province and territory’s current rate, barring Yukon, including British Columbia, despite that province’s high and soaring coastal costs and its New Democratic Party government. 

The very idea of a minimum wage reflects an antagonistic relationship between employers and workers in which the former must be cajoled by statute into paying people enough to survive —or fight to survive. That means the state, through its legislative power, at least tacitly supports people not being paid enough. Indeed, one might say the state expressly supports the practice to keep wages (and thus costs and inflation) down and the pockets of owners full. Instead of talking about the minimum wage, we should be talking about a living wage.

TVO Today Explainer: What is a living wage?

In Ontario, the living wage is nearly $20 an hour. That’s on average, according to the Ontario Living Wage Network (OLWN), which finds that number rises in the Greater Toronto Area to $23.15. The lowest regional average, in London Elgin Oxford, is $18.05. Those figures are based on 2022 data. Since the data was collected, the inflation and affordability crisis has not improved. That means the best-case scenario with Ontario’s minimum-wage boost is that it will be $1.50 an hour less than what’s needed for a living wage in the least expensive region in the province and a whopping $6.60 less than what’s required in the GTA to have a serious shot at making ends meet. 

The OLWN calculation of the living wage considers after-tax income and the cost of food, shelter, clothing, transportation, communications, medical expenses, child care, and other necessities. These are the basics. When we evaluate Ontario’s minimum-wage increase, the Ford government should not be judged against other provinces and territories or the federal government. Every jurisdiction has its own particularities, including regional cost of living. Instead, the Ford government should be judged — as should all governments — against what workers need to live their lives. Under that criterion, the Ontario increase is insufficient, full stop. One might call it a step forward, but workers always seem to be enjoying a step forward while the necessities of life, not to mention the luxuries, move several steps ahead.

Businesses and their advocacy organizations will say the increase is too much, too fast. They always do. But too much and too fast is a relative critique that depends on what particular industries are able to absorb: some will genuinely struggle, and some simply do not wish to take any hit to the bottom line. But the fundamental question of wages remains in either case: If a business, or industry, cannot afford to pay a living wage, should it be operating in the first place? 

No. That’s the answer. No. If a business cannot afford to pay its workers enough for them to afford food and shelter — or, indeed, much more still — then that business cannot afford to operate. To rely on state-sanctioned poverty wages is to rely on state-sanctioned oppression so that the rest of us can get eat a cheap burger or nab a $2 pair of boxer shorts at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday. 

Agenda segment, December 2, 2022: What do you need to earn to live in Ontario?

If workers do not make enough to buy the goods and services offered by the market, that’s a problem for workers and for industry. If the wealthiest among us hoard their wealth and extract as much value as possible from workers, leaving them on the brink of starvation and becoming unhoused, that’s a fundamental problem with the structure of the market. For government and industry to ask workers to bear, time and time again, the cost of that imbalance is to ask them to be complicit in their own exploitation. Hard pass.

If the Tories wish to break the cycle of exploitation, they can start by mandating a living wage and indexing it to inflation. They can also press for a structurally fairer distribution of resources and ownership of industry such that workers — and, where necessary, the state — become owners. They will not, of course, even consider any of this. Instead, they will surpass the lowered expectations they have set and pat themselves on the back while everyone else struggles to survive.