Earlier this week, the Ontario government voted in favour of a bill that will raise the province’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. That’s good for the province’s economy—dynamic employers like Amazon will always need workers, and last time I checked, they are not going to be opening branch offices somewhere in Quebec.
But it is also significant for what it means for working families in Ontario. For the first time, the province’s minimum wage will be near the federal rate, which is the bar by which Canadian governments are measured—either the top of the pile, at $13.75 an hour, or the lower of the ranks, at $10.25 an hour.
While workers like myself, many of whom live in Ontario, were gleefully chortling at the prospect of a happy wage hike, I thought more about the fact that we are actually achieving a higher wage in the province—the one that is likely to see an increase on the horizon—as this amount gets closer to our federal counterparts.
It seems that the Ontario government will soon be asking the federal government to review the minimum wage requirement. In a report released in January, the Canada Institute for Policy Alternatives concluded that Canada’s minimum wage is already much higher than necessary to justify all of the administrative and judicial oversight we have to endure when it comes to such wage requirements.
Consider this: If the amount of processing time for an application for federal unemployment insurance benefits were determined solely by this single fact, the application would be accepted or rejected within 48 hours, as opposed to a six-week wait. Yet according to an analysis by the government of Ontario, the processing time for Ontario’s minimum wage is much longer: 160 days.
This already long delay will be even longer for those who, like me, are without regular work. When I need a job, rather than travel to Ontario to meet with an employer, I might as well get up off the couch and catch a bus.
And when a worker like me isn’t able to get a job, I have to rely on the help of taxpayers in my case—the average national wage for an hourly-wage worker in Ontario is approximately $26,000, compared to $17,000 in Nova Scotia and $22,000 in Saskatchewan.
That’s a problem: According to Statistics Canada, workers in Ontario are using nearly three times as much public assistance as those in any other province. The federal government itself set a record for public assistance use in 2015. That’s not how a thriving capitalist economy works. We need that money being put to work in the hands of people who need it most—in my case, to help support my family and make ends meet—instead of the Canadian taxpayer footing the bill.
That is why the federal government should propose a province-wide living wage, which would force the province to set the wages where they are most needed. By 2020, the Ontario government should require any employer who wants to receive federal funding to be located within 100 kilometres of a minimum wage jurisdiction. This is crucial. It will make the provinces feel less pressure to lower wages to make it economically viable to hire people to work in their jurisdictions.
And we can’t have a state-based minimum wage without a federal minimum wage, because the federal government makes laws on behalf of the people, such as employment standards and the Employment Standards Act. The federal government should push provinces to introduce a mandatory living wage, lest we have another series of independent minimum wage wars that will drive inflation, resulting in a poor quality of life and hurting the very people that the labour system is supposed to be helping.
After 10 years, Canada needs a minimum wage that is stable, gives the middle class their fair share, and meets the minimum standard that is the benchmark for a country that needs more jobs, not fewer.
I am the working poor, and I deserve a fair minimum wage. I want to work. I don’t need taxpayers’ money to do it. I need employers to treat me with dignity and respect.
Dave Fawcett is a Canadian labour historian and assistant professor at Carleton University. He is the author of “The Equality Card: Art, Survival and the Struggle for the Right to Work in Canada.”