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Ancient minimum wage trope just won’t die

Minimum wage earners are not basement-dwelling unskilled teenagers—the data tells the real story

June 29, 2023

2-minute read

We often hear an outdated description of who typically earns a minimum wage: those just entering the workforce with no skills or experience. It’s an outdated holdover from the time of minimum wage legislation’s birth in the first decades of the last century.

Whatever 20th century motivations were behind the minimum wage, they are no longer relevant. Seventy per cent of minimum wage workers are over the age of 20, per a 2022 report from the CCPA: One Step Forward by Sheila Block and Grace-Edward Galabuzi.

Yet this conception of who deserves to be held in working poverty keeps clawing its way up from the distant past. Some variation of “…but those people are just working for extra money” is often heard when an increase to those at the lowest end of the wage spectrum is in the news.

These are not just teenagers without bills to pay—the majority are working adults with households to support. Racialized men and women are over-represented in the ranks of minimum wage workers, as are recent immigrants.

Just how inadequate is the minimum wage? In Ontario, there is no region where a minimum wage is even close to a living wage. A full-time, minimum-wage cleaner in Toronto is $231 short each week of being able to pay their bills.

The Ontario Living Wage Network (OLWN) releases the results of its calculation every November. In 2022, living wage rates ranged from $18.05 to $23.15 per hour. They collect the real expenses that a worker would have to cover, such as rent, food, transportation, and child care for 10 regions in the province. They also account for any government taxes, transfers, and benefits. The result is an hourly wage that a worker must earn in order to make ends meet and live with some dignity in their community.

Honest question: what else is work for if not to be able to pay the bills?

From credit unions with locations all over the province to small non-profits and everything in between, there are employers who do not view workers as just another cost to suppress, but as living assets that are key to their success. They are certified living wage employers, and there’s almost 600 of them in Ontario, with many more in Alberta and B.C. via similar programs.

As the owner of a growing cleaning service in Ontario, I can attest to the benefits of paying a living wage and being certified as a living wage employer. It has allowed us to attract and retain highly motivated and skilled employees who are committed to the success of the business.

Paying a living wage also helped reduce turnover and absenteeism, which ultimately leads to increased productivity and profitability.

But beyond these practical benefits, what drew us to the living wage movement was a sense of moral obligation. We have a responsibility to ensure that our employees are able to live with dignity and security, and that they are not forced to choose between paying the bills and covering rent on time. By paying a living wage, we are not only doing the right thing—we are also helping to build a more just and equitable society. By financially investing in our cleaners and ensuring they’re getting paid enough to live, their increased morale has impacted our clients and our own sales in a positive way.

What if the politically set minimum wage more closely resembled our living wage calculation? There could be no simpler and profound acknowledgement that most at the lowest end of the wage scale have families and households to support. If you work full time, you should be able to make ends meet.

The idea that there is a whole class of workers who deserve nothing more than a poverty wage is an undead brute that keeps lurching along the landscape of work.

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