Submission to the Ontario Minimum Wage Advisory Panel on Oct. 14, 2013
October 28, 2013|Posted in: Uncategorised
Ontario Minimum Wage Advisory Panel
October 24, 2013
By: Paul Chislett
President, Windsor Workers’ Action Centre
I’m happy to participate in a discussion on the important issue of the minimum wage in Ontario. I’ve used the format provided by the Ministry to answer questions the panel will consider, and I have also included comments that I believe are relevant to the issue at hand. My comments are based on my experiences in Windsor over three years as an advocate for non-union workers in low wage precarious work at the Windsor Workers’ Action Centre.
Determining Minimum Wage Rates
- I support calls across the province to increase the minimum wage to $14 per hour. This rate is recognized as a minimum living wage that can raise people out of poverty. The best poverty reduction plan is decent work at a living wage. In the past a minimum wage was an entry level wage and students and newcomers understood that in time they would be able to work up to fuller employment. Today the minimum wage is what people rely on to pay rent, tuition, raise children and put food on the table. Winnie Ng, CAW-Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice at Ryerson, has said a living wage means the difference between mere survival and fuller participation in one’s community. A minimum wage is not just an economic issue, it is a justice issue.
- I support a “mandatory review process, where the government is required to conduct a periodic review of its minimum wage rate” at least annually with full participation by those working in minimum wage jobs. As well, the process of union certification should be made far less onerous where free collective bargaining can occur. This not only allows full participation by workers, it also closes the gap in the power relationship in the workplace.
- I support the indexation of the minimum wage to an index that does the most to maintain a respectable standard of living.
- The province should facilitate and fund the creation of non-union worker councils in regions of the province that could meet regularly to discuss and compare experiences of workplace issues and make recommendations to the Ministry of Labour. This would enable workers to better defend and maintain their interests in a like manner of employer organizations such as the Retail Council of Canada. All stakeholders should have equal access to political decision-makers.
I’d like to comment on the larger picture surrounding the minimum wage conversation. While this hotel we are in is unionized, the owner is in the process of driving down wages and reducing benefits of the workers. According to a UNIFOR Local 195 spokesperson representing the workers, “[m]any [of the workers] are only making $14 per hour and [the employer] wants it cut by over 20 per cent. There is not much on the bone to take from these workers. They are not in position to take 20 per cent pay cuts. These are people who do not make much money.” Another union rep for Local 195 says the company is looking to have wages of $11.50 to $12 per hour, and I suspect this figure is where some hope to have a minimum wage pegged, perhaps tied to a cost of living indicator. The employer here is threatening to just lay everyone off if they can’t get the deal they want.
This is an all too familiar story in Windsor, even in unionized workplaces. With a $14 per hour minimum wage, there would be less incentive to drive down wages. When unions bargain higher wages, the economy adjusts, and an adjustment would take place with a living wage as well. The small businesses that I frequent are constantly raising their prices at least annually, and will continue if they have to pay their workers more. With a higher minimum wage the money doesn’t just disappear; it circulates in the local economy enabling everyone to thrive. Perhaps a tax rebate for small enterprises is possible to offset higher wages.
The experiences of agricultural workers in the area are especially dire. In a recent glowing report in the National Post on successful entrepreneurs in Leamington, the only mention of the workers at one plant was that “…96 people at peak season [produce] revenues top[ing] $25 million.” I have first hand accounts of workers making $9 per hour paid in cash and experiencing harassment on a scale that indicates a complete lack of respect for the dignity of the workers. The workforce in a single packaging plant could consist of migrant workers, new and established immigrants, and Canadians who look like me. The climate is one of fear and distrust with repetitive strain injuries rampant. Workers who cannot keep up are simply dismissed or forced out.
I mention these situations because a discussion on a minimum wage is only the tip of the iceberg. After this consultation is concluded there should be serious consideration to having province wide talks on the state of the provincial economy and on the very meaning of work in a globalized economy. We work in a globalized economy, but we live locally. The loss of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs has torn apart the social relationships of the working class where too many are forced into low wage jobs or have to move away to find decent work. The tax base of cities like Windsor, as well as the province as a whole, has been decimated leading to the rise of the austerity agenda. Clearly, low wage service jobs cannot support the aspirations of the next generation of workers.
In closing, besides deciding on a living wage, which in my opinion is what we are talking about, I ask what inclusive and participatory process can be created that includes workers from all sectors of the economy which can examine new models of work including worker cooperatives, new technologies, the role of unionization and collective action, and so on where social relationships can thrive? Instead of such a process, what I see is the rise of Temp Agencies that trade in human beings, unscrupulous employers who actually find ways to not pay their workers, and agricultural workers who put in long hours with weak labour laws for protection.
There really must be a broader discussion on the very nature of meaningful work in a globalized economy.
Board president WWEC, member at large Social Justice Windsor District Labour Council, host of campus community radio program The ShakeUp on CJAM 99.1FM