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Cathy Majtenyi: The wage gap is everyone's business

  • February 12, 2018
About a week after Ontario’s new minimum wage kicked in, I grabbed a sandwich at a well-known coffee shop.

The price had gone up by almost one dollar. I asked the young woman behind the counter, “This wouldn’t happen to have anything to do with the increased minimum wage, would it?”

She shared with me that management had instructed her to tell customers to “write to (Ontario premier) Kathleen Wynne” if they were displeased with the price hikes. She then looked at me intensely and said, “I’m now getting $14 an hour. That makes a big difference to me.”

My coffee shop encounter, and the flurry of mostly alarmist headlines following the Jan. 1 rise in minimum wage to $14 an hour, reveals society’s deeply engrained bias that favours wealth creators over the labourers who actually produce that wealth.

We see this bias in the excessive compensation packages of top corporate officials. According to a January 2018 report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the 100 highest paid CEOs in Canada earned 209 times more than the average worker in 2016. The wages of an average Canadian worker rose by 0.5 per cent in 2016; the top CEOs saw their pay hiked by eight per cent. Seldom is there an uproar over this disparity.

On the other end of the spectrum are the estimated 520,000 Ontarians who earned the minimum wage in 2017. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives calculates that their income had put them 25 per cent below the poverty line.

Who are these minimum wage earners? Slightly more than half are teens and young adults. The other 40 per cent are adults over 25 years old, many of whom are vulnerable: newcomers to Canada, part-time and seasonal workers, single mothers, people with little education, the elderly.

While CEOs receive extravagant perks, minimum-wage workers now receive a mere $2.40 extra per hour. Even with this increase, they may not be able to meet the requirements of a living wage, which, in part, is how much a person must earn to cover basic expenses such as food, clothing, shelter and transportation.

The Living Wage Network, a group of about 172 employers across the province that supports the concept of paying a living wage, has calculated what these wages need to be — from $14.15 in Windsor-Essex to $18.52 in Toronto.

The poor are frequently disrespected, blamed for being the authors of their own fate. They are often accused of benefitting from the wealth generated by “hard-working” business people while contributing little in return.

Sometimes it appears they are scorned or punished when government introduces initiatives to raise their standard of living. Note the mean-spirited, cruel approach of several Tim Hortons franchises to cut back their workers’ breaks and benefits in response to the minimum wage increase.

Also consider the screaming headlines warning of massive job losses — not actual jobs, mind you, just jobs that would be potentially created. Never mind the findings of other experts that show the increase will raise workplace productivity and stimulate local economies.

What must not be lost in the numbers and heated debates are basic principles of Catholic social teaching.

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis calls work “a path to growth, human development and personal fulfilment.

Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work.”

Enabling people to earn a living wage ensures their dignity as workers and human beings.

Even more core is the Church’s “preferential option for the poor,” which recognizes our responsibility to work towards a just and fair society.

“When there is a question of protecting the rights of individuals, the poor and helpless have a claim to special consideration. The rich population has many ways of protecting themselves, and stands less in need of help,” says the 1891 papal encyclical Rerum Novarum.

We must be more aware of the growing rich-poor divide in Canada and ways in which we can close that gap. Parent companies need to tap into their exorbitant profits to support franchisees in complying with the wage increase.

Small business owners should come up with creative solutions to pay their workers a living wage. And if we, as consumers, have to dish out a little more for our sandwich, that’s a small price to pay for a more equal and fair society.

(Majtenyi is a researcher and communications specialist at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.)

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