The promise of the living wage
What do a chamber of commerce, insurance company, retail outlet, bakery, roofing company, school board, city council, credit unions, and non-profit organizations have in common?
Tom Cooper and Trish Hennessy
They are among the growing wave of employers in Ontario who pay their employees a living wage, which is considerably higher than the provincially mandated minimum wage of $11.25 an hour.
In Toronto, a couple raising two children would have to earn $18.52 an hour each in order to earn a living wage. In Waterloo Region, the living wage is $16.05 an hour. In Sudbury, it’s $16.18 an hour.
Twenty-eight communities across Ontario are moving forward with local living wage initiatives. A couple of years ago, you could count the number of living wage communities on one hand.
It’s a trend well worth watching because they’re helping to shift expectations about low-wage work in Ontario.
Interestingly, employers are helping to lead this movement with their wallets and their voices. Within its first year of existence, the Ontario Living Wage Network has signed up more than 100 living wage employers, and that list
These employers represent a refreshing departure from the usual, tired debate that springs up every time a province tries to raise the minimum wage: claims that small businesses can’t afford to pay their workers a living wage.
Counter that with living wage employer Helmi Ansari, a coffee and teapot retailer who says he pays a living wage because it’s good for his company Grosche’s bottom line.
“An engaged staff is our competitive advantage,” Ansari said at a recent Ontario Living Wage Network conference in Toronto.
He said his customers appreciate that he pays a living wage, too: “It sets us apart in a crowded industry.”
That’s something you never hear when we talk about raising the provincially mandated minimum wage to a living wage. In those outdated debates, you’ll hear the business lobby claim that a low minimum wage is justified because those workers offer limited value.
But Trent Bauman, co-owner of Menno S. Martin Contractors Limited, says his company benefits from paying workers a living wage: “We have less turnover of staff. We have carpenters that have been with us for over 40 years. Having less staff turnover saves time and money on training.”
In other words, by valuing the workers, it increases the value of the company’s bottom line.
Even the president of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, which has become a living wage employer, agrees: “As an organization, our greatest asset is our human capital,” says Keanin Loomis. “To attract and retain the best and brightest talent, to me it's sensible to peg a living wage as your entry-level baseline.”
This logic can extend to private sector employers as well as public sector and non-profit ones.
Lyndsey Butcher, executive director of the Waterloo non-profit SHORE Centre, says it took her organization two years and several pointed grant requests to become a living wage employer but they did it.
“It’s about developing a culture of respect for workers and what they do,” Butcher says. “They stay late. They pay for things out of their own pocket. They volunteer. They donate. And they take their work home with them.
“We have an obligation to invest in our workers as much as they invest in our agencies.”
The Co-operators, a major insurance company, and DUCA Credit Union are among those living wage employers who simply say it’s the right thing to do — to build a more equitable and inclusive society.
Cities such as Cambridge, Ontario, have become a living wage employer.
As did the public school board in Hamilton.
In Toronto, the city included championing the living wage as part of its poverty reduction strategy.
And in London, Ontario, the medical officer of health is leading the way.
As more governments and employers unite to make the ethical, social and business case for a living wage, it will inevitably influence the conversation about the inadequacy of provincially mandated minimum wages across Canada.
Hopefully, our provincial government is listening.
Tom Cooper is co-ordinator of the Ontario Living Wage Network. Trish Hennessy is a senior communications strategist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the director of Think Upstream.