By Alia Karim
On October 1 Ontario’s minimum wage will increase to $11.40 an hour, a mere 15 cents increase from the current wage. As Trish Hennessy astutely pointed out we’ll have to wait until 2040 for Ontarians to finally achieve a $15 minimum wage. This raise, if we can even call it that, is clearly not enough for workers to keep up with rising living costs in Ontario. Thankfully the $15 and Fairness campaign has united workers, community groups, students and trade unionists across Ontario to demand decent work.
The movement has already won major victories in the United States, including recent announcements in California and New York to implement $15 minimum wage legislation. Countless stories have been told about the daily struggle with precarious work but few on the relationship between precarious work and the deterioration of our bodies and environment. $15 and Fairness is a necessary campaign for us to transition to decent work for healthy communities and a livable planet.
United Way and McMaster University’s shocking 2013 findings revealed that precarious work in the GTA and Hamilton increased by 50 per cent in the past 20 years. Research studies have shown that those in precarious work are more likely to experience health and social problems such as stress, anxiety, depression, obesity, drug use, lower educational performance, crime, and even premature death. The increase of low-income jobs, especially those in temporary agencies, means that workers receive no benefits or social security, have unpredictable work schedules, and they are forced to put off relationships, having children and participating in their communities.
A $15 minimum wage would enhance purchasing power so that people can afford basic living costs, which is absolutely essential for healthy communities. As Marjorie Knight argued, “No  is not a magic number, but it is a number at which we would be able to provide the basics for our families when working a full time job”. What’s more, the campaign also calls for fairness for all workers, such as protections from reprisals, paid sick days, and enhanced labour laws that improve workers’ well-being.
Yet, there is an assumption that raising the minimum wage will increase business costs and therefore discourage investment. This is simply not true. Keeping wages extremely low decreases workers’ purchasing power, which means that they buy fewer goods and services and there’s less overall demand, so small businesses risk closing due to poor sales. If workers’ earned a minimum wage of $15 then their spending would increase meaning that aggregate demand would increase as well. Not only would businesses increase their overall revenue, but they may actually charge less for their products and services.
Experience from municipalities like Seattle proves that minimum wage hikes haven’t forced employers to raise their prices and every pay increase is a relief for low-income workers to pay for needs like housing and food. Moreover, Arindrajit Dube and his research team found higher job retention and no unemployment effects in their first estimates of the effects of minimum wages on employment flows in the U.S. labour market.
One concern about increasing the minimum wage is that it would lead to higher consumption and thus place more stress on our environment. This is a good point. However, ecological economists like Peter Victor have developed computer-tested economic models to show that it’s possible to have less-carbon intense consumption while also increasing decent employment and enhanced leisure and well-being.
What we should aim for is healthy consumption. For example, when workers earn low wages and have unpredictable or extended hours, their families can’t afford healthy foods such as organic fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Instead, they often resort to the cheapest and quickest options such as fast food and heavily processed food from food banks, or even skipping meals altogether. Low-wage workers and their children are forced to rely on welfare to find food that neither sustains them nor aims to protect our environment. Dozens of research studies outline the need for an increased minimum wage to guarantee sustainable and livable material subsistence for everyone and the $15 and Fairness campaign works toward this goal.
Despite the Ontario Liberal government’s apparent acknowledgement of the need to improve the quality of the environment through paltry initiatives like the home retrofit program and electric vehicle subsidy program, we’ve seen how they’ve used neoliberal principles to justify privatization, which in turn, threatens job layoffs and risks undermining environmental conservation measures. For example, the latest move to sell off Hydro One risks stifling energy conservation efforts because there is money to be made when people consume more electricity. The private shareholders have expressed no interest in upgrading the grid and utilizing renewable energy sources unless it guarantees massive profits.
Even worse, the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement will give unfettered rights to polluting corporations to sue governments in private tribunals over lost profits It will also eliminate an estimated 58,000 jobs in Canada and work against environmental regulations that protect our ecosystems from harmful toxins and chemicals.
The $15 and Fairness campaign fights back against this tendency. The campaign has raised the confidence of the working class to fight as much as it has raised wages. Workers’ confidence to fight is a precondition for the union movement to increase its bargaining power and to fight for better labour and environmental standards.
In fact, on the ground in the $15 and Fairness campaign linkages with labour movements calling for good jobs and environmental justice are already being made through efforts like the Good Jobs for All Coalition. In February this year they hosted a Green Job Strategy Forum to discuss goals such as expediting the implementation of the Ontario Building Code to require stronger environmental standards, protect the integrity and public control of transit in the GTA, and develop initiatives to remove systemic barriers in employment and training for low-income and people of colour.
Since the $15 and Fairness campaign was launched last year in Ontario over 50 community and labour organizations have endorsed it and more are joining every day. There’s so much potential for this campaign to achieve decent working conditions in Ontario while at the same time building strong communities and a healthy environment. The time is now to join the campaign.