Around a dozen Tim Hortons outlets across Ontario have told their employees that they will be losing benefits, paid breaks, and various perks, and have demanded that they sign documents accepting the changes. The store in Cobourg appeared to lead the charge, which may have gone unnoticed but for the fact that it’s owned by the children of the chain’s billionaire founders. They couldn’t be contacted for comment because they are at their winter home in Florida. Well, it is rather chilly.
The ostensible reason for all this, of course, is that this week saw the much-anticipated minimum-wage increase in this province — from $11.60 to $14. The reaction from opponents to the hike has been harsh. It’s as if their entire being rests on those at the bottom of the economic pile knowing their place and remaining passive and subservient.
It’s interesting that we rarely see such a reaction when, for example, business leaders are awarded bonuses on top of already astronomical salaries or are rewarded rather than penalized for management and planning failures that lead to economic hardship and unemployment. The angry tend to be somewhat selective in their outrage, and those they feel superior to are so much easier to condemn.
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Of course some of the impetus behind the increase is political, of course there is a provincial election on the way, of course the policy should have been introduced more gradually, and of course — and this is genuinely painful — some small employers will suffer. But the cause is ethical, and the result will be liberating.
My wife works for a major coffee chain and is paid minimum wage. She’s a teacher by training and has a master’s degree. She decided to stay home to raise our four children, and after more than 20 years of that, she found herself unable to land a job in education — so she took what was on offer. She enjoys her work, exhausting though it can be. Yet while we do need her income, we’re not totally dependent on it. That’s in contrast to her co-workers, who are often women, sometimes immigrants, and always struggling to make ends meet. Some of them have second or even third jobs.
I wish every critic could live the minimum-wage reality for a while.
True, some banks and financial institutions have claimed that the increase will lead to the loss of thousands of jobs. Yet the economic models used to make these predictions are highly conservative, and those employing them admit that their forecasts are mere estimates. Not to mention, for every pessimistic study there is a counter, and the minimum-wage increases that we’ve seen in northern Europe have hardly brought about the collapse of that region’s economies. In Ontario, around a third of workers are earning close to minimum wage; a pay increase could well lead to more spending, more money in the economy, and more jobs. Things aren’t quite as certain as bankers might have you believe (and, anyway, who has ever heard of banks being wrong).
Then there are those corporate leaders who are suddenly weeping for the fate of the small businesses that they have been mercilessly squeezing out of existence over the last few decades. They’re supported in their alleged grief by conservative activists, who have long championed larger business concerns and are often financed by them. Remember, major corporations employ 50 per cent of all minimum wage workers in Ontario; their concern appears to be not for their workers but for their profits, and since long before the increase in minimum wage they have been trying to mechanize positions so as to reduce their workforce and increase already enormous returns.
One of the more prominent voices expressing concern about the new minimum wage is Loblaws CEO Galen G. Weston. Of course, Loblaws has recently admitted to being part of a 14-year-long scheme to artificially fix bread prices. In other words, let minimum-wage workers eat cake.
The point is that this long-overdue increase will give countless people a better chance to pay the rent and feed themselves, and any society that regards itself as civilized should surely allow its lowest-paid citizens at least a modicum of hope and dignity. As for the angry and often hysterical reactions, they were inevitable. “It seems to me the government has given us no choice but to leave" — not the words of an Ontario business owner in 2018, but of a Saskatchewan doctor in 1960, when Tommy Douglas introduced Medicare. Progress provokes pushback. Always has, always will.
Michael Coren is an author, columnist, radio and TV broadcaster, and public speaker.