Friday, June 2, 2017

In the case of the Ontario $15 minimum wage the moral imperative is just as great as the economic

In an unexpectedly rapid leap forward towards a minimum wage framework on which people can actually come close to living the Liberal government in Ontario is raising the wage dramatically to $14 an hour as of January 1, 2018 and then again to $15 an hour as of January 1, 2019 should they still be in power.

While this has been a long time coming and there are many reasons to be cynical about the motives of the Liberals in doing it, it remains a big victory for the $15 & Fairness movement and will have a large and direct beneficial impact on the lives of many workers. Some will see their wages go up by as much as over $2 an hour in just a few short months.

As always the howls of doom, gloom and outrage from the business community and right-wing talking heads have been swift and fierce and as always basically everything they are saying to oppose the notion of basic wage decency has long been shown to be false.

It is an easily demonstrable myth that higher minimum wages, for example, "kill jobs" or result in inflation. Michal Rozworski, preparing for the business lobby onslaught, wrote a very good overview debunking a range of these notions.

This backlash from business is also as predictable as the daily sunrise. Ever thus, this handy comic reminds that business groups have opposed every single attempt to create fair, safe or just workplaces since workers and unions forced governments to start implementing them:

In fact, there is a very strong argument that higher minimum wages are a direct economic stimulus that help many of the very businesses that the critics claim they hurt. This is for the simple reason that minimum wage workers do not park their cash in offshore accounts or use it for speculative purposes, they spend it and tend to do so locally and in retail settings. Their higher wages will go directly back into the local economy and will often be spent at local retail outlets, eateries, convenience stores, etc.

In addition, businesses that pay poverty wages are ultimately socially parasitic in that society as whole ends up subsidizing these wages and the business' profits through a wide array of social programs and benefits that allow minimum wage workers to survive in spite of their pay. It is deeply ironic that the business sector has long depended on government intervention through social spending to maintain what are thereby artificially low wages.

All of this is true. But often left out of the discussion is the basic immorality of paying people poverty wages. It is not just that the economic arguments against it are generally untrue and that there are clear economic benefits to paying people wages they can actually live on, it is also that poverty wages are wrong and have a corrupting influence on our society and its notions of what is fair and reasonable.

They are morally bankrupt and unjustifiable.

When we allow the wage floor to be so low that employers can pay wages no one can possibly survive on we create a situation where it is deemed socially acceptable for businesses to say "we are hiring you at a rate that we know cannot pay your bills, rent or provide you with enough to eat." This is grotesque.

People will argue that many minimum wage jobs are staffed by students or those bringing in secondary income to a household. But even when true -- and for many, many workers who have one or more minimum wage jobs, or jobs paying less than $14 an hour, as their primary source of income it is not -- this does not make it any more justifiable.  This simply means young people and secondary wage earners are being used to suppress the wages of all other workers in the same sector and to prevent the creation of jobs that people can live off the wages of.

For over a generation we have given legitimacy to a discourse that says it is acceptable for inequality to rise at incredible rates, for the economy to grow and for the salaries of not just CEOs but the managerial class overall to go ever upwards while wages generally stagnate or decline in relative terms, and are kept lower in part by having a destitution level minimum wage.

A small fraction of businesses may depend on the destitution wages or precarity of some workers to survive -- or in the case of companies like Wal Mart and McDonalds, to reap huge profits -- but the notion that we should set wage policy around allowing marginal businesses that pay people poorly to continue to do so is absurd. Never mind that in the case of larger corporate enterprises the function of low minimum wages is to subsidize CEO bonuses, shareholder dividends and franchise owner profits.

While a $14 or even a $15 an hour minimum wage is still, sadly, not a living wage in many communities like Toronto, what it does is that it raises that lowest bar and by doing so raises the wages in jobs that were not minimum wage jobs by providing a greater range of job options for workers that pay wages that mean they can actually make ends meet. A job that now pays what is deemed as a "good" wage relative to the minimum wage will have to raise its rates in order for this to continue to be the case.

By doing this the government raises the implicit "bargaining power" of all workers, unionized and non-unionized, to demand better, more reasonable and more livable pay for the work they do.

This is not just beneficial the economy overall, it is also beneficial for society and community, is morally right and, in the end, is an issue of basic fairness and social justice.

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