Early in this new year, a number of Canadian provinces and American states and cities instituted a higher minimum wage. The goal of many—to reach a minimum wage of $15 per hour by 2019.
The reaction by some businesses and a number of economists was quick and expected. They stated that raising the minimum wage will hurt the poor, cause more unemployment among the unskilled and young workers, and punish us all with higher prices. Whether or not these claims have basis is a matter of debate and evidence.
When I was a union representative, I dealt with the concerns of many retail and food service workers. Most of them worked part time and needed at least two and sometimes three jobs to earn enough to pay for rent and groceries.
The argument against paying a fair and just wage in the retail industry was often that competition forced wages to remain low. Unionized employers said that if they paid a just wage, they would not be able to compete with the nonunion competition.
Legislating a just wage might answer part of that concern. Additionally, won’t raising the floor bring increased economic activity because these workers now can afford the necessities of life?
But there is another way to look at the matter of minimum wage. And that’s to think of it as minimum justice.
When the governments of Britain and the US proposed to outlaw slavery many years ago, some businesses and economists warned of impending financial disaster. At that time, the economies of the US, Britain, and many Western nations were built on the backs of hundreds of thousands of slaves.
It is probably true that when slavery was banished, some businesses went bust. And many former slaves were unemployed and without any form of social security such as EI.
But did that mean that slavery should have continued? Absolutely not! It was, and still is, a blight on humanity. Banishing slavery was, and is, the right thing to do.
We need to be clear that what today’s low wage workers experience is in no way equivalent to what slaves experienced. But they need our help.
Is legislating a living minimum wage the right thing to do? Are there other ways that we can and should help those earning less than what they need to pay for the basics?
We need to ask ourselves whether it is right and just that we enjoy our dinners out, our daily coffee, and our cheap bargains on the backs of food services and retail employees. We should be prepared to treat those who serve us as we expect and want to be treated. Anything less is not good enough and certainly not just.