Anti-poverty advocates say small minimum wage hike would have helped

In a city wrestling with poverty, homelessness and precarious work, a $1 an hour difference in the provincial minimum wage could have a huge impact.

It may seem like a little.

But in a city wrestling with poverty, homelessness and precarious work, a $1 an hour difference in the provincial minimum wage could have a huge impact, London’s social advocates said Wednesday in the wake of a government decision to freeze the hourly rate.

“Any little bit really helps,” Peter Rozeluk, executive director of Mission Services of London, said.

“Even $50 to $100 a month can allow a person to rent a place they might not have been able to before.”

Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government said Wednesday it will halt an increase to the minimum wage that was scheduled to kick in next year, following up on a promise made during the spring election campaign.

Labour Minister Laurie Scott said the minimum wage will remain at $14 an hour rather than rising to $15 as planned by the previous Liberal government.

The minister would not say whether the minimum wage would eventually go up, saying only that the government was conducting consultations on the issue.

Ontario’s minimum wage increased from $11.60 to $14 an hour on Jan. 1, drawing complaints from businesses and prompting some to raise prices and cut staff hours and employee benefits.

“The increase of 20 per cent this year was a lot for businesses to absorb so we’re putting a pause on the minimum wage,” Scott said.

“What we’re doing is that businesses have the chance to catch up, but we’re also helping the low-income people in Ontario with tax breaks,” the minister said, although she could not say when those measures would roll out.

Measures that help lower-income Ontarians are closely watched in London, where statistics have for years painted a picture of entrenched poverty and lately, precarious work.

Precarious work is defined as employment without traditional benefits or security, such as unstable hours and income and not being paid for sick days.

The Poverty Research Centre at King’s University College in London estimates 49.8 per cent of working Londoners are in some level of precarious work, and is showing a new documentary and holding a panel discussion on the issue at Innovation Works from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday.

For people with no benefits and pensions, an increase in the minimum wage makes a big difference in quality of life, said Glen Pearson, a board member of the research centre and co-director of the London Food Bank.

At the same time, he sympathized with small businesses dealing with the original increase, Pearson said.

That’s why it would have been beneficial for the provincial Tories to continue the basic income pilot projects to determine the benefits of a firm safety net that didn’t harm businesses or fall prey to the whim of politics, Pearson said.

“I would think people would want research to determine action. But everything is about ideology now.”

Critics said the government’s decision to stall the wage hike will hurt the very people it claims to champion.

“The premier talked a good game about being for the working person; he certainly doesn’t seem to be for the working person,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said.

“It’s a government that doesn’t understand that wages are something that help people to build a good life.”

with files from The Canadian Press
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