When the minimum wage goes up, will the sky fall?
Legislative committee hears the ups and downs on Liberals’ Bill 148 during hearing in Hamilton
Chicken Little should be getting royalties from Thursday’s Hamilton stop on the minimum wage travelling road show that Queen’s Park is touring through Ontario.
“The sky is falling” was the operative idiom, in an impassioned, sometimes testy debate, as the circuit version of the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs heard submissions at the Sheraton Hotel.
Poverty groups, small business associations, union delegations, manufacturers, equal pay advocates and others weighed in: Can Ontario afford to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2019 (as per the Wynne government’s proposed Bill 148)? Can it afford not to?
Kitchener Progressive Conservative MPP Michael Harris argued Ontario business was blindsided by the minimum wage increase.
He said it hadn’t been on the table in the consultative Changing Workplaces Review, looking at precarious employment, that led up to the legislation.
He painted what some at the meeting started calling a “sky is falling” scenario of dire effects — job cuts, business closures — if an increase goes through by 2019.
Harris then asked Ritch Whyman, who’d been speaking for Hamilton $15 and Fairness Com-
mittee, if he was concerned that the increase had come out of the blue.
Glaring as though in disbelief, Whyman shot back with a don’task-me tone, “You’re the politician! You’re the member of a political party that tells you this and does that, ran on a platform and then did something different that you hadn’t talked about,” initiating a freeze on minimum wage under Mike Harris.
“These repetitive quotes on cutbacks, closures, etc.,” he added. “The sky’s been falling (on the working poor) for decades now! Walk down the street and see the effects of a 10-year freeze on minimum wage.”
Later James Rilett, vice-president, Central Canada, of Restaurants Canada, told the hearing, “It’s easy to brush this aside as doom and gloom but what if I told you your mortgage payments were going up 30 per cent (the $15 an hour mark represents a 30-plus per cent increase from the existing minimum wage)?
“This is the frustration of food operators. They need time to restructure their businesses.”
Hamilton Mountain MPP Monique Taylor (NDP) countered, “I was a server when no smoking came into effect and it was ‘The doors are closing; we’re never gonna survive.’ Yes, there are hurdles but they thought the sky was falling then and they survived.”
Rilett scoldingly parried that the smoking was phased in, some restaurants did go under, adding that her tone did not help the conversation.
“To say ‘the sky is falling’ is to belittle businesses that people spent their life creating.”
Then Liberal MPP Mike Colle joined in saying, “‘The sky is falling’ is not coming from us (supporters of the wage increase); it’s coming from business.”
The debate often came down to values — do we want the people who look after our children and our elderly to be living below the poverty line? On the other hand, asked business, is it too much, too fast? What about the process?
Alana Baltzar of Hamilton Organizing for Poverty Elimination, told about working in a variety store being held up and certain she would die, then not getting the next day off.
Many for the increase argued it
would increase people’s ability to spend at local businesses.
Ramesh Saffri of the Ontario Convenience Store Association countered that it would be a wash because prices would have to go up to meet increased payroll.
The committee heard from such other organizations as the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, Canadian Franchise Association, Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton, Unifor (union), Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters Ontario and Healthcare Office and Professional Employees Union Local 2220.
The NDPers, though getting behind
the legislation, joined the Tories at the meeting in calling Bill 148 a cynical vote-grab attempt by the Liberals as they face an election.
Bill 148 is a labour reform package, amending the employment standards and labour relations acts, and also includes provisions for equal pay for part-time work, emergency leave, more paid vacation, card certification in union drives and more.
The committee holds its final meeting in Toronto Friday. It is set to hear from 19 groups.