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Raising the minimum wage: a women’s issue

Kaye C. Stewart

March 6, 2014

Here we are in 2014, decades after the first pieces of legislation targeting women’s equality were tabled, with a national gender pay gap of roughly 32 per cent. That means, that as International Women’s Day rolls around again this year, women are still working to earn as much as their male counterparts earned by December 31, 2013. In fact, they’ll have to work well in to April to attain it.
In the weeks surrounding IWD, politicians will no doubt pay lip service to this fact, and potentially even make some (likely insignificant) promises. Here in Ontario, the Equal Pay Coalition is running its second annual Equal Pay Day campaign – with the goal of having the province declare April 16 Equal Pay Day. Equal Pay Day, which marks roughly the point into the New Year which women must work to earn as much as men took home in the previous year, is intended to raise awareness about gender inequality and promote action to close the gap.
Considering the success of last year’s campaign, and Premier Kathleen Wynne’s desire to appear progressive and fair, it is quite likely she or her government will recognize the day. While it was not officially recognized at Queen’s Park in 2013, many MPPs in both the Liberal and NDP caucuses (including Wynne and Andrea Horwath) wore red to mark the day. It would be a political mistake to miss the opportunity to recognize this year.
And yet, behind the promises and banquets or recognition of women’s equality campaigns, what is Premier Wynne’s (or NDP leader Andrea Horwath’s for that matter) record on taking real action to address women’s inequality in Ontario?
A report released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives last year outlined 10 steps to close Ontario’s gender pay gap. Aside from enforcement of pay equity laws, improving access to affordable child care, one of these steps is particularly relevant to Ontarians today—raising the minimum wage. With two out of three party leaders women, you’d think Ontario could take a step towards equality.
Raising the minimum wage: a women’s issue
There’s no doubt about it—raising the minimum wage is a women’s issue. How so? A whopping 60 per cent of minimum wage earners in Canada are women. In Ontario, women make up a strong majority of the over 530 000 minimum wage earners. So, raising the minimum wage is not only a down payment on reducing poverty levels and inequality, it is a down payment on closing the gender pay gap.
There’s no doubt that indexing the minimum wage to the cost of living is important in addition to a much-needed raise. The freeze at $10.25 for the last three years has effectively lowered the income of minimum wage earners by 7 per cent—widening the gender pay gap.
Even if Ontario’s Liberal government doesn’t want to take action directly related to the gender pay gap, for fear of drawing attention to its shameful existence or perhaps coming across as radical feminists, raising the minimum wage would have a dramatic on the lives of low income women and their families.  It seems like a win-Wynne situation—reducing inequality and raising families above the poverty line while taking decisive action to close the gender pay gap. Clearly these aren’t priorities for the Ontario Liberals.
Liberals’ minimum raise
In late January of this year, Wynne announced that her government would introduce legislation that sees the minimum wage indexed to inflation, meaning there will be an annual (albeit minimal) increase to the minimum wage. She also said that her government would include an increase this year which accounts for inflation back to 2010—meaning the minimum wage will become $11 an hour.
While the news of tying the minimum wage to inflation is well received, the increase falls far short of what is needed. $11 an hour is still a poverty wage, tying it to inflation only means that minimum wage workers will remain under the poverty line. 
NDP silent, then supports poverty wage
And where are our trusted New Democrats in all this? Long-time supporters of gender equality, closing the gender pay gap and fighting for the working class (which I’d assume includes those working for the minimum wage)? Absent. Silent. Ignoring the hugely successful campaign for a $14 minimum wage (which, by the way, is being led by the very people who have helped Ontario’s NDP over the years—the Workers’ Action Centre, labour, students, to name a few).
After numerous articles calling Horwath out on her silence regarding the minimum wage as well as rumblings from within their base (notably the labour movement, which has been outspoken in their support for the $14 an hour campaign), the ONDP recently announced that they will be calling for a $12 an hour minimum wage by 2016, and then be pegged to inflation.
Not only are there pennies between these proposals, the ONDP plan would still keep the minimum wage well below the poverty line, which for 2014 sits at an hourly wage of $13.18. $12 in two years? Not exactly a life saver. By 2016, when the ONDP propose the minimum wage move to $12 an hour, the poverty line will be up to $13.66. Just like their counterparts in the Liberal party, Ontario’s NDP is perfectly ok with the fact that those working minimum wage jobs will continue to live in poverty.
Want equality for women? Join campaigns, don’t depend on politicians.
While one could hope that with two “progressive” parties having women leaders and a growing social movement calling for change, not to mention the economic evidence that this is just plain good for Ontario, that raising the minimum wage would be a no brainer. But it’s moments like these that reveal the true colours of politicians (and the parties they represent).
The Ontario Liberals have stayed true to form—offering a “compromise” that claims to support workers but actually serves their corporate backers. While the NDP, the only party affiliated with the labour movement, is abandoning its base and instead becoming the NSBP—the New Small Business Party.
And so—the gender pay gap remains, and women in Ontario continue to work harder than ever and remain under the poverty line. Want change? Join the campaign for a $14 an hour minimum wage; the parties, and the women who lead them, clearly aren’t listening.
This year's International Women's Day Toronto is focusing on raising the minimum wage. Join this saturday's 11am rally at OISE, 1pm march, and then info fair at Ryerson

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