Ottawa Citizen: Business, labour, activists air their views on minimum wage

OTTAWA — If you work, you shouldn’t be poor, suggested a representative of an anti-poverty group as she called for a bump to Ontario’s minimum wage.
Union representatives echoed her position. A restaurant owner, however, said a hike could cause problems for his 19-employee operation.
People on different sides of the debate over the level of the minimum wage voiced opinions on Thursday, during a stop in Ottawa by a six-member advisory panel that’s to provide recommendations on how the province should determine future changes to the wage.
The panel includes representatives from business, labour and youth groups, and was announced by the government in May to give advice on how to adjust the minimum wage, which has remained at $10.25 an hour ($9.60 for students under 18 and $8.90 for liquor servers) since 2010.
The panel, completing the last of eight regional consultations, heard from just over a dozen people on Thursday, most of whom represented anti-poverty groups, unions and businesses, in a boardroom at the Taggart Family Y downtown.
Like several others, Diane Rochon of the anti-poverty group ACORN said the wage should be $14 in 2013 (a wage set 10 per cent above the poverty line), and indexed to the cost of living.
Tax incentives for small businesses are one way to address concerns they might have while still meeting the needs of employees, Rochon said, and giving more money to low-wage earners will increase their spending and help the economy.
Overall, the panel has heard that people generally feel that the minimum wage should be revised, said Anil Verma, the panel’s chair and director of the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto.
“It’s been frozen since 2010 and the history of it before that is that it has gone up in some years and has remained frozen in other years, so there’s no general pattern and it is left to the government of the day to determine if wages should be revised,” Verma said.
“What we are hearing right across the board is people saying that we should have a system that’s transparent, it is predictable and it is fair, so those are the key principles around which they would like to see changes in the way we devise the wages.”
Another common refrain has been that the wage should at least be tied to inflation, Verma said, and the panel will also look at how often changes should be made.
Businesses have also called for notice of when increases are to occur, to help them with planning, Verma said.
It’s important to avoid large swings in the wage, said Kevin Schooley of the Ontario Berry Growers Association, whose members rely on seasonal employment — often temporary foreign workers who are paid at the minimum wage.
His industry faces competition, particularly from the United States, and couldn’t support the proposed hike to $14, said Schooley, though increases tied to the cost-of-living wouldn’t be so bad.
Ron Spirito, who has owned the Southern Cross Grill on Queen restaurant for seven years, said he has concerns about higher-paid employees potentially seeking the same increase as others who get the minimum wage, which would lead to further costs.
Restaurants in Ottawa have felt the effect of government job cuts as people become hesitant about spending, he added.
Citing various statistics and studies, other presenters on both sides offered several ideas on the best way forward. The panel aims to provide recommendations to the government by mid-December.
Article by Neco Cockburn for The Ottawa Citizen