Over the past few years, especially during the Pandemic, the concept of worker exploitation has become a popular issue of discussion around the world.
Inflation and the rising cost of living have contributed to a sharp increase in poverty, and the danger of going to work every day risking exposure to a potentially deadly virus has galvanized workers to fight for better protections and compensation.
With layoffs and extended time without work during the lockdowns, many people facing unemployment had time to reevaluate their relationship to work and consider whether or not they were receiving fair pay for their labor.
In the process, a common talking point has made its way back to the top of the pile: the minimum wage, and why it needs to be raised.
What Is the Minimum Wage?
The minimum wage is a legally mandated standard for the lowest hourly rate of pay employers are allowed to offer. It is designed to protect employees from being taken advantage of by employers and ensure that they are paid fair wages in exchange for their labor.
The amount of the minimum wage varies from country to country, and in some cases, it can differ between provinces and states.
Did you know?
There is even disparity in minimum wage across professions or demographics. The so-called ‘Tipped Minimum Wage’ is considerably lower than the national, state and provincial averages, allowing restaurants to pay servers less on the basis that their tips count as part of their salary.
Note that only a few provinces of Canada have a tipped minimum wage, and most differentiate between ‘student’ and ‘general’ minimums instead. Some places even have a disability minimum wage.
Meaning people are paid less for the same work on the basis of their age or disability, implying that the time of the young or disabled is not as valuable as others.
The concept of a tipped minimum has led to serious conflict between servers and the public, with workers feeling like they have no choice but to put up with abuse and mistreatment from their customers just to make ends meet.
To push back and stand up for themselves means not being able to afford rent. At the same time, customers resent being made to feel that they are responsible for their server’s wages when they are not their employer.
The original concept of the minimum wage was designed to provide a worker with enough money to cover basic needs such as housing, food and transportation. It was supposed to reflect the bare minimum amount of money required to survive.
In some countries, the minimum wage is set at a level that meets the requirements of the cost of living; in others, it’s not even close.
It has increasingly become a point of contention around the world as many workers feel they are not being paid enough to afford the basic necessities of life. This is especially galling for those designated ‘essential workers’ during the pandemic.
Essential to keep life on track, but not essential enough to be given hazard pay for risking their health.
Overall, the concept of the minimum wage is an important one in protecting employees from exploitation by employers…or it was, before it stagnated. But for quite a while now the minimum wage has failed to rise in lockstep with other price tags.
As a result, what was once enough money to get by is no longer even enough to keep a person above the poverty line. Many people are working multiple jobs in a desperate attempt to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads.
It’s bad enough that many of the homeless people we see every day are employed. They just don’t make enough to cover all of their needs, so they aren’t able to afford the rising costs of housing.
Side hustles have become the norm, with people working a full 40 hours and then going home to try and make extra cash through monetized hobbies or taking part in the so-called gig economy.
The living wage movement is fighting to restore the old, expected norm: that anyone working a full-time job should be able to afford basic needs and not be pushed into poverty by low wages.
Poverty and the Minimum Wage
When poverty comes up in conversation, it’s common for people to default to discussions about the unemployment rate and job creation.
This ignores the very real problem of wage stagnation across North America. To understand this problem, one only needs to understand the impacts of inflation.
We all know that costs and prices rise over time, which has an impact on how money is valued. Think about how much money a cup of coffee cost when your grandparents were young, and how much it costs now.
Try playing with them a little bit and see how much the value of money has changed over time. These two calculators go back to 1914 and 1913 respectively, so quite a way back.
You can change the years you want to compare to really bring this point home.
Just as an example, the last change in the United States Federal minimum wage was back in 2009, and it raised the Federal minimum up to $7.25.
So, looking at the calculator, if this had kept up with inflation, it ought to be $10.17. For an 8-hour workday, let’s say that’s about $81.36 a day, or $406.80 for a 5-day work week. $1,627.20 a month, if my math isn’t off.
Is that enough to live on where you live? Oh- and keep in mind, that’s if the minimum wage had adjusted to inflation.
The actual numbers look more like $58 per 8-hour workday, $290 per 5-day work week, $1,160 per month.
How far would that get you?
Of course, every state, province and territory has its own minimum wage. Try looking up what year your region last updated its minimum and go through the same math as I did.
Then take a look at the cost of living in your area and compare. Is it enough for somebody to get by? Is it living up to the standards laid out above, that it covers the basic needs of a worker’s survival?
Oh. And, uh…I didn’t take any taxes into account when I listed those numbers.
Your actual take-home income is even lower than this math suggests.
The Loss of Dignity
Every human being should be able to live with dignity. We should all be able to hold our heads high, with self-respect intact. Poverty wages take that dignity away from us.
Lack of safe housing, lack of healthy food, lack of clean water, clothing, medicine and even clean air…in our current system, poverty forces people to live in conditions that deny their humanity every day.
We dehumanize the poor, we invent stereotypes about them. We imagine every homeless person must be an addict, or mentally ill- and we then give ourselves permission to ignore them on that basis, without recognizing that even if they were it changes nothing.
People with mental illness, people with addictions, are still human beings. and they are not worth any less than you or I. They don’t need our scorn; they just need help.
People in poverty are often workers, going in every day and grinding as hard as they can to try and put food on the table. Stagnating wages and a lack of social assistance can leave people high and dry, and then we leave them in the dust and kick them when they’re down.
Or we try to get them to dance for our Tik Tok videos in exchange for enough money to buy a Happy Meal.
Raising the minimum wage would give dignity back to the people struggling in a system that treats them as less-than every day.
It would allow them to pay for their needs, to keep their kids fed, to work on clearing debts and allow them to participate in the economy again. It would allow them to hold their heads high, and to stand up for themselves against people treating them badly.
In my previous article on getting started as an activist, I outlined ways for everyday people to get involved in the democratic process and fight for what’s right.
This is one such fight…and we need victory so, so badly.