Minimum Wage

The plaza at Ellesmere and Neilson roads has a mix of both independently owned stores and franchises.

Kevin Shvarts is studying economics and psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

Like most students, the 21-year-old has to pay for school, transportation and textbooks.

Add to that the cost of his car payments, insurance and gas and life gets expensive.

He’s been on the minimum wage track before, and remembers what it was like.

“Thank God I don’t make minimum wage anymore,” he says. “I don’t know what I’d have to give up, but I’d have to give up something.”

At the beginning of the month Ontario’s government increased minimum wage by 75 cents to $8.75 hourly. But already some critics are asking for more.

“A lot of people who live in the Scarborough and Malvern area are earning $8.75 an hour and that’s not enough to get by on,” said Sonia Singh, organizer at the Worker’s Action Centre, an advocate group fighting to improve the working conditions and wages of people in low-wage and unstable jobs.

They take volunteers from east Scarborough and also hold seminars and events in the Malvern community.

While students like Shvarts may not have rent to pay or children to feed, many people who live off an hourly wage do. Singh says women, visible minorities and new immigrants are most likely to get stuck working for minimum wage.

And there is a high concentration of those workers in this area.

“Your local politicians should be expecting to hear from their workers,” she said.

One MPP has already spoken out. New Democrat Cheri DiNovo (Parkdale-High Park) plans to introduce a private members bill asking for an $11 hourly minimum within three years.

“I’m very pleased with the most increase. I think we have the right approach,” said local MPP Wayne Arthurs of Pickering-Scarborough East. “I think it’s the right balance for workers and allows businesses to absorb the cost.”

“For a student [over 18] at a first or second job with no previous experience, I think $8.75 is reasonable,” Shvarts said. “However, for a person living on their own or trying to raise a family, it’s hard for me to say as I’m not in the position and not fully aware of all the possible expense.

“Ironically, the government doesn’t think it’s reasonable, because a person making minimum wage lives below the poverty line in Ontario.”

With an eye to an increase in gas prices, TTC fares and wheat, Singh agrees.

“At this moment in 2008, you’d need $10.25 an hour just to get to the poverty line,” she claims.

Those working for minimum wage experienced an eight-year standstill at $6.85 an hour under the former Progressive Conservative leadership. The freeze was broken in 2003 when the Liberal government came into office.

Some economists believe the current increase came at a bad time and will cost people their jobs. But, a survey of local businesses was inconclusive.

When associates from 12 stores at a strip mall at Ellesmere and Neilson roads were surveyed by the Observer, five worked for a franchise and declined to comment and the remainder would not let us publish their names.

Most of those working for independently owned businesses said they were family owned and were not affected by the increase.

Current plans have the minimum wage going up to $9.50 next year and $10.25 in 2010. For now, a person who works 40-hour weeks will see their pay cheque go up approximately $30 from $320 to $350, before deductions.

“If you’re working full-time you shouldn’t be living in poverty,” Singh said.