In support of $15 an hour

Kathleen Wynne’s announcement that the minimum wage would increase to $15 over the next two years has prompted an eye-opening debate in our communities. Setting aside the political commentary, it’s been a study in philosophical differences.

The first reply to one Facebook post about the wage hike: “What I just read is that a Tim Hortons coffee is going to be $2.50.” Some eating establishments and other minimum-wage employers launched an offensive against the increase, claiming they’ll go out of business or be forced to jack up prices to compensate.

I’m not without sympathy. Running a business is hard, and in some cases, the math of it all seems like pure wizardry. But I would’ve expected people who work day after day with minimum-wage-earners to best understand the high cost of low prices.

Because as I tweeted last week, the truth is that the cost of your coffee is not going up. It’s just not going to be so heavily subsidized by the people who pour it for you. While the price might increase, the real cost of cheap products provided through business models built on cheap labour is much higher than you may think.

Speaking from a strictly economical sense, too many people with very little expendable income isn’t a good thing. They don’t buy a lot of stuff to sustain businesses, incur sales tax, and support more jobs. They don’t pay as much income tax, and they access more support programs. A person who works full time should be contributing to those programs rather than drawing from them, but instead the “working poor” subsidize your cheap coffee.

Low-paying jobs also tend to be less flexible, less reliable, and less secure than higher-paying ones. Razor-thin margins in places like restaurants mean that employees are often let go or have their hours cut back during slow periods. And like the weakest link determines the strength of a chain, a person’s lowest reliable income determines the quality of their life.

Because while we think it’s fair that business owners lay off employees when their labour isn’t needed, we don’t think it’s equally fair that a person doesn’t pay their rent, car insurance, vet bills, or child care just because they were laid off.

Beyond basic needs, your cheap coffee costs other people things like education, retirement savings, or even health care. They sacrifice opportunities for themselves and for their children not out of necessity, but because you have a misguided notion of what a cup of coffee costs, and what your share in that should be.

If a person being able to lead a good life on a day’s hard work means that we pay $20 for a burger, then that’s the right price. Because if that’s true, then the cost of getting them cheaper is much too high. My imaginary God-given right to any-size coffee for a dollar all summer doesn’t eclipse another person’s need to buy winter boots for their kids. If you disagree, I’ll say it clearly: I think there is something broken in you that needs to be fixed.

Originally published in Our London on June 8, 2017.