Minimum wage is rising, but its purpose is still debated

When a minimum wage was introduced, its purpose was to protect women. A century later, hundreds of thousands of them still find themselves at the centre of the debate over raising it.

Measure was created a century ago to protect women and children from exploitation

Emily Hurlock got a 50-cent hourly pay raise when Ontario increased its minimum wage on Jan. 1, but she says it's still not enough to keep her in Toronto. (Rob Krbavac/CBC)

Ontario's recent minimum wage increase is controversial, partly because it's unclear what exactly a modern minimum wage is supposed to achieve.

When the measure was introduced in Canada about a century ago, the purpose was to protect women and children from being exploited. In 1918, the first minimum wage rates were established in Manitoba, followed by Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

"Women by and large were cheap labour," according to Laurel MacDowell, a labour historian in Toronto.

As of 2016, women still made up the majority of minimum wage workers in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, more than 600,000 women earned minimum wage, 40 per cent more than the number of men who did.

For the women who first received minimum wage, MacDowell says, it wasn't intended to provide enough income to fully support themselves or dependants  — what is now referred to as a living wage.

Yet, around the same time, some progressive employers began to make changes in that direction on their own.

In 1914, Henry Ford at the Ford Motor Company doubled workers' pay to $5 per day.

Women work in a factory in the First World War era. They were often expected to work long hours for less money than men. Minimum wages were introduced to protect women and children from being exploited. (Dept of National Defence/Library and Archives)

"He was going to pay his workers enough money that at some point they could afford to own a Ford," said MacDowell.

"That notion that it's not necessarily good business just to drive people into the ground, that if they have a pretty good wage that they can then participate in society."

Governments' original goal of protecting women and children has evolved, but the current purpose of a minimum wage is still unclear. Today's minimum wages are often criticized for not providing workers with enough to support themselves.

"The really vexatious part about minimum wage is we don't know what it's supposed to be for," explained Armine Yalnizyan, a Toronto-based economist.

"There are as many theories as people you're going to talk to. But there's nothing written down that says the minimum wage should be, for example, the anchor concept for how does the least-paid worker, by law, relate to the average or the median."

Many workers across Canada and in the U.S. have targeted $15 per hour as a fairer minimum wage

Ontario and Alberta have the highest minimum wages in Canada. Ontario's increased from $11.60 to $14 on Jan. 1, and is set to increase again in 2019 to $15. Alberta plans to raise its minimum wage from $13.60 to $15 in October.

Yalnizyan says that while it likely wasn't Ontario's intention to set an anchor, $15 an hour is between 55 and 60 per cent of the average wage in the province.

Even still, campaigns for a living wage say $15 falls short in many Canadian cities.

According to Living Wage Canada, a living hourly wage in Toronto would be $18.52.

That disconnect is why 21-year-old Emily Hurlock is leaving Toronto for Nova Scotia, where the minimum wage is $10.70 but the cost of living is lower.

Syeda Yesmin works three minimum wage jobs. She says she sometimes struggles to sleep because she's worrying about how she will pay her bills. (John Sandeman/CBC)

Hurlock works at a bakery in Toronto, where she made $13.50 before the wage hike. For her, an extra 50 cents an hour doesn't make life in Toronto any easier.

"It's a lot more difficult than I think people realize," said Hurlock. "Everything is a lot more expensive than anywhere else realistically, and there are so many things that you could possibly be doing but you don't have the money or the time because you're constantly working."

Workers who try to support a family on minimum wage describe the experience as emotionally and physically challenging.

Syeda Yesmin works three minimum wage jobs to support two children and her husband, who is unable to work. Even with the recent raise, she says, she barely makes enough to get by.

"One-person income, is so tough to run the family," said Yesmin. "I am eating or not, doesn't matter. Nobody can see me eat or not."

Her goal: "Living the Canadian standard life, how they live, we want this."

She still has to work seven days a week to pay the bills. "It's too much pressure," she said.
Ford Motor Company struggled to retain assembly-line workers because the tasks were difficult and monotonous. In 1914, the company doubled workers' daily pay to $5, and thousands of people lined up to apply for positions. (Getty Images)


Jacqueline Hansen

Senior Business Reporter

Jacqueline Hansen is a senior business reporter for CBC News. Based in Toronto, she's been covering business and other news beats since 2010.