What makes a living wage, and why that matters for workers across Ontario

Ontario’s average living wage is now $19.72 per hour. According to employer and labour experts, here's what can be done to help workers having a hard time making ends meet.

Here's what you need to make to weather record inflation, a housing crisis and worsening food insecurity

Mall patrons shop for Black Friday deals, in Toronto, on Nov. 25, 2022.
Workers in Toronto need to earn the highest living wage in the province, $23.15 per hour, to make ends meet in the city, a group found. Here, mall patrons shop for Black Friday deals, in Toronto, on Nov. 25, 2022. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Ontario's average living wage is now $19.72 per hour, according to a group that calculates the amount of money someone needs to make each hour to make ends meet.

The rate varies from region to region, but no matter where you are in the province the living wage is higher than minimum wage, which recently went up to $15.50. In Toronto, that figure sits at $23.15 an hour — the highest amount of all 10 regions.

CBC Toronto spoke with Craig Pickthorne, from the Ontario Living Wage Network, and Pam Frache, from the Workers' Action Centre, about why the concept of a living wage matters and what workers need to know about it — whether or not they're making that much.

Note: The Q&A below has been edited for clarity: 

Q: How does the Ontario Living Wage Network calculate what it takes to make ends meet?

A: The group uses a weighted average of costs for three different household types: two parents with two young children, a single parent with a child, and a single adult.

Pickthorne: We look at all the major, and even some of the secondary expenses, that a worker would have to cover where they live as they're working full time. So, the major ones are obviously shelter, food, transportation and child care.

But we also look at things like high-speed internet access and non-OHIP medical costs, such as prescriptions. Then we also factor in any applicable government taxes, transfers or benefits.

What you get when you do all that calculation work is an hourly wage that someone working 35 hours a week would have to make to make ends meet where they live. 

Q: Who are the people taking on minimum wage jobs?

Pickthorne: What we know is the people that are earning at the bottom scale of the wage spectrum are overwhelmingly equity-seeking groups, women, immigrants.

That's who's over represented. So, when you raise the wages of the lowest earners, that's who you're impacting the most.

Q: The lowest living wage in the report is London-Elgin-Oxford at $18.05, compared to the highest in the report, Toronto, at $23.15. Why does the gap between living wages in areas outside of the GTA and Toronto seem to be shrinking?

Pickthorne: We've been hearing all year about the cost of things that are going up, the rising consumer price index, about inflation that's getting downloaded onto us consumers. So, it only follows that everything that we basically need to live by, the price of that is increasing. 

The biggest increase in the province was Sault Ste. Marie. 

Sault Ste. Marie went up by 21.6 per cent to be precise — it's a big jump.

Q: The network's certified living wage employer list is growing. It's doubled the amount since the pandemic began. What does that tell you?

A: The network says it's certified at least 530 certified employers that pay their workers a living wage, who employ roughly 31,008 employees throughout the province. 

Pickthorne: I think we're turning this ship around a little bit, where we're not going to give in to this mid-20th century idea of work where it's nose to the grindstone, don't ask for more, don't make demands for change.

Employers come to us every week wanting to certify because they recognize that labour is not just this line item to suppress and control like any other expense, it's actually integral to the success of the business.

Pictured in 2017 is Pam Frache, who was an Ontario co-ordinator of the group Fight for 15 & Fairness, campaigning for a $15 minimum wage. (Mike Crawley)

Q: Is affordability just about raising the minimum wage to match the living wage? 

Frache: We want to make sure that workers get enough hours, they have a decent wage, that they have safe and healthy working conditions, and that they have basic rights on the job so that they can have a modicum of job security. These are all the things that we're fighting for.

Q: What kind of barriers exist that prevent workers from either advocating for a higher wage or switching to higher paying jobs?

A: Frache says existing discrimination and racism in the workplace, a lack of permanent, full-time work, and the lack of available and affordable child care make it difficult for workers to speak out or change jobs. Even then, our society still needs people to take on work that's traditionally underpaid, such as front-line work, she says.

"Even workers who are just insisting on their basic rights that do exist under the law, however inadequate, are often let go or have their shift cut because they've been seen as a troublemaker.

In the context of racism and other forms of systemic discrimination, you can imagine how vulnerable people are."

Q: For years, workers and activists have been calling for a $15 minimum wage. That was achieved at the start of 2022. Is there a new goal?

Frache: It hadn't been implemented when we asked for it back in 2015. The scenario would be a lot different right now [if it had]. The purchasing power has just eroded so dramatically. 

We want to fight for a $20 minimum wage for all of us, and right across Ontario.