How much does it cost to participate fully in community life? That question is at the heart of determining a living wage for workers in our midst – perhaps even you, your kids or your grandchildren – who are struggling to make ends meet on two or three minimum wage jobs.
Since 2012, the Hamilton Living Wage Coalition has been asking and answering that question in an effort to improve income security for workers. The Diocese of Niagara joined the movement early on, committing to pay clergy and diocesan staff a living wage, and encouraging parishes to do the same.
A living wage is not the same as minimum wage. For example, in Ontario, the current minimum wage is $14.35 an hour. However, even if a person could find a full-time job, that hourly wage would leave a worker in poverty, unable to pay for both rent and food.
Participating in community life is surely about more than paying your rent and eating food. A living wage makes it possible for workers to:
- feed, clothe and provide shelter and transportation for their family
- promote healthy child development
- participate in activities that are an ordinary part of life in the community like taking a college course to advance your employment or taking a vacation
- avoid the chronic stress of living in poverty
A living wage is different from a living wage because it is not mandated by the government but chosen as an act of social responsibility. While some people use economics to argue against a living wage, the research shows benefits to businesses who step up. These include:
- reduced absenteeism
- decreased turnover which lowers training costs
- increased morale, loyalty and productivity
- decreased in-house shoplifting
Since the cost of living varies from community to community, so does the living wage amount. Here are the relevant amounts for some of the communities in this diocese, as of 2019:
- Hamilton: $16.45
- Guelph: $17.00
- Niagara: $18.12
- Halton: $21.00
As a Church, are we ensuring our workers are able to participate fully in community life by paying workers these just wages?
Each year there is a communication to parishes updating the local living wages in each part of the diocese, declaring the Diocese of Niagara as a living wage employer, and reminding parish administrators to consider taking the same action. However, there has been no obligation to report wages at the parish level, so it is not clear how many really do. I think it is time to check in on this even, or especially, as we consider a “just recovery” from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The Christian Church has long been an advocate for living wages, following on the great parables of Jesus which started the ball rolling.
“You, too, go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just,” says the employer in Matthew 20:4, as he continues to hire unemployed workers, offering them generous wages.
Bishop Susan Bell is encouraging us to recommit our diocese to this movement. During the pandemic, we have witnessed the elevation of many minimum wage jobs deemed “essential.” Surely, it is essential that all work is compensated in a just way, allowing for people to participate fully in their communities, not languishing in poverty. Knowing we are “called to life and compelled to love,” may our parishes be living proof of our diocesan commitment to justice and just wages.