MILTON, Ont. — Ontario Premier Doug Ford drew measured praise from unconventional corners on Tuesday by announcing a $15 minimum wage, the latest in a string of moves positioning his Progressive Conservative government as worker friendly.
Ford announced the Jan. 1 pay increase while standing alongside two labour leaders – more typically his political foes – who said $15 an hour is still not a living wage, but it's a good start.
Other critics called it a cynical pre-election ploy and businesses said they won't be able to afford it.
Ford, who previously cancelled an increase from $14 to $15 that was supposed to happen in 2019, said he's looking to make life more affordable.
"More than 760,000 Ontario workers will be getting a raise," Ford said. "I can't think of a better way for our government to be working for workers than ensuring hundreds of thousands of people take more pay home."
When asked why he denied the $15 minimum wage before and was raising it now, Ford said they were two different situations.
"That's like comparing apples and oranges," he said. "We didn't have the pandemic, a worldwide pandemic. Everyone's been facing a challenge over the last 20 months. Things were a lot different back in 2018."
Ford made the announcement outside a Unifor building while standing next to Unifor national president Jerry Dias and OPSEU president Warren "Smokey" Thomas — two people who've been harsh critics of the premier.
"Look, has this government done things that have raised my ire? The answer is yes," Dias said.
"Do we still continue to debate over some policy initiatives they've implemented that I totally disagree with? The answer is yes. But the bottom line is I'm here today, understanding that we're having a discussion on minimum wage, recognizing that it's a good start."
Dias noted that a living wage in London, Ont., is considered $16.20 an hour, and in Toronto it's $22.
Thomas said when the Ford government was first elected, "we had our bumps." At the start of the pandemic, they agreed to work together, he said.
"Do the working people have everything we want? No. But for the first time in dealing with three governments we actually have a government that is listening and actually doing some very positive things for working people."
Ford would still not quite describe himself as a union backer, saying instead he supports front-line workers.
But he and Labour Minister Monte McNaughton have made a number of moves recently aimed at workers, including legislation that proposes a right to disconnect after hours, a ban on non-compete agreements, and requiring temporary help agencies to be licensed.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath sharply questioned Ford's sincerity, suggesting the announcements are being made with an eye to the June 2 election.
"I am so sick and tired of watching Liberals and Conservatives use minimum wage workers as political pawns on the eve of an election where they're concerned about losing power," she said. "It is disgusting. It is cruel, and it continues to happen."
The $15 minimum wage that workers should have had in 2019 isn't going to cut it now, and should by this point be in the range of $17 or $17.50 an hour, Horwath said.
The Canadian Labour Congress said Ford is only now "talking friendly about workers when votes are at stake."
Ford got rid of paid sick days introduced by the previous government and replaced them with unpaid days, bringing in a temporary program of three paid sick days only after months of pressure during the pandemic. He also capped public sector wage increases at one per cent.
Meanwhile, business groups with whom the Tories are more often aligned were upset.
Both the Ontario Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said the announcement comes at a terrible time.
"Many businesses are still grappling with the ongoing impacts of the pandemic, including cashflow constraints and the increased cost of doing business," the chamber's president and CEO Rocco Rossi said. "This is no time to add to their costs."
Many small businesses are struggling to stay afloat and have an average COVID-19-related debt of $190,000, said the CFIB, who called on Ford to reconsider the timing of the raise.
"It is particularly concerning that the government has chosen to give restaurants — one of the hardest-hit and longest-shuttered sectors during the pandemic — 60 days' notice of a 20-per-cent increase to the liquor servers' wage," the group said in a statement.
Ford announced that a separate minimum wage for liquor servers, currently at $12.55 an hour, is being eliminated and they too will see a minimum $15 an hour next year.
In 2018, the former Liberal government bumped the minimum wage up from $11.60 to $14 an hour, and businesses complained about the speed with which that rise happened. Ford agreed then it was too much for businesses to absorb and cancelled the scheduled increase to $15.
Increases since then have been tied to inflation, and the most recent increase on Oct. 1 was 10 cents.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 2, 2021.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press