In Toronto, recent reports have pegged the living wage, the minimum income required to meet the bare essentials of life, at $18.52 an hour. And yet the Ontario minimum wage is just $11 an hour, slated to rise to $11.25 in October of this year.

According to labour groups and activists, the slow and steady increase in the minimum wage, which has risen from $7.45 in the last ten years in Ontario, is masking the problem. “Minimum wages have increased in recent years, but they have fallen in real dollar terms,” explains Toby Sanger, Economist for the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). “When you account for inflation, the minimum wage is actually lower than it was forty years ago.”

As real minimum wage has fallen, so has the number of minimum wage workers risen. The steady erosion of the middle class has left many Canadians dependent on full-time minimum wage jobs as their sole income. Violet Sinclair is one such worker. “For people like me it is hard,” she says. “You work and you work, and you have trouble having enough money for the basic necessities.  Your wage is the same, but the cost of rent goes up.  The cost of food goes up. It does add up.”

Income inequality breeds social inequality

Worryingly, the people most likely to earn minimum wage are women, visible minorities, and new Canadians. “A lower minimum wage results in increasing inequality,” says Sanger. “And rising rates of inequality is associated with less intergenerational mobility.”  Not only does the gap between the lowest and highest earners grow, but traditionally disadvantaged groups are sorted to the bottom and kept there.

“When you account for inflation, the minimum wage is actually lower than it was forty years ago.”

Those who oppose increasing the minimum wage generally argue that doing so would be harmful to the economy, but Sanger disagrees. “Income inequality is a real barrier to general economic growth,” he says. “The real problem is that our economy is suffering from lack of demand, and a large part of that is because real wages have been stagnant.” Increasing demand, he argues, can really only be done one way: by putting money in the pockets of the people and not those who already have plenty of it.

Taking the fight nationwide

For their own members, CUPE has made a commitment to make this happen by working to raise the wages of their lowest paid members to $18, but a society-wide solution is going to be dependent on legislative change. In Canada, that means either reinstating the federal minimum wage, or winning the fight one province at a time.

A recent victory in Alberta has seen the provincial NDP government vow to raise the wage in that province to $15 over the next three years, taking it from the lowest provincial minimum wage to the highest.

CUPE and other labour organizations are continuing the fight across the nation, as are community based organizations like ACORN Canada, of which Sinclair is a member. “I can say that we are fighting an uphill fight,” Sinclair acknowledges, “but one that we believe we can win if enough people come forward and say I deserve fair wages for the work I am doing.”