Putting our values to work, pt. 2: Greg deGroot-Maggetti on living wages


“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

This Monday I shared the first half of my conversation about living wages with Greg deGroot-Maggetti. (Read it! First!) In that conversation Greg discussed the difference between a minimum and a living wage–the latter starts by asking what it actually costs to live in a community–and the ethical and financial reasons we should commit to a living wage. Today I’m sharing the second half of our conversation. In what follows Greg discusses living wages as a way to restore good jobs, support healthy local economies, and even save us all money in the long term. But first, he faces my HARD QUESTIONS.

[JB] Doesn’t living wage place an unfair burden on employers? Why should employers bear the duty of providing her workers with enough to lead a dignified life? Shouldn’t we all, as a community or province or country share this duty?

[GdM] Well, my most basic response might be that that’s the ethical foundation of a working relationship: a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.

But still, there are things we do, together, that take some of those needs out of the wage exchange–which employers don’t have to pay for, in Canada. So not included in the basic living wage calculation is health insurance. And that’s because in Canada we decided years ago that we’d pay for that together. Same with school. So not everything needs to be captured in the wage relationship. But for all of this to work, we need an ongoing commitment from society to keep paying for those things.

And to return to the ethical point: sometimes these discussions get abstract, to the point where I fear we forget the basic point that workers are human beings. Nobody should live in destitution, particularly if they’re working. If you’re working, and you’re going hungry, then you’re being exploited, and that’s wrong. And that’s why or when we need to start asking these questions about what the minimums are, and what the collective services should be so that everyone can live with dignity.

We’ve tried to address these things with charity, but those efforts typically create unequal relationships, between people who have to ask for food and those who control access.

Things like Out of the Cold, and food banks, we started these things in our communities as stop-gaps during economic crises, but because we’ve never come back to addressing these core questions of how we make sure everyone has enough to really live, we’ve allowed governments and some employers (big ones!) to continue to not provide the levels we need for everyone to have enough….while making changes that allow some to have way too much.

This is beyond the bounds of living wage now, but a recent report from TD, and others from the OECD identify and in many cases monetize the cost of inequality. The TD economics study identified policy decisions at federal and provincial level that made inequality worse—cuts to programs, that when deficits were erased, were not restored, but replaced with tax cuts for the wealthiest.

[JB] Waterloo Region isn’t the first place people have organized for a Living Wage, indeed it seems the work you are doing is part of a much larger movement. Can you talk about successes or developments elsewhere, and what it means to think about this work in terms of a movement?

[GdM] All kinds of stuff! The Workers Action Centre is doing great work shining a light on precarious labour and moving the yardsticks on minimum wage. Also the push to get medication included in health coverage, because “Canada remains the only industrialized country with universal health insurance but no national pharmacare policy for its citizens.” Even private insurers are advocating for this! If people can’t afford the drugs they’re prescribed they’re just going to end up back in the emergency room. There’s also a move afoot to ensure that we have basic income security for people 18-65, i.e. the basic income movement

I’m encouraged a bit by successive Provincial commitments to poverty reduction strategies, and ‘ending homelessness’ in the province; and the discussion that’ve been happening in the region following the closures of the Out of the Cold sites, where the Region has taken provincial money and are really investing in getting people housed. I think those efforts, if they’re followed through on, will make it clear we just need more affordable housing. Those movements give me hope.

[JB] So you feel like those are substantive commitments from successive Provincial governments that you can have some faith in?

[GdM] Laughs. No, you can never simply have faith in government. Government is us, in the civic sphere, and if we want them to implement policies, we have to be engaged, because they can have all sorts of good will, but there will always be competing voices arguing for different things. So we have to speak up. Politicians or governments rarely lead on these issues, but they can go with the momentum of where we—as society, community—want to go.

[JB] So how can folks support the movement?

[GdM] First off they can visit the Living Wage Waterloo Region website, where among other things you can see who the living wage employers are. And as the movement grows, you’ll see our “Living Wage Paid Here” decal, so like fair trade, consumers can identify employers who are paying a living wage, and this can be empowering—they can go to places they shop and talk about living wage, tell them it’s important to them, as a consumer.

[JB] You’ve mentioned this already, but what about universal basic income? Why have you put your efforts behind the living wage movement?

[GdM] Well first off, the two aren’t mutually exclusive, and living wage is not the answer. It’s about rebuilding the labour market, but not everyone can participate, or participate full time. Those people—all people—still need to get by, which is where basic income could come in. So living wage is not for everyone, and indeed the two approaches can be quite complementary.

[JB] This last question is a bit personal, and comes from my own uncertainties about social change. I can imagine some readers thinking, at this point, that I’m skirting around the biggest issue: the exploitative tendencies of global capitalism. I’m sure you hear this all the time: the system is broken or rotten or irredeemable. How do you meet these concerns? What motivates you to continue working with(in) our existing political and other institutions?

​[GdM] It’s interesting that you use the word ‘irredeemable.’ The theologian Walter Wink wrote that “the powers were created good, the powers are fallen, the powers can be redeemed.” As human beings we interact in all kinds of different ways. We could say that civil society and the many institutions we’ve created are irredeemably corrupt, and yeah they’re human institutions, populated by imperfect people. But I don’t believe they—or we—are irredeemable. The market is the same way, populated by the same imperfect people.

So yes, we need a good analysis of what’s wrong, and how things aren’t working. But if all we do is focus on that, that’s all we know and all we see, and then we can’t imagine something else.

I look at the fair trade movement, starting decades ago, where folks looked at the people working to get us our cocoa and coffee, and noticed how terribly exploited they were. And we could’ve drowned in our coffee cups, feeling terrible, but someone had this audacious idea to pay the producers a decent amount and market it that way…and it hasn’t totally put the unfair trade market out of business, but it’s significant.

A key point in the fair trade story—or the climate change story, or any of the many complicated and potentially depressing stories—is that it has to go beyond individual efforts, it has to bring people together. I was recently talking with a Waterloo councilor about their decision to implement a green procurement policy, and he said one of the things that helped were groups like Sustainable Waterloo and REEP, who had already changed the community discussion, and so it was an easier step for government to make that decision.

It’s a reality now that the labour market is seriously degraded—lots of poor paying, precarious work. Living wage holds out a different vision for the working relationship, and says we can change that. And there’s lots of individual employers that have always resisted the ‘precarious’ route, who are paying employees well, giving them benefits and job security, and with those employers we’re making an increasingly strong case that another way is possible. I’m not naïve enough to think this alone will change the global economy, but I do think this is the way that the market can be redeemed.

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One Response to “Putting our values to work, pt. 2: Greg deGroot-Maggetti on living wages”

  1. Drawing Inspiration From The Front Line | Hofemergencyfoodassistance's Blog Says:

    […] Cook,’ and Other Myths; Growing up Organically; Mo’ KD, Mo’ Problems; and a two part interview about living wages with Greg […]

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