Ontario's lowest earners will see their wages frozen this year for the first time in seven years, sparking fierce criticism from labour groups.
The Liberal government decision announced Friday leaves the province's minimum wage at $10.25 an hour, marking an end to a series of annual hikes that followed the party's election in 2003.
"We've increased it, I think, seven times in seven years," Premier Dalton McGuinty said after a speech in Oakville, Ont.
"It's now the highest in the country."
In fact, while Ontario's minimum wage is highest among provinces, Nunavut leads the country at $11.00. By contrast, the $8 level in British Columbia is the lowest in the country.
McGuinty said many employers were only now recovering from the global economic downturn of the last few years, and the wage freeze would help them get back on their feet.
"We've just come through a terrible recession," the premier said.
"Businesses are just beginning to grow at a very modest pace. We think that we've struck the appropriate balance, given the times."
The Ontario Federation of Labour said minimum-wage earners were already struggling to cope with rising food, housing and other costs of living.
"The government is willing to give corporate tax breaks worth billions of dollars to very profitable corporations," said federation president Sid Ryan.
"To then turn around and say to the most vulnerable in society 'We can't give you a modest little increase' is a horrible decision."
Labour Minister Charles Sousa said the provincial government would appoint a business and labour committee this fall to advise on any changes to the minimum wage for 2012.
Ontario's minimum wage was among the lowest in Canada when the Liberals came to office in 2003. It had been frozen for nine years under the previous Conservative government at $6.85 an hour.
Anti-poverty activists warned the freeze could be a sign of austerity to come.
"It's a severe warning to not expect much more in the province for working people and people living on social assistance," said Cathy Crowe with the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee.
"My work is seeing more and more people ... working many jobs, often at minimum wage, so it's not any help to freeze it."
While the Opposition Tories supported the status quo, the New Democrats were critical.
"Freezing the minimum wage leaves struggling moms and dads behind," said NDP member Cheri DiNovo.
"Hard work should be rewarded with fair pay — not with wages that keep families well below the poverty line."
DiNovo cited Statistics Canada figures that show a full-time minimum wage earner in a large city falls $6,000 below the low-income cut-off line.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business warned earlier this week that raising the minimum wage would kill jobs.
Ryan said no credible studies support the view that a higher minimum wage costs jobs.
The head of the Oakville Chamber of Commerce said he supported the freeze.
"Minimum wage is an issue for us," John Sawyer said.
"Given the economic times and from what I'm hearing from our members, yes, [a freeze is good]."