Howard Breen: $15 minimum wage would reduce inequality

For many British Columbians, 2015 has not brought a larger paycheque, but that can dramatically change if the B.C. Federation of Labour and a growing citizen movement of living-wage campaigners have anything to say about it.

Minimum-wage work in B.C. has increased not only for youth and students facing the entry-level job market, but also among older workers, particularly those hit hard by the recession.

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The province raised the minimum wage to $10.25 in 2012, but according to Andrew Jackson, adjunct professor in political economy at Ottawa’s Carleton University, average hourly wages rose by a paltry half of one per cent per year (adjusted for inflation) between 2009 and 2013.

This means that a small increase is not enough for vulnerable citizens in B.C.’s workforce, nor does it constitute a living wage, which would allow workers to maintain their basic needs and achieve financial independence.

This is especially true for single mothers and students who are disproportionately affected, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a B.C.-based economic think-tank, which calculates in a recent study that workers need to earn at least $15 an hour to earn a living wage in Canada.

As many B.C. residents know firsthand, the cost of living in B.C. has skyrocketed, best illustrated by the growing number of detached homes in southern B.C. that are inching up toward (and many over) the million-dollar threshold, driving rents up and reducing overall affordability for the working poor struggling on minimum wage.

As it becomes harder for so many everyday British Columbians to make ends meet as the real estate market flourishes, it has become especially difficult for minimum-wage workers, who see nearly all of their income go toward living expenses. Even then, many must rely on government assistance or family support — or they incur deeper debt just to get by.

The B.C. Federation of Labour has invited B.C. civil society groups and community activists to embrace their Fight for 15 campaign to provide livable incomes to all British Columbians. Their clarion call for wage reform is beginning to being heard.

Numerous groups are developing New Year plans to launch traditional street canvassing and unique social media campaigns, seeking to acknowledge current living-wage employers and target those employers who steadfastly refuse to recognize the difficulty of making ends meet while earning minimum wage. It will also target those who scheme to avoid paying the lowest wages by abusing the temporary foreign worker programs, instituting more involuntary part-time employment and promoting unpaid internships and other job-experience scams.

A living wage of $15 an hour in B.C. will help small businesses attract the best talent in their field from across Canada, and they can also expect to have lower turnover. Increasing the minimum wage will also help the economy by boosting consumer spending and spurring growth in productivity, something that will be sorely needed as we face a new year that has already begun with the price of oil below $50 a barrel.

In the months ahead, you’ll hear from many advocates that the best way to ensure that nearly everyone in our province has a better quality of life is by providing living wages to employees. As Robert Reich, former labour secretary under Bill Clinton, said: “Real job creators are people with money in their pockets.”

Raising the minimum wage in B.C. is just the first step in making life better for low-paid workers and reducing inequality. We have to start somewhere, and we need all hands on deck to make this happen. Please join us, and let’s make 2015 the year that we start our path toward ending inequality.

 

Howard Breen, campaign director for Vancouver-based Smart Change, and Tara Ehrcke are living-wage activists living in Victoria.

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