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All Workers Deserve the Dignity of a Living Wage

in Opinion by

When I graduated high school in Ontario in 1981, my plan was to head out into the working world and make a living. I saw the working world as my ticket out of the poverty that overshadowed my childhood. All I wanted out of life was a place of my own to call home.

I soon found a job paying $3.80 an hour—50 cents above minimum wage at the time—so I started looking for an apartment to rent. Much to my dismay, I quickly discovered I could not afford a modest one-bedroom apartment, not if I wanted adequate food to eat and heat in the winter. Today, a third of all workers in this province face the same harsh and unjust reality I faced four decades ago—a minimum wage that is a poverty wage.

The widely accepted standard is that shelter costs (rent, electricity, and heat) should consume no more than 30 percent of your income. However, a single person working for minimum wage in St. John’s has to work more than 72 hours just to cover the average rent on a one-bedroom apartment. This doesn’t leave much for other necessities such as food, clothing, and transportation. It’s far worse for single parents who need to work 84 hours just to afford the average rent on a two-bedroom apartment.

It’s not only minimum-wage earners who struggle to make ends meet, it’s all those making less than a living wage. A $15 an hour minimum wage would be a good first step in bringing about a living wage for the almost 70,000 people who earn less than that at present in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The overwhelming majority of Canadians live in provinces with a significantly higher minimum wage. Indeed, Newfoundland and Labrador is currently tied for the second-lowest minimum wage in Canada. We are the lowest in Atlantic Canada.

This is no accident; rather, it is intentional government policy. Section 30 of the Labour Standards Act requires the provincial government to “review the regulations respecting the minimum wages payable by an employer to an employee” every two years. In other words, every second year, government has the opportunity to address this injustice but, thus far, government has chosen to do nothing more than occasionally toss a few coppers to the thousands of workers in this province struggling to make ends meet.

Unfortunately, minimum-wage and low-wage workers do not have the same influence with political decision makers as business-owners, and this lack of influence is reflected in our minimum wage rates.

Although the government is obligated to review the minimum wage every two years, they are not required to engage in a consultation process. However, thanks to the relentless efforts of Common Front NL, a coalition of labour, social justice, and community groups, government did appoint a Minimum Wage Review Committee for our latest review.

Unfortunately, its membership was weighted toward the business perspective, which was clearly reflected in its final report despite receiving well-researched submissions from groups on behalf of minimum-wage and low-wage workers. In his conclusion to the report, the Committee’s independent chairperson recommended “minimum wage should be tied to a measurable marker such as federal or provincial Consumer Price Index and remove all politics from the process.” This ludicrous statement encompasses the first two Employer Recommendations in the report; that is, to “remove Section 30 from the Labour Standards Act,” and “maintain [the] current formula for determining minimum wage increases based on federal CPI.” Thankfully, politics IS part of the process, otherwise minimum-wage workers would be earning even less than they do.

What gets lost in all the apocalyptic fearmongering of certain members of the business community is that a $15 an hour minimum wage would actually be good for business and the economy. Businesses that employ minimum-wage workers would benefit financially from less staff turnover. They would also benefit from more money in the hands of workers.

In its submission to the Committee, the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour estimated that it would put $100 million into the hands of our lowest income earners, most of which would be spent in the local economy. A $15 minimum wage would keep more young people in our province, and it’s not the job-killer it is made out to be. In fact, the three provinces with minimum wages of $14 or more have significantly higher work force participation rates and lower unemployment rates than Newfoundland and Labrador.

At the heart of any discussion around a living wage is a moral question that goes beyond economic data and statistics. Do we, as a society, accept that there are people in our province who work full time for wages that trap them in poverty?

A public poll conducted by the Registered Nurses Union of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2018 indicates that we do not accept this unjust exploitation of workers, as 87% of respondents supported a $15 minimum wage. I suspect that level of support would be even higher since the pandemic opened our eyes to how essential many of our minimum-wage workers are.

They were there for us during an incredibly difficult time at great peril to their own well-being. It’s time for us to be there for them. One way we can do this is by sending an email to Premier Furey and Minister Byrne calling for a $15 minimum wage as a good first step toward a living wage (which you can do here). Let’s stand in solidarity with minimum-wage and low-wage workers and fight for their right to afford the basic necessities of life.

Mark Nichols
Community Organizer
$15 for Fairness NL

Photo by Bojan Fürst.

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