Hard, Hard Times (by design)

Minimum wage policy would make life harder for the province’s women

I have never liked the term ‘newfie’.

To me it evokes the jokes that were popular in my youth, the butt of which were always the “stupid newfie”. It offends me – as it should you – knowing the intelligence, resilience and kindness of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. I am pretty vocal about my distaste for the term and never miss an opportunity to correct someone who calls me a “newfie” (even if it is well-meaning) because I am a proud Newfoundlander. Like far too many sons and daughters of Newfoundland I currently live in Calgary, but in the last decade I have lived and worked all across Canada, in Europe, the United States and West Africa, all the while letting my pride as a Newfoundlander be known every chance I got.

My pride has never been more justified than it is today, and never more fitting than in the work I have chosen to do. I work to end poverty in Alberta, and, while it may seem (from an east coast perspective) that Alberta is the place to go to escape from poverty, for nearly 400,000 Albertans that is not the case. Alberta is sadly lagging far behind the rest of Canada in its efforts to reduce poverty. Newfoundland, however, is well ahead of the curve with a Poverty Reduction Strategy that is having a significant, positive impact on the lives of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. There is of course much work left to do, and while I spend my days working to end poverty in Alberta I closely follow these successes in Newfoundland; in fact, I often find myself referencing many of the strategies in Newfoundland as some of the best in Canada.

Alberta is sadly lagging far behind the rest of Canada in its efforts to reduce poverty. Newfoundland, however, is well ahead of the curve…

There is currently a review of the minimum wage ongoing in Newfoundland and Labrador. At a time like this it would be instructive to consider the minimum wage review that took place in Alberta in 2011, and the results of that review. Alberta had the lowest minimum wage in the country and when the review of minimum wage was undertaken there was a series of public consultations so that people all over Alberta could have their say. As you might expect, there were a number of presentations from different groups. The labour movement, small business owners and industry lobby groups (like the Canadian Restaurant and Food Services Association) were among those that participated in this process.

This restaurant and food service group supplied more than a hundred form letters on behalf of businesses that pay very low wages to some of their employees. This includes primarily fast food and chain restaurants. In these letters there was a request for not only a significantly lower minimum wage, but also a two-tier minimum wage: one wage for the general working population, and another lower wage for people that serve alcohol as a major part of their job. The reasoning here was that people serving alcohol make tips, and that makes up for the lower wage. The same group that lobbied successfully for this two-tiered minimum wage in Alberta has in recent years lobbied the government of Newfoundland and Labrador in the hopes of winning a similar two-tiered minimum wage.

It’s a gendered issue

Here are some things that we know about servers. The vast majority of them are women and in Newfoundland and Labrador women already make substantially less than men do: about 83 cents for every dollar made by a man. It is also important to understand what tips are based on. There are three main factors that determine how generous tips tend to be: the quality of the product, the quality of the service, and the relative attractiveness of the server. I don’t think this is a surprise to anyone: cute servers make more in tips.

This last factor though deserves a little closer attention. What determines the way a consumer responds to the physical presentation of the server? A number of factors play into this but in a bar (and restaurant) environment one of the factors that has historically played a role is the amount of clothes a person is wearing. Far too many bar and restaurant owners already pressure women to wear sexually suggestive or revealing outfits. The more workers are forced to rely on tips rather than on a steady decent wage, the more likely they will feel pressure to acquiesce to the sexualized demands and expectations of bar owners and patrons.

In essence, this two-tiered minimum wage makes it even more difficult for women to get out of poverty. We know that over 60 per cent of people living in poverty are women, we also know that over 60% of low-wage earners are women, and we know that the vast majority of these lower-tier wage earners are also women. The only way for servers to ensure that they do not live in poverty is to ensure that they earn enough in tips to make ends meet, and the best way they can do that is by wearing less clothes. A decision to move to a two-tiered minimum wage in Alberta means women in Alberta do not need to live in poverty, as long as their skirts are short enough.

The more workers are forced to rely on tips rather than on a steady decent wage, the more likely they will feel pressure to acquiesce to the sexualized demands and expectations of bar owners and patrons.

The real crux of this debate is not about a two-tiered wage, it is about setting thoughtful, progressive policy that serves the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. In the context of minimum wage this would mean setting a minimum wage that ensured that every individual who worked full time could afford all of their basic needs. While this would not eliminate the gendered nature of poverty, and is only one piece (granted an important piece) of the complex puzzle of ending poverty entirely, it’s still an important step.

The government of Newfoundland and Labrador must avoid pressure to make the same disastrous mistake. Industry lobby groups do not represent a single worker in Newfoundland and Labrador and often do not seem to care about the gendered nature of this sort of regressive policy. To the Progressive Conservative government of Newfoundland and Labrador, I say that if you decide to make it even tougher for the women of the province to get out of poverty, and promote a policy that further serves to entrench the gendered nature of poverty, I have a joke about some stupid Newfies to tell you.

Dan Meades is originally from St. John’s. An alumni of Memorial University, he has worked in the field of poverty reduction policy and advocacy both nationally and internationally. He is currently Executive Director of Vibrant Communities, a Calgary-based anti-poverty organization. This column is not written in an official capacity and does not necessarily reflect the views of Vibrant Communities.

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