Back and forth: from low wage to living wage

Minimum wage continues to be at the centre of the conversation across Canada as provinces and territories debate, realize, and reverse steps towards wage increases for the lowest earners in their communities. Here’s what’s happening:

On Monday, Alberta became the first province to establish a $15 per hour minimum wage – the long-called for milestone of the Fight for 15 campaign. In four years, Alberta went from having the lowest minimum wage to the highest in the country.

$15 per hour was also set to roll out in Canada’s most populous province – Ontario – in January 2019. With the change in provincial government, and with Premier Ford running on a platform that included stopping the minimum wage increase at its current $14 per hour rate, labour advocates have been mobilizing around the cause.

On Tuesday, Premier Ford surprised many by announcing in Question Period that his government planned to walk back much more than just the wage increase by repealing many aspects of Bill 148. The bill included many labour law revisions and new regulations on equalizing pay for part-time and temporary workers, leave for victims of domestic violence, and two days of paid sick leave, measures which had faced substantial opposition from the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, and city-based Chambers.

The conversation continues. In Nova Scotia, the province currently with the lowest minimum wage in the country, opposition members have tabled a Private Member’s Bill which has introduced legislation to phase in a $15 wage by 2020, and activists have taken to the streets to protest labour and wage conditions.

For all the “doom and gloom” predictions that circulated in the wake of wage rises in provinces like Ontario and Alberta, there has been little evidence to show a negative impact on businesses, employment rates, and the overall economy.

In fact, a meta-review of over 60 minimum wage studies in the 20th and 21st centuries showed minimum-wage increases have no or near-zero effect on employment.

Raising the minimum wage won’t end poverty by itself, and a $15 per hour wage does not meet the “living wage” calculations for most communities in Canada. (For context, living wage calculations illustrates a need for $19 in Halifax, $16.48 in Edmonton, and Ottawa).

But a higher minimum wage helps many workers across the country, including Canada’s most marginalized and precarious workers. In Ontario, 15 per cent of workers receiving minimum wage are over 55. About 30 per cent of all workers in Nova Scotia currently earn $15 or less, and 85 per cent of low-wage workers in the province are not students or teenagers, as is a common argument. In general, workers who received minimum wage are more likely to be women – especially racialized women.

Working towards a living wage will help us close the gender pay gap, at the same time as resulting in benefits for businesses, like lower employee turnover.

Towards the end of the 20th century, minimum wage failed to keep pace with inflation, and low-wage workers are suffering because of it. In a country where so many can’t meet their basic needs despite being part of the workforce, and where around half of the population feels significant financial stress, a shift towards a wage floor that keeps pace with inflation and the cost of living is crucial.

Laura Neidhart is the Communications and Development Coordinator for Canada Without Poverty.