Push for $15 minimum wage continues

But opponents maintain increase would put ‘immense pressure’ on employers
By Sheila Brawn
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/30/2017

Workers’ rights activists across Canada are continuing to push for a $15-per-hour minimum wage, despite little interest so far from provincial governments.

Labour unions and anti-poverty activists in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have launched campaigns calling on the governments to raise the minimum wage rate to at least $15.

To date, all of the governments have refused to do so or have remained silent on the issue.

So far, Alberta is the only province in Canada to adopt a $15 minimum wage. The province’s NDP government confirmed last year it would raise the minimum wage rate, now at $12.20 per hour, to $15 on Oct. 1, 2018.

A $15 minimum wage would help lower poverty rates and reduce the burden on social support programs, said Alberta Labour Minister Christina Gray.

“Albertans who work full time should be able to live with dignity, and that means being able to afford rent, food and transportation for their families.”

Irene Lanzinger, president of the BC Federation of Labour, said she would like to see B.C. follow Alberta’s lead, but said she is not optimistic the current government will do that. The B.C. government has committed to tying minimum wage increases to the consumer price index, and for 2016 and 2017, to also raising the rate a little more to account for strong economic growth.

“They have a plan in place to have us at $11.25 by this September. I don’t expect anything more from them on that front,” said Lanzinger. “Anything less than $15, you are either very close to the poverty line or below it.”

The BC Federation of Labour began pushing for a $15 minimum wage two years ago. While it has not been successful so far, the organization has public support, she said, citing a recent poll it conducted that found 75 per cent of British Columbians agree with a $15 minimum wage.

This support could be important in the province’s May 9 election, especially with the opposition NDP committing to a $15 wage rate, said Lanzinger.

The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) is also campaigning for a move to $15. It has partnered with an organization called Fight for $15 and Fairness to organize rallies in the province.

During provincial government pre-budget meetings in January, the OFL called on the government to raise the minimum wage to $15 for all workers, with no exemptions.

To date, the Ontario government has not said whether it plans to raise the minimum wage rate beyond making annual indexation adjustments or eliminate any exemptions.

In Quebec, proponents of a $15 minimum wage say they will continue to campaign for it, despite the provincial government rejecting the idea in favour of a four-year plan to gradually raise the general minimum wage rate from $10.75 per hour to $12.45 by 2020.

The government will begin the phase-in on May 1 by raising the general minimum wage rate to $11.25 per hour. Quebec Labour Minister Dominique Vien said the hike will eventually put the minimum wage at 50 per cent of the average wage in the province.

“The progressiveness and the predictability of the increase will allow the government of Quebec to improve the purchasing power of employees, while respecting the capacity of Quebec businesses to pay,” she said.

Proponents of a $15 minimum wage do not think the government’s increases go far enough.

Business groups, however, said they were pleased Quebec rejected the $15 proposal.

“We all agree on the need to alleviate poverty and help those in need; however, an increase of nearly 40 per cent to the minimum wage, in a short time frame, is not the most effective solution for workers or employers,” said the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

“Requiring business owners to increase the wages of their least-experienced employees by nearly 40 per cent would put immense pressure on them to do the same for their more senior staff. With a profit margin of barely three per cent, for example, the proprietor of a regional inn, corner restaurant or small bakery would either have to slash employee work hours, significantly raise prices or even cut jobs just to keep their business going.”

The Montreal Economic Institute, an independent think tank, warned the Quebec government that a rapid increase in the minimum wage to $15 could hurt workers in the province’s rural areas, where the economy is not as strong, noting more than half of the workforce could be at risk.

Instead of high minimum wage rates, business organizations have generally advised governments to raise the basic personal amount used to calculate income tax deductions, saying it would put more money in workers’ pockets while not hurting businesses or jobs.

In New Brunswick, an organization called the Common Front for Social Justice also wants the provincial government to move to a $15 minimum wage.

Next month, the New Brunswick government will raise the minimum wage from $10.65 per hour to $11. It is also considering changing the method it uses to set the minimum wage by possibly tying it to the consumer price index, but hasn’t indicated an interest in moving to a $15 minimum wage.

In Nova Scotia, the provincial NDP has tabled a private member’s bill that, if passed, would require the government to gradually raise the hourly minimum wage rate to $15 by 2019. The minimum wage rate is currently $10.70 per hour ($10.20 for those with under three months’ experience). On April 1, it will rise to $10.85 ($10.35 for inexperienced workers).

So far, the bill has only passed first reading and, as a private member’s bill, may never become law.

Citing research showing that 60 per cent of minimum wage workers in Canada are over 24 years old, NDP MLA Marian Mancini  said critics who claim minimum wage increases mostly benefit teenagers are wrong. She also presented research that shows that any job losses from higher minimum wage rates would be limited to teens and small numbers of young adults, she said.

“As many economists have pointed out, people at the bottom of the income spectrum, because they earn so little, need to spend all of the money they earn. When their salaries are increased, they tend to spend more money, thus boosting the economy.”

So far, the government has rejected her argument, adding that affordable housing, accessible daycare and public education would be more beneficial.

Despite the unwillingness of provincial governments beyond Alberta to adopt a $15 minimum wage, activists say they will keep campaigning for it.

Achieving the milestone would bring them a step closer to their ultimate goal of ensuring all workers are paid at least a living wage, which is a rate of pay high enough to cover basic living expenses in a particular community.

For Toronto, the living wage was estimated to be $18.52 in 2015. For Vancouver, it is $20.68, said Lanzinger.

“I would love to have our minimum wage at the living wage, but we just felt that there were some steps along the way to that and the $15 minimum wage was one of them.”

Sheila Brawn is the editor of Canadian Payroll Reporter.

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