B.C.’s minimum wage will be increasing to $11.35 an hour rather than $11.25 on September 1, 2017; but the extra 10 cents announced by the provincial government last month is simply not enough to help address the plight of 500,000 low-wage workers in B.C.
So says Irene Lanzinger, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, which has been advocating for a $15 minimum wage in the province for two years. “The idea has very broad support,” says Lanzinger, noting that surveys show that 75 per cent of those questioned are in favour of the idea.
She adds that other jurisdictions near B.C. are moving to a $15 an hour minimum wage. Seattle has been phasing it in for some time, and Alberta has committed to having it in place by the end of 2018.
Lanzinger says that $15 is referred to as a “living wage”. At the moment, almost a quarter of B.C.’s working population earns less than a living wage, and despite what many people think, they are not all young adults working in fast-food or entry-level jobs. Lanzinger says that in B.C., 70,000 of the 500,000 workers earning less than $15 an hour are over the age of 55. “It’s a problem across all demographics in this province.”
B.C. is the only province in Canada without a poverty reduction plan. Lanzinger says that such a plan would include three main elements.
“First, raise the welfare and disability rates. The welfare rate in this province is $610 a month, which hasn’t been raised in 10 years. It’s appalling.” Second would be raising the minimum wage to a living wage, and third would be making vast improvements to the availability of affordable housing.
“A poverty reduction plan would also include affordable child care, more affordable health care; there are a whole basket of things we could do to help people on low incomes or income assistance. A $10 a day child care plan would be of tremendous assistance.
“We have a very significant poverty problem in this province. It needs a comprehensive strategy to deal with it, not just increasing the minimum wage; but it’s a start.”
When asked why she thinks the welfare rate has remained frozen for 10 years, Lanzinger pauses. “I don’t think the Liberals care about people who live in poverty,” she says finally. “If they cared they would do something. They don’t care about low-income people.”
Fraser-Nicola MLA Jackie Tegart says that the challenge surrounding the minimum wage is finding a balance. “Small business is very important, especially in rural B.C. but all across the province,” she says. “We have to find a balance with what business owners can pay.”
Lanzinger, however, says concerns that raising the minimum wage will hurt small business are unfounded. “We haven’t seen that impact on small businesses,” she says. “They’re going to a $15 minimum wage in Alberta and Seattle; and small businesses are thriving.”
Tegart says that while the government has not raised the basic welfare rate of $610 per month, the government has increased the monthly amount that people on disability receive. “When people are on welfare the challenge is how to get them in the workplace,” she notes. “We provide wraparound skills to get them in the workforce.”
Tegart points to the government’s Single Parent Employment Initiative as one such effort. “It was very difficult for some people to register in post-secondary education, because they lost their benefits. Now, for single parents who are in education for an in-demand job, such as early childhood educator, the government pays their tuition, pays for their books, MSP, child care, and transportation.
“People in the program keep their social assistance while they are in school, and the government pays some expenses for one year after while people are transitioning into the workforce. We thought maybe 300 people might apply, but more than 4,000 people have.”
Lanzinger says there are economic arguments for helping people out of poverty. “We pay a long-term cost for poverty in education, in health care, and in the criminal justice system. Not dealing with poverty is short-term thinking, because it takes its toll on families and children.” It has been estimated that failing to address poverty costs B.C. an estimated $8 to $9 billion per year in costs such as health care, policing, and lost economic opportunities. “We could have a really good poverty reduction plan for $2 to $3 billion,” says Lanzinger.
“I really think we’re being very short-sighted and heartless. It’s appalling that in this province we allow children, seniors, and people in-between to live in poverty. It’s completely unacceptable.”