Minimum wage gap

Prices are rising on almost every front, but the minimum wage stays mired beneath the poverty line.

At the tail end of last year the humble cauliflower made headlines across the country, when it went from being the last thing left on the veggie dip tray to a luxury item (doubtless to the cheers of children everywhere). No sooner had the price of a head of cauliflower returned to normal levels than grapes and celery skyrocketed in price, leading to the sort of sticker shock normally associated with airline tickets once all the hidden extras are added to the cost.

Despite the price of a barrel of crude oil being at lows not seen for many years, the cost at the pump hasn’t followed suit. In May of 2000, for example, a barrel of crude oil was priced at US$39.80, slightly higher than it was in April 2016 (information courtesy of the Energy Information Administration). In 2000 British Columbians were paying an average of 69.1 cents a litre at the pump (Statistics Canada); when I gassed up last week I paid 102.9 a litre. Many areas outside the overheated Vancouver real estate market have seen their property assessments increase, raising housing prices, while hydro and gas rates continue to rise. Have you renewed your car insurance lately? I’ll wager it’s gone up since this time last year. The list goes on, as more and more of the things that people need in order just to live keep getting more and more expensive.

And yet the minimum wage in B.C. looks set to remain at $10.45 an hour for the foreseeable future; the lowest minimum wage in the country, for those keeping score at home. The provincial government has ruled out a jump to $15.00 an hour, preferring to raise the rates some 20 cents an hour at a time, which at that rate will mean that many people currently working full time in a minimum wage job will have retired before we get to $15.00.

Why $15.00 an hour? Because at that rate, someone working full time will be earning just above what’s called a “living wage”, rather than being several thousand dollars below the poverty line as they are today. This is an important consideration, given today’s job market. The days when minimum wage positions were predominantly occupied by those starting out in the job market, or those looking to make a little extra money via part-time work to supplement the family income, are gone with the wind. These days an increasing number of people who are the main breadwinner in their family find themselves in minimum wage jobs, often for reasons beyond their control.

Businesses, of course, don’t like the idea of any kind of increase in the minimum wage, much less a jump of more than $4.50 an hour, and are quick to warn of dire consequences to the provincial economy. While I’m sympathetic to the plight of business owners, particularly those who own small businesses in rural areas, I’d suggest that employees who are suddenly making $4.55 more an hour aren’t going to be socking that money away under a mattress. They’re more likely to be spending it: on more or better food, or clothing, or furnishings; on replacing the leaky, water-guzzling toilet with a new, more efficient one; on enrolling their children in sports or cultural activities that at the moment are unaffordable luxuries.

Full-time minimum wage jobs for more and more people are here to stay. Let’s give those working in them a wage they and their families can live on, in a province that’s touted as the best place in Canada in which to live.