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Province plans modest boost to minimum wage

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Growth, Enterprise and Trade Minister Cliff Cullen introduced The Minimum Wage Indexation Act on Monday. </p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Growth, Enterprise and Trade Minister Cliff Cullen introduced The Minimum Wage Indexation Act on Monday.

After refusing to raise the province's minimum wage last year, the Pallister government is planning to boost the base pay rate by a mere 15 cents effective Oct. 1.

On Monday, the Progressive Conservatives introduced a bill that would tie the minimum wage to the annual increase in the consumer price index, rounded to the nearest nickel.

That would incease the minimum wage this fall to $11.15 an hour from the current $11. The last increase to the minimum wage occurred in October 2015, when the former NDP government upped it by 30 cents an hour.

Growth, Enterprise and Trade Minister Cliff Cullen, who introduced Bill 33, The Minimum Wage Indexation Act, said the measure will place Manitoba's wage minimum in the "middle of the pack" among provinces.

"What Manitobans are looking for are certainty and predictability. And we believe indexing the minimum wage will provide that certainty. It will also provide (an) inflation guard for employees as well," he said.

Under the proposed legislation, the minimum wage won't go down if living costs decline. But the bill would allow the provincial cabinet to declare no increase in a given year during a recession or if it feared an economic downturn.

The bill's critics say it will guarantee that minimum wage workers continue to live in poverty.

"Having a job should be a path out of poverty, not a poverty trap," said Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour.

The most commonly accepted poverty measure -- the low-income cutoff -- was $15.53 an hour last year for a full-time worker supporting other person (such as a single parent with one child), Rebeck said.

"We think the minimum wage should get to that point. It should have a phased in process to get there so people have predictable increases that they can count on and employers have predictable increases they can budget on," he said.

The NDP, in nearly 17 years of power, did not achieve that, despite heavy pressure from its labour supporters.

But NDP labour critic Tom Lindsey said the former government made progress, increasing the minimum wage by more than the rate of inflation during its years in office.

"Fifteen cents will not cut it," he said Monday.

That was the sentiment of those who work or have worked minimum wage jobs. They said it takes more than one job just to get by at the current rate.

"When I’ve earned minimum wage, it sucks," said Jamie DeLuca. "Cuz then, chances are I’m going to have to find two or three other jobs that pay minimum wage just to get by on the rent, heat and the other stuff."

Jesse Rayner, a 22-year-old bartender with a side business as a sound producer and engineer, said he'd never make enough on minimum wage to support his needs. 

And, Laura Phrakonkhan, 19, said she’s not going to sling ice cream cones the rest of her life either. "I’d be excited if it (the minimum wage) increases but I’d understand if it doesn’t. I depend mostly on my parents at this point."

Lindsey said while the NDP is opposed to the direction the PCs are taking with Bill 33, the party will not delay its passage so that minimum wage workers get at least some increase in pay this year.

"We will fight to try and make sure that working Manitobans get a bigger increase than what they’ve proposed here but we won’t hold them to nothing, that’s for sure," Lindsey said outside the legislature. "We are going to encourage people to come out to the committee stage (public hearings) and tell this government why 15 cents an hour is not enough."

Public hearings on Bill 33 are expected within the next two weeks. 

Loren Remillard, president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, supported the bill, arguing that it depoliticizes the rate-setting process.

"To have a mechanism that basically says, ‘Here’s the data, here’s how much it (minimum wage) should rise by, according to inflationary pressures,’ that is reasonable," he said.

Remillard disputes the assertion by organized labour and others that the bulk of minimum wage earners are actually adults -- as opposed to students living at home, as business lobbyists claim.

He said government should look at other options to aid adults stuck in low-wage jobs, in any case.

"Our strategy should not be to raise the minimum wage for that single mother working in minimum wage or someone that’s trying to raise a family on minimum wage," he said. "The strategy should be how do we get those individuals out of minimum-wage occupations and into the higher paying jobs. That’s the strategy we need."

That could include investments in education and training and social supports to allow low-wage workers to equip themselves for a higher paying career, Remillard said.

Meanwhile, an organization that represents small business owners says indexing the minimum wage to inflation will hit the retail and hospitality sectors the hardest. 

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said there are better ways to help low-income earners.

"While indexing minimum wage to an economic indicator is an easily accessible tool for governments, entrepreneurs worry that this approach assumes affordability every year, and does not reflect current economic conditions," said Jonathan Alward, CFIB’s director of provincial affairs for Manitoba. 

"We are calling on the government to introduce measures to help mitigate the negative impacts of the annually indexed minimum wage, such as introducing a training wage (for inexperienced workers, similar to Nova Scotia) or a gratuity wage (for workers who earn tips, similar to B.C. and Ontario)," Alward said in a prepared statement.

He said most of his members believe improved job training programs and reduced income tax rates are better ways to improve the standard of living for low-income earners.

-- with files from Alexandra Paul

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Larry Kusch.

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