The Pallister government took it from all sides at a public hearing Tuesday night into its proposed legislation on the minimum wage.
The Tories want to take the $11-an-hour minimum wage and tie any increases to the cost of living every Oct. 1. It won’t go down if living costs were to decline and the cabinet could stop any increase in a given year during a recession or if it feared an economic downturn.
Speakers from organizations entrenched on either side of the issue spoke in favour or against Bill 33 — the Minimum Wage Indexation Act —Tuesday evening.
Some said it condemns the working poor to poverty-level wages, others said it hits small business too hard.
The hearing was told the minimum wage provides spending money for teenagers with their first part-time job, and increasing it puts too much financial pressure on those employers who can afford it least.
Politicians on the committee were also told it’s a single mother’s sole support for her family, and it’s thousands of dollars less than she needs each year just for basics.
The committee didn’t hear directly from any adults who earn the minimum wage working full time or from small businesses owners barely making a go of it.
Bill 33 would increase the minimum wage this fall to $11.15 an hour. The last increase to the minimum wage occurred in October 2015, when the former NDP government increased it by 30 cents an hour.
"The bill entrenches working poverty in our province — it’s absolutely shameful," said Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck. "No Manitoban working full time should have to live in poverty. We condemn this bill in the strongest way."
Rebeck argued low-income workers spend the highest percentage of income on basic consumer goods — the more money in their pockets, the more they’ll spend with local businesses.
Minimum wage is a blunt instrument if it’s being used to achieve some form of social justice, argued James Rilett, vice-president of Restaurants Canada. "We’ve seen workers used as political pawns to win favour with the electorate," he said.
Rilett lauded Growth, Enterprise and Trade Minister Cliff Cullen for linking increases to the cost of living. "Take the politics out of the minimum wage process. Predictability is everything, especially in a small business," he said.
Even so, Rilett cautioned, 36 per cent of small business costs are wages, and government should be careful of the impact. "It cascades up," because every time staff get a minimum wage increase, everyone else on staff wants a bump up as well, Rilett said.
Jonathan Alward, Manitoba director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said the legislation assumes entrepreneurs and small business can afford inflationary increases. "We know that Bill 33 will hit small businesses in the retail and hospitality sectors the hardest," he said.
"What would a normal family of four be able to live on?" Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union president Michelle Gawronsky challenged the Tory MLAs on the committee.
"Working should be a route out of poverty, but for some, low wages are a poverty trap. This legislation enshrines minimum wage as a poverty wage, and will leave some Manitobans permanently as far as $8,000 below the poverty line," said Josh Brandon, chairman of Make Poverty History Manitoba.
Brandon said his coalition has calculated that a single parent with one child, working full time, would need a wage of at least $15.53 per hour to get above the poverty line.
Had the Tory bill been in effect since 1998, Brandon said, the minimum wage would be $7.40 an hour, not $11: "This is an illustration of the dramatic effect this legislation could have long term," he said.
There is a direct link between living below the poverty line and a heavier reliance on the health-care system, said Molly McCracken, Manitoba director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. "Manitoba has a shameful problem with child poverty," she said.
Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce president Loren Remillard scoffed at that: "This debate has consumed way too much oxygen." He said the minimum wage gets thrown out as some magical way to "make things significantly better in a material way."
"We should be focused on getting more people a job, and a higher-paying job," he said. Bill 33 provides certainty for everyone, he said. Under the NDP, there was no formula: "One year, it was even raised twice…just passed on to employers."