A chance to address wage ‘embarrassment’

“Downright embarrassing” is how New Brunswick’s minister of labour, Trevor Holder, described that province’s dubious distinction of having the lowest minimum wage in Canada. His acknowledgment of this perceived economic ignominy was accompanied by an announcement the wage — currently pegged at $11.75 per hour — will be increased by $2 next year.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/12/2021 (251 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

“Downright embarrassing” is how New Brunswick’s minister of labour, Trevor Holder, described that province’s dubious distinction of having the lowest minimum wage in Canada. His acknowledgment of this perceived economic ignominy was accompanied by an announcement the wage — currently pegged at $11.75 per hour — will be increased by $2 next year.

Meanwhile, on the Prairies, “pretty damn embarrassing” is how the Manitoba Federation of Labour characterizes the minimum-situation here, as New Brunswick’s two-stage 2022 increase will relegate this province to second-lowest on the national minimum-wage table.

“When people work full time and still live in poverty — and that is the reality for thousands of workers and Manitobans — that needs to change,” said MFL president Kevin Rebeck.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES
Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck

Manitoba’s minimum wage, which by legislation passed by the Pallister government is indexed to inflation, was increased by five cents on Oct. 1 and currently sits at $11.95; only Saskatchewan, at $11.81, has a lower rate.

According to recent calculations by the local arm of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the so-called “living wage” for a two-parent/two-child family in Manitoba — an amount described as the hourly rate at which a household can meet its basic needs once government transfers have been factored into the equation — sits at $16.15, an increase of $1.61, or 11 per cent, since 2016.

The challenges faced by minimum-wage earners have been compounded by the recently surging inflation rate, which hit 4.7 per cent in October after experiencing its steepest increase since March 2003. Energy prices, which have risen a full 25 per cent, food and shelter costs — up nearly five per cent — and assorted increases related to supply-chain issues have been major contributing factors to low wager earners’ heightened economic stress.

Manitoba’s child poverty rate of 28.4 per cent is the highest among Canadian provinces and second only to Nunavut when territories are factored in.

Whether or not the current situation is an embarrassment is open to discussion from numerous vantage points; what is clear, however, is that those living with less in Manitoba are feeling the pinch more now than in recent memory. Manitoba’s child poverty rate of 28.4 per cent is the highest among Canadian provinces and second only to Nunavut when territories are factored in.

Business groups such as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business argue the early stage of economic recovery from pandemic impacts is not the time to saddle small businesses with additional wage-related costs. CFIB figures indicate only one-third of small businesses have returned to pre-pandemic revenue levels, while more than 30 per cent continue to lose money every day they operate.

To that end, the MFL suggests specifically targeted government supports could help small operators absorb the cost of a minimum-wage hike.

Perhaps it’s time to commit to a path and timetable for minimum-wage increases that are not governed by inflation-rate incrementalism but rather with an eye to making the notion of a true living wage a foreseeable reality for lower-income Manitobans.

The province has not weighed in on the current discussion regarding Manitoba’s lagging minimum-wage rate, beyond a released statement that “As we continue to address the ongoing economic and public health challenges posed by COVID-19, our government remains committed to making life more affordable for all Manitobans.”

The question remains: how? Perhaps it’s time to commit to a path and timetable for minimum-wage increases that are not governed by inflation-rate incrementalism but rather with an eye to making the notion of a true living wage a foreseeable reality for lower-income Manitobans.

Newly elected Premier Heather Stefanson has expended considerable energy assuring Manitobans her leadership on issues of importance will be considerably more open to dialogue and collaboration than that of her predecessor. Perhaps the minimum-wage file is one upon which she could endeavour to imprint the much-heralded “new boss” stamp.

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