Precarious work, housing crises, “addiction traps,” raging hunger, unlivable conditions and extreme poverty.

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Precarious work, housing crises, "addiction traps," raging hunger, unlivable conditions and extreme poverty.

Those are only few of the concerns that the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives highlighted about Manitoba’s working poor at a news conference Thursday, where they released their report, Surviving on Minimum Wage, which features their recent research and accounts from workers.

The non-profit institute is now calling for the province to increase Manitoba’s minimum wage from the current $11.65 per hour to at least $15 — which they believe "couldn’t come at a more perfect time."

"Certainly if the government wants to help people get back to work, now’s the time to make these changes, especially with COVID-19," said Jesse Hajer, lead researcher for the project and professor at the University of Manitoba. "The pandemic has only made these issues worse."

"And while it’d be great if the labour market voluntarily increased minimum wages on their own, I think there’s a built-in bias for employers to believe it simply isn’t a winning proposition for them to do that without regulations in place."

Currently offering the second-lowest minimum wages in the country, Manitoba stands well behind Ontario’s $14 per hour and Alberta’s $15. Hajer says there’s no reason why the province couldn’t do the same as other governments.

But in a joint-statement to the Free Press, the provincial minister of finance and minister of economic development and training said: "The Manitoba government believes minimum wage should be determined by economic factors rather than political factors."

Ministers Scott Fielding and Ralph Eichler cited 2017 legislation to index the province’s wages every year by about 30 cents and government student funds like the Manitoba Scholarship and Bursary Initiative as some of the "many supports to improve Manitobans’ quality of life," beyond increasing the provincial minimum wage.

"Our government is focused on building a skilled workforce and has taken concrete steps to work with industry, businesses and post-secondary institutions to align education with labour market needs and ensure students have the right skills to advance their careers," reads the statement. "This includes programs to quickly get money in students’ hands so they can focus on their studies rather than their finances."

On Wednesday, Premier Brian Pallister announced the province is expanding Manitoba’s Back To Work initiative — a wage subsidy program launched earlier this summer that’s now doubling reimbursement for employers to hire more workers.

Between July 16 and Oct. 31, businesses that hire or rehire up to 20 people can receive 50 per cent reimbursement in paid wages up to $1 million.

That incentive on top of the other federal wage subsidies are "great for employers," said Hajer in an interview, "but it might not be as appealing to employees, especially minimum-wage earners."

"Those jobs are still non-unionized, without benefits and still paying the same unlivable wages."

That’s probably why it might be in minimum wage earners’ "best interest" to collect the federal $500-a-week Canadian Emergency Response Benefit for as long as they can, he added.

The Free Press reached out to more than 10 storefronts that pay minimum wages Thursday. All but one declined to comment.

"We just can’t afford to pay people more money," said Taste of Sri Lanka owner B.M. Kalyai before declining to say more.

For the 42 workers whose experiences Hajer and co-author Ellen Smirl documented — along with at least 31,000 other minimum wage earners in the province, as of 2018 — "that just isn’t good enough reason not to make change," he said.

"It’s time we finally start giving Manitobans living wages."

Twitter: @temurdur

Temur Durrani

Temur Durrani

Temur Durrani reports on the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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