Premier Heather Stefanson says Manitoba has "somewhat gotten behind" other provinces when it comes to the minimum wage and she wants to ensure it is "not falling behind."
"We need to be competitive with other provinces… and even though we have indexed our minimum wage to inflation, I think we have somewhat gotten behind… So, we want to ensure that we are not falling behind there," she said at the western premiers conference in Regina Friday.
With Manitoba on track to have the lowest minimum wage in the country this fall, and high inflation hitting low-income earners the hardest, the province plans to introduce an amendment to its minimum wage law on Monday.
"We’re in very uncertain times right now," labour minister Reg Helwer said in an interview Thursday, without revealing what’s in the bill. "We’ve had many discussions over the past several months about the economy and minimum wage. We have an amendment coming to deal with some of those issues on Monday."
Manitoba’s minimum wage will become the lowest in the country on Oct. 1, when Saskatchewan increases its minimum wage to $13 an hour.
Currently, Manitoba’s minimum wage is $11.95/hr and set to increase 40 cents to $12.35/hr on Oct. 1, based on the 2021 annual inflation rate of 3.4 per cent.
"We have, in our employment standards code, legislation that is very explicit on how we increase minimum wage," said Helwer. "It’s predictable for industry and labour." Even with the cost of living up 7.4 per cent in Manitoba in March, the Progressive Conservative government had defended that legislation because of its predictability. When asked why the PCs want to amend it now, Helwer was guarded.
"We always watch what other provinces are doing," Helwer said. While Manitoba’s minimum wage is low, it is also one of the most affordable provinces in which to live, he noted.
"Those things come into the calculations as well," he said. He said the PCs want to keep the predictability of minimum wage increases, but couldn’t discuss what’s in the bill.
"We’re going to have extensive consultation once it’s introduced, with business and labour and determine how they want to respond to the legislation and what the recommendations will be."
Members of the legislature Thursday debated whether jacking up the minimum wage over the rate of inflation would hurt or help Manitoba’s economy.
A private member’s resolution that called for an immediate increase to $15/hr — saying the 31,000 minimum-wage earners are struggling with the rising cost of essentials such as food and gasoline — was rejected.
"Thousands are working minimum-wage jobs in this province and are having to work more than one job just to make ends meet," said Point Douglas MLA Bernadette Smith, who put forward the resolution. "This government has made piddly increases to the minimum wage that has really put Manitoba behind the times," she said in the house.
PC MLA Obby Khan, who owns a small business, asked Smith how businesses in the hospitality sector with profit margins ranging from two to seven per cent would be affected by the 25 per cent wage increase she had proposed.
"What is that going to do to the backbone of our economy?" Khan asked in the house. "You cannot simply say ‘We want to increase minimum wage and everyone else has to deal with it.’" The rookie MLA for Fort Whyte said he’s proud to pay his employees well above the minimum wage and supports "significantly" increasing the minimum wage.
"I am simply stating that we need to look at many factors when we are going to increase the minimum wage and that’s what a responsible government does," Khan said.
The labour critic for the NDP said hiking the minimum wage would help businesses. He accused the PCs of "fear mongering."
"Jurisdiction after jurisdiction after jurisdiction has raised the minimum wage," said Tom Lindsey.
"The businesses didn’t go out of business. Lots of them actually prospered because, guess what?, some of those people now have a little more disposable cash to actually shop at those businesses, buy products that those businesses sell, eat at those restaurants that are struggling for customers."
— with file from Danielle Da Silva
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.