The tattooed arms of someone working a small debit machine while a customer's hand hands over a Visa card.
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The impacts of the province’s low-wage economy are far-reaching and taking action to change it will promote diversity and benefit people, the economy, and the environment.

That’s one of the key messages from a written submission to the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, publicly released Wednesday by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Nova Scotia (CCPA-NS).

“We really have to be doing things differently. We can no longer sell the province as being competitive based on a race to the bottom, if you will, and we have plenty of evidence that tells us the impact that the race to the bottom has,” the report’s author and CCPA-NS director Christine Saulnier said in an interview Tuesday.

“Evidence underlines that it doesn’t really help our competitiveness to have so many people in the province who aren’t reaching their full potential and thus aren’t as productive as they could be.”

A woman in a dark coloured top and vibrant necklace sits in a red chair looking into the camera with a somewhat serious face.
Christine Saulnier, Nova Scotia director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA-NS). Photo: Trevor Beckerson, Foundary Photography

Saulnier said when Statistics Canada releases average incomes across the country, Nova Scotia sits at or near the bottom, with some of the lowest wages in the country.

“More than 60% of our economy is based on our consumption, and what we know is if we are stimulating that bottom, we are stimulating those who will be spending every penny in our economy,” she said.

“And that will have an impact that will actually help us all. It is all interconnected, whether you look at it on the cost side or whether you look at it on the benefits side.”

‘Tremendous stress’ to cover basic needs

In Saulnier’s submission, titled ‘The impact of a low-wage economy on government revenue and expenses,’ she notes that low-wage work represents “a significant portion” of the province’s labour market.

Low-wage jobs are more likely to be insecure and without benefits. In addition, 54% of workers in the province don’t have access to sick leave, and Saulnier points to the established relationships between low wages and increased chronic disease.

“Earning a low-wage means being under tremendous stress to cover all basic needs. It means working very long hours, often at multiple jobs, leaving little time for parents to play with their children, for additional education or training, and no time for community activities which impacts our collective vitality,” Saulnier wrote.

“Without job security, enough income and access to benefits, it is almost impossible to invest in education and training, or to afford a place to live close to accessible transit or to afford a car, which might all help get a better job.”

Saulnier said she wanted to stress to the public accounts committee that the suggestion low-wage workers are low-skilled or lack formal education is also misguided. She points to the fact that the median income for a Black woman with a Bachelor degree or higher in Nova Scotia is only slightly higher than the income of a white male who only has a high school diploma.

Compared to the median wage of a white male, Black women face a pay gap of 42%, Black men face a 33% pay gap, and white women face a gap of 30%. Saulnier suggests in her submission that the pay gap is likely even worse for people with disabilities.

That’s why she’s pushing back on the notion that everyone is paid what they’re worth.

“We’ve been sending this message, this individual blaming and shaming message that ‘Well, you can just get a better job if you just go and get a degree, if you just do X, Y and Z,’ then you’ll be paid what you’re worth,” Saulnier said.

The kind of society we want to have

She said she wants policymakers to apply an intersectional lens that considers the impact of a low-wage economy on real people living in Nova Scotia communities.

Beyond workers facing discriminatory barriers that impact their pay, Saulnier said for far too long we have undervalued the jobs that are lower wage but essential.

“Those are the jobs that surely COVID taught us are some of the most important jobs that provide us what we need in our community. I’m talking about the caring economy, I’m talking about all those essential workers who are very much undervalued for their contribution,” she said.

“I’m really getting at a value system that we have to be very critical about, which means that our policies really have to be getting at the root causes of what’s happening. The low-wage economy is one way in to thinking about what kind of society we want to have.”

In her closing comments to the committee, Saulnier said there’s a high collective cost to our low-wage economy and the solution isn’t simply to shift people to higher paid jobs in narrowly defined skilled trades.

“The interconnections between the low wage and the impact on our government revenues and expenses need to be underlined,” she said.

“We need to address what’s happening in our province in terms of poverty and addressing both low wages and the high costs. Our government can do a lot in order to help people.”

While one of the recommendations in her submission was increasing minimum wage, Saulnier wrote that another way to address low wages is high union coverage.

Not much is going to change

Danny Cavanagh, appearing as an employee representative from the Minimum Wage Review Committee, also addressed the public accounts committee on Wednesday.

Cavanagh said given inflation and rising costs in recent years, a $15 minimum wage (long fought for) is no longer enough for most people to live on. He said family and child poverty need to be eliminated, and employees need more paid sick days.

In his closing comments, Cavanagh said 30 years of cuts and rollbacks and the shift from full time to part time and precarious work haven’t helped the current situation, and things must change. He also called on the province to update and modernize its labour standards, and said he didn’t want to see further tax cuts for corporations because “they don’t work,” adding that money should instead be given to workers.

Like Saulnier, Cavanagh said the province must move away from a low-wage economy.

“If we don’t, not much is going to change except we’re going to have our streets full of homeless people worse than it (even) is this year, I think,” Cavanagh said.

“By working together, I’m sure that we can come up with some solutions that will work. But my main point is that government can do much more investment in people in the coming months to make some positive change.”

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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