OK, let’s do the math. The latest research report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, released last week, pegs $21.80 an hour as a living wage for workers in Halifax.
Before we do the math though, what constitutes a living wage, and why is it an issue now?
Let’s start with the why. As the CCPA explains, the Living Wage Movement in Canada emerged…
… in response to the stagnation of wages alongside an increase in work that is part-time, without security and benefits. People could no longer rely on long-term employment contracts. Governments allowed legislated minimum wages to erode in value and labour standards became outdated and inadequate to protect the health and well-being of workers. Meanwhile more jobs require more formal education and training, which is increasingly being paid for by the workers themselves who are often saddled with high debt because of sky-rocketing tuition fees. Employers take advantage of an ever more productive workforce to pad their profit margins, with some, like the highest paid CEOs, really taking most of the pie, making 227 times more than the average worker made in 2018 — the equivalent to the average worker’s entire annual salary in two hours of work. Workers are left living to work instead of working to live. They are running in place to provide for themselves let alone support a family, made worse by a lack of affordable housing, high cost and lack of child care, or because the gaps in health and social services leave them paying for out of pocket costs to cover basic needs including prescription drugs…
Sound all too familiar?
So that’s the why we need a living wage policy. The what?
While there are all sorts of inputs, outputs, determinants, and complicated spreadsheet calculations that go into coming up with actual numbers, the CCPA describes a living wage more generally as the “very conservative” minimum amount a household — which it defines as two adults, both working full-time for 35 hours a week, with two young children, aged two and seven — needs “to cover all basic necessities and allow families to live in dignity and enjoy a decent quality of life.”
That said, a living-wage budget does not include any of those “necessary luxuries” most households routinely encounter, such as “credit card or loan payments, savings for retirement, life insurance, home ownership, or costs associated with a child or adult family member who has disabilities or serious illness requiring care or adaptive supports.”
So… we’re still talking just bare bones survival here.
But here’s the reality. Even a living wage is far beyond the realistic expectations of many Nova Scotians, including many of our frontline COVID workers who went from heroes back to zeroes in the space of few short corporate, milk-it-for-its-PR-value, always-meant-to-be-temporary months of slightly increased wages.
There’s a reason governments and corporations can get away with this. Our current provincial minimum wage is $12.55.
The math: anyone earning minimum wage in Halifax today makes $9.25 an hour less than — or just under 60% of — a bare minimum living wage. Or, put another way, the CCPA says a minimum wage worker in Halifax would need to work at least 60 hours a week to earn even a basic, no-frills livable weekly wage.
According to a Statistics Canada survey released last year, the percentage of Canadians earning minimum wage has actually doubled in the last 20 years — from 5.2% in 1998 to 10.4% in 2018. Much of that increase occurred in the last two years of the study.
When we talk about minimum wage, we’re not talking — as its apologists like to claim — about teenagers working after school for pocket change or on-the-job experience. Nearly half of Canada’s minimum wage workers are over 25. More than one in three have a post-secondary diploma or better.
And those statistics, of course, are all pre-pandemic. The situation is almost certainly worse now. And will become even more so as our economy struggles to recover and more and more Canadians are shunted into minimum wage ghettos.
The question is what can we do about that?
One answer is for municipal governments to take the lead, establishing a new economic floor by requiring companies seeking government contracts to demonstrate they’re paying their workers at least a living wage before they will even be considered for procurement contracts.
In February 2017, then still freshly minted HRM Coun. Lindell Smith, put forward a motion asking — in the usual bureaucratese — city staff to come up with recommendations for “a policy framework for the consideration of social-economic benefit, employee compensation/living wage and environmental impacts in the procurement process.”
So… not just paying a living wage but also encouraging workforce diversity, etc.
More than three years and many delays later, city staff last month came finally back with what my colleague Zane Woodford described as “a mealy-mouthed social procurement policy.”
“When making low-value purchases,” it said, departments “shall consider…” “where feasible…” criteria like supplier diversity and living wage policies—without actually requiring them to do so.
While he applauded the new policy’s goals, Smith couldn’t help but worry it won’t be effective simply because it’s optional.
“Without looking at all contracts, all procurement, making sure that social value is labelled on everything, we’re not actually solving the issues where families are suffering because of people’s greed when they receive contracts,” Smith told council. “I really hope that we can look at the bigger picture and when we say social procurement and social value, it’s for all procurement opportunities, not just the lower value ones.”
Smith wasn’t the only councillor to express similar concerns, and staff has now promised to provide an update this fall “not only [with] information but also with recommendations on how to apply those social lenses first brought forward in 2017.”
Let’s hope so.
And let’s hope too that, if those recommendations come forward before this fall’s municipal election, our current councillors will leave a living wage policy legacy for those who come after.
If, on the other hand, as is too often the case, this report gets bumped to the new council, we need to demand that all those who seek our votes in October state their position on a municipal living wage policy. And vote accordingly.
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