Following an anti-living wage presentation last month, a council committee heard the alternative view on Thursday.

Halifax regional council’s Community Planning and Economic Development Standing Committee heard a presentation from Build Right Nova Scotia — a coalition of unionized worker and contractor organizations — on the municipality’s new living wage policy during its virtual meeting.

The living wage requirement comes into effect for all new contracts on April 1. It means some contractors working with the municipality will have to pay their employees at least $21.80 — the current living wage as defined by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The requirement won’t include construction work, but as the Halifax Examiner reported last month, the committee heard from three construction industry associations warning of a “substantial burden from an administrative, staffing, and human resources perspective” for contractors in the snow-clearing and waste collection businesses.

Thursday’s presentation from Build Right took the opposite position.

“I would say that what you’re doing and the direction you’re going is the right direction to be going,” said Brad Smith, a Build Right director and executive director of the Mainland Building Trades.

Mainland Building Trades represents 11,000 unionized Industrial-Commercial-Institutional tradespeople, and he told councillors that the municipality’s living wage requirement is an investment in citizens.

“Workers shouldn’t have to work two jobs to make ends meet,” Smith said.

“Income is the biggest determinant of health, and I know that the councillors on this call are on the frontline of many of the impacts of poverty and systemic issues in our society. We believe you either pay now or you pay later with compound interest.”

Robert Shepherd, president of the Nova Scotia Construction Labour Relations Association, told councillors his organization negotiates with unions on behalf of 350 unionized employers in the province, and they’re in favour of the city’s living wage policy.

“We think it’s a good step forward. We want our workers to live good lives, be healthy, and be able to raise their families in our community,” Shepherd said.

Smith and Shepherd addressed the criticism from last month that the policy would lessen competition.

“We recognize that competition is important, but we also recognize that you’ve got to pay a fair wage,” Shepherd said.

“Our workers don’t work unless our contractors win the bids, and the contractors can’t win the bids unless our workers are doing things productively and safely,” Smith said. “We are interdependent on each other and support each other in that way.”

Coun. Trish Purdy raised some concerns she’s heard from small business owners about the living wage requirement.

“The business owners I spoke to said if this is forced on them, there is going to be two immediate results. One is, the prices of their goods and services … will have to go up, and secondly, they’re going to have to cut jobs,” Purdy said.

She asked whether the unionized employers faced these issues.

“Could this backfire and actually have more people out of work because of a pay increase?”

“What a living wage does is it raises the floor,” Shepherd said. “So the floor right now in the construction business for non-union companies, is a lot lower than it is for union companies … If you demand a living wage be paid in construction working for HRM, you’re raising the floor.”

Shepherd said the risk is in the transition, ensuring companies contracted before the living wage don’t have to suddenly pay a living wage based on the same contract price.

In HRM’s case, the living wage doesn’t come into effect until April 1. All contracts before then are not subject to the requirement.

Last month, for instance, council approved new contracts for solid waste collection that mean those contractors won’t have to pay a living wage for five years.

The living wage requirement is expected to cost the municipality $123,040 in fiscal 2021-2022, the first fiscal year it’s in effect. That number is expected to rise to $161,091 by 2024-2025.

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Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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