The Fight for a Living Wage:
No to the Minimum Wage, Yes to a Dignified Wage!
By Thomas Davies
On January 17th 2002, Gary Collins, then the British Columbia Finance Minister under the BC Liberal Party government, announced a new provincial budget that went down in history as “Black Thursday”. It was defined by an onslaught of cuts to social spending, which have been characteristic of the BC Liberal government since the minute they came to office in May 2001. Already they had created a new low $6-an-hour “training wage” for new workers. Seven years later they are still refusing to raise the minimum wage beyond $8 an hour, guaranteeing poverty for hundreds of thousands of BC’s poorest workers. The fight to raise the minimum wage to a living wage is an important flashpoint in the overall struggle of poor and working people against the BC Liberal Government and their pro-business, anti-worker agenda.
The Campaign for $10
The drive has so far been led by the BC Federation of Labour (BC Fed), and their campaign to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour. The campaign has collected over 50,000 petition signatures, and has a poll which shows that 80 percent of British Columbians support their proposal. Over 115,000 people in BC make minimum wage, and another 135,000 make less than $10 an hour.
Over 30 municipalities have already supported the initiative, and the campaign continues to do vital work highlighting the terrible conditions forced upon those who work for minimum wage. According to a March 2007 study by the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), a full-time minimum wage worker earns over $4,000 less than the poverty line annually. The BC Fed has consistently pointed out that over 60% of these poverty-stricken workers are women, and that the 1976 minimum wage, if adjusted only for inflation, would have already be over $10 an hour.
Poor and Working People Under Attack Across Canada
According to the “Summoned to Stewardship: Make Poverty Reduction a Collective Legacy” report released by the BC Fed, BC is now the province with the highest child poverty rate in Canada, with 1 in 5 children now living in poverty. However, these kinds of attacks are across the board. The CCPA recently found that “Canada’s income gap is growing: In 2004, the richest 10% of families earned 82 times more than the poorest 10% – almost triple the ratio of 1976,” and “All but the richest 10% of families are working more weeks and hours in the paid workforce (200 hours more on average since 1996), yet only the richest 10% saw a significant increase in their earnings – 30%.”
In BC, the Liberals have not only attacked minimum wage workers. They changed the minimum shift requirement from four hours to two, loosened overtime regulations in favour of employers and overtime “agreements” they make with their employees, and also legalized child labour for kids as young as 12 years old. Not only that, farm workers are now excluded altogether from regulations related to hours of work, overtime and statutory holiday pay.
According to a study funded by Status of Women Canada, under the BC Liberals, cuts and privatization resulted in a total loss of approximately 20,447 public sector jobs in BC between 2001 and 2005. Nearly 75 per cent of these were held by women.
The day Gordon Campbell took office he declared that BC is “open for business”, and since then has continued to repeat that the economy is booming. Why then is it that BC’s workers have actually gone backwards in quality of life? Beyond the many studies which refute the argument that an increased minimum wage would force employers to cut jobs, isn’t it a fundamental right for someone to be able to properly feed, shelter, and take care of themselves and their families? Why are so many people who are working long hours in British Columbia unable to do this while Gordon Campbell recently voted himself a 54% increase in wages?
The Rights of All Poor and Working People
The BC Fed $10 campaign continues to be at the forefront of exposing the BC Liberal government’s unfair and destructive policies, but at $10 an hour, a full-time minimum wage worker would still not live above the poverty line. Emily Ottewell, Co-Chair of the BC Fed Young Worker Committee said in a recent Georgia Straight article, “I don’t know how anyone on their own can live on that wage. So the minimum should be at least $15 or $16 an hour; $10 is not a living wage, but the problem [with organizing] is, you gotta start somewhere.”
All those involved in the fight for social justice in BC should support the BC Fed campaign to raise the minimum wage, but we should be clear that the place to start should at least be above the poverty line. A minimum wage of $15 an hour would guarantee that a full-time worker would not spend over a third of their income on average housing costs (a common measure of poverty), and would be a huge step forward in the rights of all working people. Across BC, poor and working people have the opportunity to make these important demands, to fight back against the BC Liberals, and to unite with all forces working for a better life. A “minimum wage” by its definition clearly shows the poverty line of hundreds of thousands of working people. Therefore, in our opinion, this terminology must be dropped and dismantled in favour of starting to use a term that should indicate a good life for all workers: a “Dignified Wage.”
Working People Unite for a DIGNIFIED WAGE!
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