Making a Living in Canada
The Fall of the Living Wage
In a just economy all jobs would pay enough for people to live. Today they don't. Some Canadians want government to raise wages without addressing deeper economic justice questions -- is that wise?
Instead of propping up some wages for some people -- and leaving the wages of the jobless at zero -- we'd rather see a just economy, where all people can make their own way without government intereference.
“A job is the best route out of poverty.” That common wisdom was heard often when federal and provincial ministers met in the 1990s to talk about child and family poverty.
by Greg deGroot-Maggetti
with research assistance by Jeanette Unger
For Dave, the cabbie who drove me to the airport in Winnipeg on a recent visit, reality was a bit different. The two, low-paying jobs he held were not quite enough to lift him, his wife and children out of poverty. And provincial welfare, which he had to rely on during a spell of unemployment, offered no training to help him get a better paying job. A job that pays a living wage.
A living wage. That’s a term – coined in the 19th century – that is being heard more and more across Canada and the United States.
The living wage is about making sure that families have enough money to live on. It’s a basic battle. It was won before. It needs to be fought again.
The stark reality is that, for many people, a job is no passport out of poverty. There are workers whose home is a shelter, whose grocery store is the food bank. More and more people and groups are waking up to the fact that you just can’t make a living at the minimum wage – or just above it.
And that awareness has fuelled the growth of living wage movements across North America.
In the U.S., where living wage campaigns emerged in the 1990s, the focus was on local governments. Campaigns called on local governments to implement living wage ordinances, which require any business that contracts with the municipal government to agree to pay a living wage. Different cities set the living wage at different levels. Ordinances can also include other workplace standards such as health benefits, overtime and vacation pay, for example. To date, more than 120 U.S. cities have implemented living wage ordinances and the movement has included universities and other publicly funded institutions in the call to implement living wage policies.
In Canada, living wage campaigns generally focus on raising the minimum wage and social assistance rates. There are campaigns in almost every province and territory as well as national groups advancing the call for living wages.
Not all of the campaigns use the term “living wage.” In PEI, the call is for liveable incomes. The Working Group for Liveable Income looks at the mix of wages, employment insurance and welfare needed to lift islanders out of poverty – reflecting the seasonal nature of the PEI economy. The movement in Quebec, by far the most developed in Canada or the U.S., mobilized around the banner of a Quebec without poverty. This broad-based movement succeed in getting the Quebec government to pass legislation requiring it to work toward the elimination of poverty. The movement has moved onto fleshing out the specific policies – minimum wage levels and social supports – to achieve the goal of a Quebec with no poverty.
Groups in Ontario have gathered force around the “Ontario needs a raise” campaign. In Manitoba, the Just Income Coalition is leading the call to raise the minimum wage. In Saskatchewan it is the Living Wage Coalition, in New Brunswick it is the Common Front for Social Justice.
And there are groups in BC, Alberta, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and the Yukon actively working to raise minimum wages and social assistance rates.
At the national level, the National Anti-Poverty Organization (NAPO) has been a catalyst in bringing together representatives from many of the provincial and national groups calling for a living wage.
So what is a living wage? Most groups are calling for a minimum wage that is high enough to lift a single adult working full-time, full-year, above the poverty line – defined as either the Low-Income Cutoff or the Market Basket Measure in a large city. Campaign 2000 has built on that to calculate the level of child benefits that would be needed to keep family incomes above the poverty line. Others are looking at what additional income supports would be needed for part-time, part-year workers. And groups like the Worker Action Centre in Toronto are committed to make government enforce basic employment standards.
Across Canada, nearly one in four jobs (23.6%) pay low wages – less than $10 an hour. For many people in these jobs, there is little job security and few or no benefits. For some, like Dave, this means piecing together more than one job and working 60 or 70 hours a week. Others simply cannot get enough work or must work for unscrupulous employers who don’t even pay the legal minimum wage.
It may be hard to believe that we are back to fighting one of the most basic battles for social justice – the battle for living wages. That battle was fought and largely won over the course of the last century. But two decades of neglect or outright assaults on the basic pillars of income security – minimum wages, unemployment insurance and social assistance – have turned back the clock. Once again we have learned that food banks, soup kitchens and homeless shelters are stopgaps whose need will only decline through a renewed commitment to policies rooted in social justice.
Living wage movements offer real hope for making Canada a place where a job is, indeed, a route far from poverty – and where those who cannot work are assured the dignity of an adequate income and good public services.
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