B.C.’s Fair Wages Commission received two different takes on the minimum wage when it stopped in Kelowna Tuesday.
While representatives of the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce are against a substantial increase to the minimum wage, a representative of the B.C. Poverty Coalition said a hike to $15 per hour is needed, and it’s needed now.
Christine Mettler, Okanagan coordinator with the coalition told the commissioners, B.C.’s current minimum wage of $11.35 per hour should be increased to $15 by no later than January 2019.
“Low wage workers need the increase and they need it now,” said Mettler, who conceded the 2019 deadline in order to allow employers time to adjust to the new rate.
But Kelowna Chamber of Commerce president Tom Dyas has a different perspective.
He said small businesses can’t handle any more large, “unpredictable” increases to the minimum wage and warned of a “ratcheting-up effect” of raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour. That effect, he said, could be to see all wages for workers at a business increase as a result of the minimum wage hike, causing undue financial pressure on the owners of that business. Small business, he said, is the backbone of the B.C. economy.
He warned that could affect in turn affect the ability for some small businesses to continue operating or mean cutting back workers hours or not employing as many people.
“In some ways, the minimum wage has introduced a distortion into the market,” said Dyas.
The commission, made up of chairwoman Marjorie Griffin Cohen, an economics professor at SFU, Ken Peacock of the B.C. Business Council and union leader Ivan Limpright, is an independent body set up to advise the provincial government on its plan to raise the minimum wage in B.C. to $15 per hour.
In its election platform in the spring, the NDP said it would raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2021. It has since indicated it is looking at pushing that forward, following the lead of other provinces.
The commission is touring the province gathering public input and will report back to the government before the end of the year with a recommendation about timing.
It will then look at how the minimum wage should be dealt with in B.C. after it is raised to $15 per hour, with more recommendations in the spring.
Mettler said even at $15 per hour, minimum wage workers in B.C. will still be making what she called a “poverty wage” given the high cost of living in this province. She said a “living” wage in the Kelowna area is more like $18 to $19 per hour.
She told the commission the low-income cutoff, commonly referred to as the “poverty line,” in Canada is currently considered to be $24,000 per year. But a worker making the current minimum wage in B.C. only makes just over $20,000 a year.
Dyas argued that many businesses already pay their employees more than the minimum wage at the lower levels and the percentage of employees in B.C. who only make minimum wage has been decreasing over the last five years.
He said while the chamber wants to see employees paid properly, the minimum wage in B.C. has risen a lot in the last 36 months and that has been tough for small businesses, such as more than 1,200 his chamber represents.
He told the commissioners if a hike is to occur, it should happen gradually over the next three years and go into effect in 2021. He said business needs predictability and certainty.
He would also like to see any future increases directly tied to the Consumer Price Index.
Dyas said the government should put out a fact sheet explaining how many workers are currently making minimum wage, during times of recession the minimum wage should be frozen and the minister of labour should have the power to freeze the minimum wage at existing levels as the economic situation warrants.
The commission also heard from a representative of the B.C. Federation of Labour about the minimum wage’s effect on indigenous workers.
Shelley Saje Ricci also called for a raise in the minimum wage to $15 per hour, saying it should be done in two steps: moving to $14 per hour in 2018 and to $15 per hour in January 2019.
“The riches of our economic prosperity are not being distributed equally,” said Ricci. “While the rich in our province are getting richer, low-income earners are struggling more than ever.”
She said in the case of indigenous workers, across the country they earn an average of 25 per cent less than their non-indigenous counterparts.
Farm workers were also discussed as they are one of several groups of workers in B.C. to whom the minimum wage rules do not apply.
Mettler and Saje Ricci both said there should be just one minimum wage for all workers, with no exemptions.
But local cherry farmer Sukhpaul Bal said in many cases, farm workers can make more money doing piece-work than they can if they were paid the minimum wage.
He said in the case of temporary foreign farm workers, other financial benefits are also included such as housing and flights to and from Canada, which are supposed to be covered by the farms that employ the workers.
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