Pay employees living wages, not poverty wages

To think there was a chance Manitobans would have to suffer through December without liquor. The inhumanity! Unsurprisingly, the provincial government was able to reach a tentative agreement with Liquor and Lotteries employees at the eleventh hour. After all, steady growth and good jobs do not a balanced budget make. Facing the prospect of Liquor Marts shuttered during the busiest time of the year, the province managed to avert a serious sobriety crisis.

Some were no doubt furious at the notion of a booze-less Christmas. And all thanks to those greedy cashiers! Did’t the government just raise the minimum wage? How hard is it to stand at a cash register all day?

WHO DO THEY THINK THEY ARE?

In short, they are people working in one of the most thankless sectors of our service-based economy. They are the servers. Along with the retail associates and food-service employees, they are the ones who provide the vast middling class with the fleeting feeling of being one rung up North America’s post-classist social ladder. They are often exploited, rarely appreciated and chronically underpaid. Yes, underpaid.

Notwithstanding the fact Liquor and Lotteries employees are unionized, the overwhelming majority of workers in the retail and hospitality sectors are not. Indeed, while one in three Canadian employees belonged to a union or were covered by a collective agreement in 2012, only 16% were from the private sector. (The public sector by contrast had a rate of unionization four times that, at over 71%.) Furthermore, the rate of unionization differs substantially by age: for those aged 15 to 24, more frequently found working in these sectors, only 16% belonged to unions; whereas for those between 55 to 64, over 38% did so.

Even now, unions matter. And nowhere are they needed more than in the retail and hospitality sectors, which have thus far managed to evade labour organizers. The result: many in these sectors continue to make minimum wage, have no supplementary health insurance and have little recourse in the case of a dispute with management. On top of all that, they have to suffer the indignity of serving an ungrateful public who too often indulge in sadist tendencies at the table or till.

IF THEY DON’T LIKE IT, WHY DON’T THEY FIND ANOTHER JOB?

Right, leaving who exactly to staff the kitchens, wash the dishes, bus the tables, take the orders, stock the shelves, work the tills? Temporary foreign workers? Not quite: when Statistics Canada reports on employment numbers and cites growth in part-time work, these are the jobs they are reporting on. In these sectors. This type of work. Restaurants and retail. The thankless service and hospitality sectors.

The minimum wage is simply too low for those working in these sectors, or for anyone. And it is morally reprehensible that so many employers continue to cling to it simply because they are obliged to do so by law. Earlier this year, the minimum wage was increased to $10.70 per hour in Manitoba. Predictably, there were howls of outrage from the same corners that have protested every legislated wage increase. Just how little would those who have opposed wage rate increases pay people if they were not compelled by any law to pay a certain amount? Compelled or not, employers should be paying employees living wages, not poverty wages.

BUT AREN’T THESE RETAIL KIDS STILL LIVING WITH THEIR PARENTS?

Contrary to the persistent myth about those working in the retail and hospitality sectors, most are not kids looking for a little extra cash; the majority are working full time, even if it means at two or more part-time jobs, trying to scrape enough together to support themselves and their families. These jobs are no longer “stepping stones” or “casual labour.” These are careers. So, enough with focusing on the type of work or the skills required to do these jobs; surely everyone, no matter their vocation, should be able to earn enough money to provide themselves and their families with a basic level of economic security, not keep them in poverty.

And poverty is a very real issue for so many working in these sectors. Indeed, poverty is a very real issue for Canada, Manitoba in particular. As has been reported by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the rate of poverty in Canada is among the highest of the world’s wealthiest industrialized nations. Nicely done, Canada. Poverty is a particularly serious issue in Manitoba: 11.5% of Manitobans lived in low income in 2011, up from 9.6% in 2007. Worse, along with British Columbia in 2011, Manitoba had the worst rate of child poverty in Canada at 11.3%.

Lest there be any misconception about who is living in poverty, it is not just “the homeless.” The working poor comprise a significant percentage of those living in or near poverty. People in minimum wage jobs. Because someone working 40 hours per week earning minimum wage cannot earn enough money to support themselves and their family.

UGH, HOW MUCH MORE DO WE HAVE TO PAY THEM?

People earning minimum wage would need at a minimum an additional $3.37 per hour more in Winnipeg, $2.71 per hour more in Brandon, or $2.76 per hour more in Thompson.

Those are the amounts above the current legislated minimum hourly wage that the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) has determined is needed for a “family of four with two parents working full-time to pay for the necessities, support the healthy development of their children, escape financial stress, and participate in the social, civic and cultural lives of their communities.” In Winnipeg, that would mean a wage of $14.07 per hour.

To be clear, per the CCPA’s own study, “the living wage is calculated as the hourly rate at which a household can meet its basic needs, once government transfers have been added to the family’s income (such as the Universal Child Care Benefit) and deductions have been subtracted (such as income taxes and Employment Insurance premiums) … A living wage is not the same as the minimum wage, the latter being the legal minimum all employers must pay. The living wage sets a higher standard — it reflects what earners in a family need to bring home, based on the actual costs of living in a specific community.”

With the holidays fast approaching, stores and restaurants swelled with consumers and diners, consider for a moment those people stocking the shelves and working the registers, the cooks and dishwashers and servers: these are people with families, with rents and mortgages, with bills and taxes. Isn’t it time their employers be held to a higher standard so they too may be able to participate fully in society without economic stress, even if it means a higher price for your pant-and-sweater set, your Big Mac or your bottle of wine? Happy holidays, indeed.


CCPA Manitoba’s full report — A Family Living Wage for Manitoba: 2013 Update — is available through their website.

***

Originally published on Spectator Tribune.

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