I’d like to comment on the debate about the proposed increases to the minimum wage and, specifically, recent letters from Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour president Mary Shortall, and Vaughn Hammond, director of provincial affairs, Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
In her Sept. 13 letter, Shortall says labour organizations and their social justice partners have been working hard for minimum wage increases for decades, and that we need to start a conversation about how and when we can get to a real living wage.
The business community will certainly not offer to pay it. Hammond even argues against indexing the minimum wage by the increase in the cost of living. They would rather that you and I pay for any increases. In fact, he states, ideally, the government will use the tax system to put more money in the pockets of low-income workers rather than relying on increases in the minimum wage.
Certain businesses — those that are paying starvation wages — are already getting a free ride from taxpayers and those who donate to help the working poor.
First, why — despite decades of effort — do things appear to be getting worse for the low-wage earner? Perhaps the approach has been flawed. Let’s examine some of Shortall’s suggestions.
The federal Liberals increased the Canada Child Benefit to help lower the cost of living. This was necessary because many employers do not pay a living wage. In effect, taxpayers’ dollars are subsidizing low wages paid by those employers.
Why should the government, as Shortall suggests, provide universal free child care? Subsidized child care is only for those employee parents who are not earning enough to afford child care. By using tax dollars to subsidize child care, we are again enabling some employers to continue paying such low wages that it keeps their employees in poverty. It is or ought to be the responsibility of employers to provide child care on site, or else pay employees enough so that they can afford it.
The federal government has tried before and is attempting again to make income tax more progressive. This plan is being met with furious opposition from well-organized business lobby groups that claim the proposed changes will result in many lost jobs. In reality, they are hiding behind the very employees they just lobbied against getting a raise in minimum wages. Our provincial government is also opposing the proposed changes, knowing full well that business lobby groups contribute funding to both the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties.
Labour organizations have been lobbying the government for pay equity for men and women. Shortall points out that women in the workplace are 40 per cent more likely than men to be minimum wage earners. The same is probably true for those who work at places that pay a little above the minimum wage, such as fast-food restaurants.
The approach of pitting women’s wages against men’s wages is flawed. The focus must be, as Shortall noted, on getting low-paying employers to recognize the hard work of their employees, regardless of gender.
More and more people are visiting food banks and places like the Gathering Place. Many are low-income earners or senior citizens whose employers didn’t value them enough to provide a pension that could keep them from having to spend their last years in poverty. These employers also left that responsibility to the taxpayer. There is also increased use of school breakfast and lunch programs by children from low-income families.
Labour organizations and their social justice partners have to lead a peaceful social revolution in order to move the poverty line. Business lobby groups are powerful and have great influence over governments. The first step is to discredit their arguments by pointing out how we, as taxpayers, are enabling them to continue to pay below living wages by sponsoring government services for the working poor. The term “working poor” is an oxymoron and needs to be eliminated.
Ed Downey writes from Marystown.