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Letter: Local independent businesses and the minimum wage

Like many others, I realize that small, local businesses make a valuable contribution to our community, and I know that most owners work hard, long hours to ensure the success of their businesses. And certainly the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) encourages us to support these businesses, with promotions like Small Business Week and Small Business Saturday. By doing so, it argues, we will keep money in our community.

That is why my family makes a point of using local businesses: for over 30 years (until the business closed) we used an independent pharmacy; when we need electronics, we use an independent business (we have never set foot inside Best Buy), and when we eat out, we invariably prefer a locally owned restaurant to a national or international chain. So while we do not shop exclusively at local businesses, I feel our use of these businesses is such as to give us a fair bit of credibility as consumers who make use of local, independent businesses.
But over the last few years I have been wondering whether we should continue to support local businesses as much as we have, since the provincial wing of the CFIB, the body that represents independent businesses in this province, usually takes positions that I do not consider to be in the best interests of the community as a whole. Leaving aside the federation’s relentless calls for cutting government spending, lowering taxes and its attacks on public-sector pensions, its stand on the minimum wage is self-serving and regressive.
Recently the provincial government announced that the minimum wage would increase to $10.75 in April and $11 in October 2017. Predictably, the CFIB immediately came out against the increase. It argued that the economy is fragile, and so now is not the right time to raise the minimum wage. The Telegram reported on Nov. 26 that the federation “has consistently asked the government … to leave the minimum wage alone.”
It is clear, as far as the CFIB is concerned, that it is never the right time to raise the minimum wage. When the provincial economy was doing very well (and the cost of living was going up significantly), before the collapse of oil prices, the “business barometer” surveys that the CFIB produced during those good economic years showed that independent business owners in this province were confident about the state of their business, much more so than the national average. Even then, the CFIB’s position was still against raising the minimum wage. (In fact, the federation claims that raising the minimum wage will actually hurt workers who would benefit from the increase. Another argument often heard is that most minimum wage workers are youth who do not have to worry about supporting themselves with the money they earn. Years ago similar arguments were made as an excuse to pay women less than men, since the money they earned was really just “pin money” to buy so-called extras). 
The CFIB itself has noted that Statistics Canada figures for 2014 indicated that only 5.9 per cent of the provincial labour force earned the minimum wage and that the average wage for 15 to 24-year-olds in the province was already over $15/hour. So there must be some local independent businesses that are paying more than the minimum wage. And if they are willing to pay more than the minimum wage, maybe some of them should consider speaking up when the organization that speaks for all of them comes out against an increase to the minimum wage.
So when I go into a store that displays the logo of the CFIB on the door or window, I begin to wonder whether the owner agrees with the position that their organization is taking, and what level of remuneration they think would be appropriate for their employees. And if possible, why not shop at a retailer whose employees are unionized and therefore more likely to earn above the minimum wage? If local independent businesses wish to encourage us to give them our business, they should be prepared to give back to their employees in the form of at least the minimum wage. They may even notice an increase in their business.

Michael Lonardo
St. John’s 

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