When the provincial government implemented a 20-cent increase to the minimum wage last September, it knew the new rate of $10.45 would keep B.C.’s lowest earners near or at the very bottom of the country.
Civil servants sent emails alerting colleagues to this situation, documents obtained via a freedom-of-information request reveal.
And yet no action was taken to revise the increase to a point where B.C.’s minimum wage would rank higher than among the lowest in Canada.
That’s despite Premier Christy Clark and Jobs Minister Shirley Bond both having claimed that the September increase would raise B.C.’s minimum wage out of the gutter.
“Raising the minimum wage allows B.C. to keep pace with minimum wages in the rest of Canada,” Bond said in March 2015. Clark had previously made similar statements. “We’re not going to be number one in the country by any stretch,” she said in 2011. “But we’re going to be catching up. We won’t be at the bottom anymore.”
Those comments were made in good faith, the documents make clear. But the emails obtained by the Straight also reveal a clear timeline for when the government made a mistake, became aware of its error, and then failed to correct it or reveal to the public that the premier and the minister’s words were no longer the truth.
In March 2015, the government announced a 20-cent increase based on a confidential cabinet submission that states 20 cents was sufficient to raise B.C.’s minimum to the middle of the pack. In June, it learned that 20 cents was not enough to accomplish Clark’s stated goal. Then, in September, it went ahead with the increase as planned, knowing it would not lift B.C.’s rank from below the other provinces.
“We are tenth currently,” wrote Jake Ayers, a senior policy adviser with the B.C. Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training, on June 29, 2015. “But when Alberta and NFLD increase in Oct, we will be 12th – except for the fact Sask will also very likely increase past us in Oct – so we will probably be 13th – i.e., last.”
Another bureaucrat, Trevor Hughes, said the same. He sent an email recounting how the B.C. Federation of Labour had warned him B.C.’s minimum wage would rank tenth out of Canada’s 13 provinces and territories. “And I quietly thought we were lower,” Hughes added.
Ayers’s predictions came true.
Last October, five provinces raised their minimum wages, resulting in B.C. falling to second-to-last place. Then, in December, New Brunswick announced it would increase its minimum wage to $10.65, dropping B.C.’s to dead last.
Ayers accepted responsibility for the matter in an email sent one week after his warning. “I’ll take the blame for only just discovering this now,” he wrote on July 6.
An email sent directly to Ayers was confirmed received; the ministry refused to grant an interview.
By phone, B.C. Federation of Labour president Irene Lanzinger described the provincial government’s failure to correct the premier and minister’s earlier statements as “outrageous and unconscionable”.
“Between the initial announcement and implementation, they figured it out,” Lanzinger said. “And they went ahead with the implementation and didn’t change it.”
Opponents of a higher minimum wage often claim it’s an issue that’s largely confined to young people on their way to higher-paying jobs. According to a government analysis obtained via another freedom-of-information request, in 2013 there were 120,400 British Columbians earning the minimum wage. Of those, 47 percent, or 56,100, were aged 25 or older.
Lanzinger noted that B.C. and just about every other jurisdiction in Canada have pegged their minimum wage to the consumer price index or another indicator similar to inflation. She explained that this means each wage will rise annually at roughly the same rate, thus keeping B.C. at the very bottom.
“It is a feature of good government to correct mistakes,” Lanzinger said. “When they discovered that it was going to leave us at the bottom, they should have corrected that mistake.”