Under the former Liberal government, a campaign to see B.C.’s minimum wage rise to $15 an hour looked like a pipe dream.
“The Liberals would have gotten there in 2032,” B.C. Federation of Labour president Irene Lanzinger told the Straight. “That was our calculation based on inflation.”
Then, in July, the NDP came to power after promising $15 by 2021. But on August 31, the party announced it had scrapped the 2021 deadline and instead was appointing a Fair Wages Commission to study the issue and make recommendations on the best path to $15.
Asked where the campaign stands today, Lanzinger told the Straight that she looks at the NDP’s break from its election promise as a blessing in disguise.
“The government has still committed to it; the question is when,” she explained. “We think we have very good evidence that it should be sooner than 2021. And that’s the argument that we’ll be making.”
Lanzinger noted that a $15-an-hour minimum wage isn’t the moon shot it once was. Alberta has plans to get there by the end of October 2018, and Ontario has proposed a deadline of January 2019. As of September 15, when B.C.’s lowest-income earners received a 50-cent raise that was previously scheduled by the Liberals, the minimum wage stands at $11.35.
David Green is a professor with UBC’s Vancouver School of Economics who in 2015 authored a report that concludes a “bold” increase to B.C.’s minimum wage is in the province’s best interest. In a telephone interview, he argued that $15 makes sense for B.C. because it would position people just above the poverty line.
According to Statistics Canada calculations for 2014 (the most recent data available), the poverty line for a metropolitan area stands at a before-tax income of $24,328. If a B.C. resident is paid $15 an hour for 35 hours a week 52 weeks of the year, they’ll earn $27,300 before taxes.
So although $15 might sound like an arbitrary number, Green maintained that it is actually an appropriate minimum, if somewhat by coincidence. But, he emphasized, the trick is for $15 to still be worth $15 when B.C.’s lowest-income earners actually get there.
“If you wait 10 years and inflation erodes it, then a person may get $15 but they’ll still be working full-year, full-time and fall below the poverty line,” he explained. “On the other hand, you don’t want to do it in too much of a rush because it is a pretty major adjustment for businesses.”
“The right way to do that is to say, it’s going to be $15 in real terms, and we’ll inflation-adjust it year after year, but we’ll do it over, let’s say three years.”
Green said he hopes the NDP’s commission will bring that sort of nuance to minimum-wage policy and arrive at recommendations that go beyond a simple increase based on a slogan.
The B.C. Ministry of Labour expects to name the commission members in “the next few weeks”. A spokesperson told the Straight that from there, it’s “feasible” it could report back before the end of 2017.
Lanzinger said B.C. Federation of Labour will be keeping the pressure on.
“If we don’t start that soon, we’ll get to $15 but people will be earning $15 and still living in poverty,” she said. “So we’ve got to hurry up. That’s key.”