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November-December 2010

New Westminster, B.C., leads the way with Canada’s first living wage bylaw

Adam Lemieux

cardboard sign reading Will Work for Living Wage

The fight against poverty in Canada recently added a new weapon to its arsenal: the living wage bylaw. While only one Canadian city, New Westminster, B.C., currently implements the practice, the push is on to make it the norm.

Living wage bylaws require that workers employed directly or indirectly by a municipal government be paid a wage that enables them to comfortably meet their basic needs. The current movement has existed in the United States for about 15 years, resulting in over 140 living-wage ordinances, but it only gained a foothold in Canada on April 26, when New Westminster city councillors unanimously passed a motion mandating that anyone working on city property receive at least $18.17 per hour. This market-based rate is meant to reflect the actual income required for working families to pay for necessities, support the healthy development of their children, and participate in social and civic life.

Living wage proponents are confident that the victory in New Westminster will spur or embolden similar movements across the country. In Ottawa, street demonstrations and presentations to municipal councillors and staff led to the living wage being included within the city’s Poverty Reduction Strategy, which city council endorsed last February. This December council will make their final decision when they decide whether to commit financial resources to the plan. Initiatives are also underway in places such as Victoria and Surrey, British Columbia, and Kingston, Ontario.

Many anti-poverty activists believe that living wages are the key to addressing the plight of Canada’s “working poor.” While provincial minimum-wage rates vary, the lowest paid workers in Canada now earn an average of 20 percent less in real dollars than in the 1970s. Meanwhile, the cost of living has steadily climbed. As a consequence, even full-time employment is not enough to keep some Canadians out of poverty.

The New Westminster proposal was promoted by a diverse amalgamation of groups, including the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Hospital Employees’ Union, and First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition. A similar coalition in Ottawa is looking to build upon this example. In September, ACORN Canada brought in speakers from New Westminster to help educate the people of Ottawa on how higher wages can benefit workers and the economy without burdening taxpayers.

Of course, the living wage does have its opponents. Free-market thinkers have criticized the policy as a bureaucratic intrusion that reduces profits and flexibility, and in 2009, they helped ward off what had been a promising campaign in Calgary.

However, with the evidence on their side, a growing number of Canadians are working hard to make living wages the law. Now that the breakthrough has been made in New Westminster, they might soon be able to concentrate on their real jobs.

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