Pay a living wage


On the face of it, the jobs report for our region looks pretty good. Unemployment is down two points from this time last year (an additional 3,200 jobs compared to August) and more people are optimistic enough to be looking for work.

It’s when you drill down that the cracks in the economy appear. All of the new jobs are in the service sector (food, accommodation, tourism). They are precarious: low wage, part-time, short-term or seasonal, or all of the above.

Agriculture gained 1,400 jobs - probably related to the harvest, so these too would be precarious. Manufacturing lost 1,100. Utilities (hydro, solar, wind and nuclear) lost 500 jobs, which is worrying because Ontario was supposed to be using its so-called Green Energy Plan to create jobs making wind turbines and solar panels.

These are not encouraging stats, especially when you consider that for StatsCan our region includes Huron and Perth Counties; both agricultural centres and both closer to major highways to Toronto and the U.S. We’re left wondering how much of the gains (or the losses) are tallied here in Grey-Bruce.

It’s cold comfort to know that we are part of the national trend to precarious service jobs and away from good-paying manufacturing jobs. The good news of 67,000 more jobs nation-wide must be taken with a grain of salt - most of those are positions that pay poorly.

Gemma Mendez-Smith, executive director of the Four County Labour Market Planning Board takes the jobs report with just the right amount of salt. She says that if employers are offering only low wage, entry-level jobs, but want people to stick around then they may have to pay a living wage, not the minimum wage. The idea of getting paid enough to live on is not new. It dates back at least to the time we figured out that the workhouse and debtor’s prison were bad social and economic policies.

Too bad the federal government has just ruled out hiking the wages of poorly paid employees in federal jurisdictions. Over 800,000 people work in sectors that fall under the Canada Labour Code, which include some of the poorest paid: bank tellers, marine & dock workers, radio & TV employees, those working on First Nations, feed & seed mill workers, telephone operators and more.

Excluding a living wage leaves governments at all levels (including municipal) with fewer policy tools to raise income. There’s no reason why the private sector shouldn’t be encouraged to play and pay fair. In fact, work by Peace and Justice Grey Bruce tells us that if the big box stores (never mind fast food franchises) paid their employees a living wage it would inject some $22 million into our local economy. Not paying a living wage only makes it harder for a lot of our neighbours to make ends meet and cuts them out of the social and economic life of our communities.

On a national scale, the failure of companies to pay fair is perhaps the major driver of inequality which research shows brings its own set of social and health problems which, as you can probably guess, are paid for out of the public purse. Not paying a living wage is essentially a taxpayer subsidy for employers, be they government or private.

No one wants a hand-out. But everyone wants and deserves to be paid fair and square for their labour.

David McLaren,