Back to school. Last week, my daughter went off to start her final year of elementary school.
I’m not sure where the time has gone. It seems a blink since we dropped her off for her first day of childcare — a day of tears for me and exploration for her. In that regard not much has changed.
Like a good number of parents, last week I was also rushing around to get last-minute school supplies.
Workwise, I have been contemplating all the multitude of reasons the provincial government should consider raising the wage for the province’s lowest paid employees as it undertakes its mandatory review of minimum wage.
And while shopping for school supplies, those reasons became all that much clearer.
Backpack, lunch bag, pencils, exercise books, protractor, erasers, binder, pens, ruler, sharpener, highlighters, markers, coloured pencils. You’d be hard pressed to get the entire list, even with great shopping skills, for under $50.
For a minimum wage worker in our province earning $10 an hour, that is more than a half a day’s pay.
Thousands of people in our province work for minimum wage or just above. A lot of them are trying to raise families.
What we know about minimum wage workers is the majority are women, over the age of 24 and work full-time.
And, yes, some of them work for small businesses, but many work for large companies.
According to a 2010 Statistics Canada study, while three out of 10 minimum wage workers in Canada worked for firms with fewer than 20 employees, four out of 10 worked for companies with more than 500 employees.
Minimum wage earners last got a pay raise two years ago, in July 2010. In those two years the consumer price index (CPI) continued to erode the value of their pay cheques.
Inflation in 2010 in our province averaged 2.4 per cent, with the cost of shelter and energy as the main drivers. In 2011, CPI averaged 3.4 per cent and again housing — up by 5.8 per cent over the previous year — and energy were the main causes. And in the first three months of 2012, consumers were paying 2.7 per cent more for goods and services than they had during the first quarter of 2011.
While the cost to live continues to grow in our province, low-paid workers have seen their wages eroded in that time frame. Average wages for other workers have increased, but low-paid workers are just not keeping pace.
You can imagine how much worse off lower-paid workers would be had the last provincial government not agreed to deal with the plight of hard-working, low-paid Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.
Pre-2005, there was no doubt, Newfoundland and Labrador was a low-wage economy. A full 30 per cent of the people who went to work every day earned $10 an hour or less, and 40 per cent of working women did. We had the highest poverty and the lowest wages in the country.
Things have changed. Wages in our provinces are starting to catch up with national averages. Average weekly earnings are growing, partly because of better wages and partly because Newfoundlanders and Labradorians work more hours per week than any other Canadians, with the exception of Albertans who we are tied with.
Economic prosperity brings with it the challenges of plenty and how we continue to share the wealth generated by our economy. And make no mistake, this province is generating unprecedented wealth.
A survey by the Hay Group notes that on average Canadian employees can expect to see their salaries increase by 2.9 per cent next year. It said resource-rich regions Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador will lead the way. The Hay Group predicts wages in this province will go up by an average of 3.4 per cent next year.
The Hay Group based their projections on salary information from about 500 companies.
What this means is unless the provincial government does something to protect lower-paid workers, they will continue to fall behind.
During the last round of increases to the minimum wage, increases that were long overdue and have proved to at least narrow income inequality, the provincial government agreed with advocates to do so based on a number of compelling reasons.
Two years ago, the provincial government said this of their decision to hike the minimum wage to $10 an hour: “This increase is another way the government is improving the quality of life of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians and making our province more competitive with respect to attracting talent.”
The government noted that increasing the minimum wage was important to helping families achieve self-reliance and contributes to a stronger provincial economy.
These reasons are just as valid today as they were two years ago.
Perhaps the most compelling reason is even simpler: low-paid workers deserve a pay raise.
Lana Payne is president of the
Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.
Her column returns Sept. 22.