'Living Wage' Cities in Canada May Double, to Two

Esquimalt councilor says assuring adequate local government pay rates is a winner.

By Andrew MacLeod 30 Sep 2010 |

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

The Township of Esquimalt may become the second local government in Canada to adopt a living wage policy, where people doing work for the local government are paid enough to survive and thrive in the community.

While the topic makes some local politicians nervous, others say it's a winner in their communities and it deserves to become a trend.

The matter is still before Esquimalt council, but councilor Bruce McIldon told a Union of British Columbia Municipalities meeting that he was confident it will pass. "We will be the second community to come onside in Canada. It's a very positive thing."

While some councilors in the Victoria-area municipality have been nervous about endorsing it, he said, young people and blue collar workers understand and like the idea of paying enough to cover the basic necessities including groceries, transportation, shelter, childcare and education.

The motion in Esquimalt builds on the work of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which is encouraging local governments to become living wage employers, and follows a similar move in New Westminster. There is also a union-funded Make a Livin' campaign underway.

The CCPA calculates that a living wage is $18.17 an hour in Vancouver and $17.30 in Victoria. It also has published a resource book to help other municipalities figure out what a living wage is in their communities.

Of the 1,500 delegates at the UBCM conference, around 30 attended the breakfast time session.

New West leading the way

New Westminster councilor Jaime McEvoy acknowledged the issue can be a scary one for local governments.

He said he has been accused of the contradictory crimes of both bankrupting the city and not actually helping anyone. They've also been accused of driving up wages in the city, he said.

"Governments have never been neutral on salaries," he said. The wages they pay have always affected the labour market, he said. They pay their executives well, he noted, and always look carefully at the salaries for councilors and mayors.

"It's only for the group of people at the bottom that we don't worry about what they're making or how they're doing," he said.

And when it's explained as being a way to address child poverty, which is associated with problems such as poor performance in school and various health risks, it finds wider acceptance, he said. While people might argue about minimum wage and increasing welfare payments, when it comes to children, "It's never the kid's fault."

In New Westminster the living wage applies to people working directly for the city, as well as contractors who spend a significant amount of time on city property. Most city employees were already paid decently, so bringing everyone up to a living wage cost just $20,000 more a year, he said. Helping contractors, and it turned out there were 60 or 70 of them doing everything from maintaining street lights to shredding paper, meet the wage requirement required another $150,000 in increased payments.

Cities often give business to the lowest bidder, he said. "Then you're part of the problem and we were part of the problem, to be honest."

The move found broad community support, but it took a long time to get people used to the idea, he said. "It was really a nine month process of introducing the idea and getting to the point where we were ready to move forward."

'Make it an issue'

While many of the attendees at the session voiced support for the idea, they said they would find it difficult to convince their colleagues and communities. As one put it, "This is a tough sell for a lot of people here."

McEvoy said that while it's a touchy issue, it's been one the municipality has been able to lead on. "It's a winning issue," he said. "It's very popular with people on the street."

The CCPA's B.C. director, Seth Klein, said it is true that there will be resistance in many communities. "It's not for no reason that there's [only] one municipality in Canada that's become a living wage employer."

But in New Westminster's case the response has turned out to be positive, he said, with even the corporate press saying nice things about it. Now, besides Esquimalt, groups or councils in Abbotsford, Parksville and Williams Lake are looking at adopting a living wage policy.

Politicians are in a position to build support for it, he added. "I'm a policy guy, not a political strategist, but allow me this: Make it an issue a year from November."  [Tyee]

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