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Anger over Minister's 'Backtrack' on Minimum Wage Raise

After hinting $8 rate might rise, Coell clams up. One business group leader wants no minimum at all.

By Andrew MacLeod 1 Oct 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. You can reach him here.

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Labour Minister Murray Coell: 'Running out of levers.'

On the question of raising the minimum wage, the British Columbia Liberal government is caught between an opposition campaign to increase it and supporters who would just as soon have no minimum wage at all.

For a brief period this week, it appeared the government was ready to raise the pay for the province's lowest paid workers from $8 an hour, where it has been since 2001.

Labour Minister Murray Coell told a forum at the Union of British Columbia Municipalities convention in Whistler Wednesday that it might soon be time to raise it, something the NDP has pushed for and organized labour has campaigned for.

The province has tried to eliminate provincial income tax for minimum wage earners, help low-income earners with their rent and not charge medical service premiums to people who earn less than $10 an hour, Black Press reporter Tom Fletcher recorded Coell saying.

"Those were all levers that we could pull to put more money back in people's pockets other than raising the minimum wage," he said. "But we are getting close to, I would say, running out of levers that we can use, so it's something we're definitely going to have a look at in the future."

Coell's backtracking

By Thursday morning, Coell sounded much less definite, leading to headlines saying he had "backtracked."

"We're continually looking for ways to put money back into people's pockets, and we'll continue to do that," he said. Asked if that means raising the minimum wage, he said, "There's no decision made on that."

It's something the government would consider in the future, he said, adding that he doesn't believe it would kill jobs.

NDP labour critic Raj Chouhan said Coell is creating uncertainty for people in need. "He has been playing with the emotions of people," he said. "Yesterday he said he might do it, today he's slamming the door shut."

Chouhan said the NDP wants the minimum wage raised to $10 immediately.

The government should be ashamed of how they've treated workers on the minimum wage, he said, adding that "the future" is a very vague timeline. "What kind of future are we talking about? Is it tomorrow? In two years? Or after the next election?"

Chouhan speculated on what may have happened: "He was making a statement yesterday, but somebody, you know, slammed him."

Some 300,000 people in B.C. earn less than $10 an hour, said B.C. Federation of Labour President Jim Sinclair. "For these people yesterday there was a glimmer of hope after years and years of falling from the highest minimum wage to the lowest. Today that was slammed shut again. It's very clear he misspoke himself, that the government is not interested in raising the minimum wage."

B.C. has the highest child poverty rates in Canada and the lowest minimum wage, said Sinclair. The two facts are connected, he said.

"This was an insult to the people of British Columbia," he said. "What we heard today was basically the same line, which is basically, 'It's frozen until further notice.'"

Eliminate minimum: business leader

Earlier in the day, NDP Leader Carole James had reaffirmed in her speech to the UBCM the NDP's commitment to raising the minimum wage, a position the UBCM itself has officially shared since 2007.

After her speech, Brian Bonney, the director of provincial affairs in B.C. for the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses attacked the idea.

"We live in very volatile economic times and an increase in the minimum wage would just cause us small businesses in British Columbia to lay workers off and cause them to give other workers less hours," he told reporters.

Asked about Coell's comments, Bonney said the message is the same for both the government and the opposition: the timing is wrong.

But as it turns out, Bonney said he'd support eliminating the minimum wage altogether.

"Honestly market conditions have proven to work very well for us," he told The Tyee following the scrum. "We have a situation where we have the highest average wage in British Columbia than anywhere else in the country. That's because we have been focussing on the economy rather than on minimum wage."

Told of Bonney's position, BCFED's Sinclair said, "I think that's actually the Liberals' position for the last 10 years. When you freeze it for 10 years you're really saying it doesn't exist.

"He's in line with a certain free-market view of the world that says basically there should be no rules. They want to turn back the clock 100 years and no civilized country doesn't have a minimum wage these days."

Jaimie McEvoy, a New Westminster city councillor who gave a presentation at the UBCM convention this week on his council's decision to pay city workers a living wage of around $17 an hour, said, "The market used to look after minimum wages when we had slavery and serfdom."  [Tyee]

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