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Will 'Living Wage' Prove a Winner this Election?

New West councillor faces opposition for pioneering 'moral' policy as other BC candidates weigh pros and cons.

By Katie Hyslop 7 Nov 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop reports for The Tyee and others on politics, education and other issues. Read her Tyee stories here.

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Living wage champion New Westminster councillor Jaimie McEvoy says overall reaction has been positive.

[Editor's note: This is the first of a number of profiles of municipal candidates running on hot-button issues around the province, a series published on The Tyee between now and election day, November 19.]

When Premier Christy Clark announced an incremental increase of the province's minimum wage to $10.25 this spring, the general consensus in the province was it was long overdue. Too long, for many anti-poverty activists who say the hourly wage isn't enough to live on, particularly in the expensive urban areas of Metro Vancouver.

Several B.C. municipalities have taken note of this wage shortage, and as part of the municipal election lead-up, many candidates are floating the idea of introducing a living wage -- a pay system that calculates the cost of living in a region and determines how much you need to earn in order to live there.

But the system has its critics, who argue the wages are too expensive, and that it only benefits the unions, not the employers or the taxpaying citizens.

Here at The Tyee, we decided to profile three cities in the Lower Mainland dealing with the living wage this election: two interested in introducing it in their region, and the one that started it all, New Westminster, where at least one candidate wants to roll these wages back.

What's in a living wage?

The living wage is an hourly wage based on the cost of living in a municipality. These costs include rent, clothing, food, healthcare, transportation, and other incidental expenses, but not debt payments, owning a home, retirement or education savings, or holiday travel. It's enough to live on, but not a cushy salary by any means.

A Living Wage for Families, a B.C.-based campaign to introduce a living wage in cities and local businesses in the province, has calculated the living wage for Metro Vancouver to be $18.81 an hour for a family with two working parents. Michael McCarthy Flynn, campaign organizer, says that doesn't mean the hourly wage needs to be $18.81, but a combination of salary and benefits should reach that number.

"(For example) if we had a childcare policy, like a lot of childcare advocates are asking for a $10 a day, it would reduce the living wage by about $4 or $5," he told The Tyee.

Critics say a living wage for the entire Metro region makes no sense, as the cost of living in Surrey is much different from that of Maple Ridge. But McCarthy Flynn says because the region has such a fluid workforce -- 20 to 30 per cent of the population lives in a different city than they work in -- he says one wage is the only way to go.

"If we did it for just Vancouver, I would guarantee that it would be higher than $18.81," he says.

People should be able to live in dignity: Whalen

De Whalen has been advocating for a living wage, as well as other anti-poverty initiatives, in Richmond as a member of several committees, since 2007. She's taking a different tactic now by throwing her hat into the political ring this election to run for city council with a living wage agenda.

"Richmond has one of the highest costs of living in all of Canada. The housing costs are very high; we have the second highest child poverty level in all of Canada," says Whalen, adding that one-in-five Richmond residents live below the poverty line.

"If the city acted as a good corporate citizen, as a good employer and brought the living wage in for their contracted services, that would be a good signal for other large employers like (the Vancouver International Airport) and Richmond Hospital to do the same."

She's already approached three current councillors, who she says have supported the move. The public has been harder to convince.

"Frankly, they find it a difficult concept because first of all people think it's like the minimum wage and what can city council do about the minimum wage, because that's a provincial jurisdiction. But the other thing is that it's called wage, when it is a wage and benefits and entitlements all rolled into one," she told The Tyee.

"But when people understand what it means and they know how expensive it is to live in Richmond, I get really good responses from people saying 'that's the minimum that people should be able to live in dignity in the city that they wish to.'"

If elected, Whalen wants to follow the model of New Westminster, the first municipality in Canada to adopt a living wage, where city staff investigates the wage and it's effect on the city.

"It's not something that happens immediately," she says.

Getting into the business of living wage

When asked why he supports looking into a living wage for North Vancouver, the thoughts of Craig Keating, a trustee incumbent, turn to the man that cleans his carpets.

"I keep telling the story of the guy who's got a business cleaning my carpets, and he just couldn't find enough people to stay in his business, even though he's paying them a very good rate, that they could reliably continue to work for him," he says.

"I think, depending on where you sit in the community -- business, employee, etcetera -- there's all sorts of good reasons why we would want to make our society more whole through giving people the necessary income support so that they can stay and live there."

Keating won't go so far as to say that he supports the living wage in North Van, rather he supports city staff looking into the idea. On Sept. 19, Keating presented a motion directing staff to do just that, which was passed unanimously by council.

"What I really want to initiate is a broader discussion about the issues surrounding living wage. The living wage is an important way in which we can ensure that people of various incomes can stay and live successfully in our community, but I think that needs to be a discussion outside the city adopting a policy, where we're only dealing with our own corporate operations and the rates we pay," he says.

"What I'm hoping to get is a broader discussion with non-profits, with business, with elected officials about what we need to do as an entire community to move ahead on these issues."

Who wins with a living wage?

This election marks the first one Jaimie McEvoy will face since spearheading the campaign for the city of New Westminster to become a living wage employer. He says overall, the reaction to the wage has been fairly positive.

"B.C. Business Magazine had three different articles about the living wage after I introduced it, and I was sort of expecting this big, corporate media backlash and it never happened," he told The Tyee.

"One of the reasons it didn't happen with them is because they saw it as a useful tool for economic stability, and also because of labor shortages that are impending as there's going to be massive retirement, there's going to be a lot of competition for any kind of job with any kind of skill, even casual jobs."

But McEvoy doesn't expect this election to be easy for him. At least one candidate is actively running against the living wage, arguing it overrides the province's minimum wage and eradicates fair competition for city contracts.

'Shame!' cries McEvoy's opponent

Former businessman John Ashdown is running his campaign on prudent fiscal spending, including the elimination of the living wage stipulation in city contracts.

"Those unfortunately living in poverty need to be helped by private sector businesses creating jobs through economic growth not the city of New Westminster or unions who have set the bar so high one can't afford to hire them. Unions favouring the fair living wage are holding these potential workers from getting a job. Shame!" he wrote in an email to The Tyee.

"I see no evidence where New Westminster taxpayers benefit by the fair living wage."

In McEvoy's opinion, it's simple morality to support the living wage, and believes a campaign to roll back the wages of some of the poorest people in the district won't be supported.

But to those who fear the city is misspending tax payers' money, McEvoy points out that provincial law requires municipalities to be frugal.

"And part of the living wage movement is that if businesses can't do this, they can't afford it, we still encourage businesses to look at what they can do. Can you provide a bus pass? Can you provide enough hours of work that a person can pay the bills? I really find business people are interested in having that discussion, as long as it's not about attacking them or undermining them," he says.

In a region where housing prices are increasing faster than wages, and childcare spaces are as rare as a sighting of Sasquatch, voters in Metro Vancouver looking for relief could well be turning the tide on the living wage, bringing a wave of income relief to low-income employees across the region.

Tomorrow: A candidate running for civic office makes transparency a hot-button issue.  [Tyee]

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