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BC Shuts Down Its Fair Wage Watchdog

Green MLA Adam Olsen says the government is dodging accountability on a critical issue.

Zak Vescera 21 Aug 2023The Tyee

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

The B.C. government is shutting down a commission it created to improve pay for the province’s lowest-paid workers, despite the objections of labour leaders and the commission’s own members.

Last week the provincial Labour Ministry quietly published the final report from the Fair Wages Commission, which examined the gap between the minimum wage and the “living wage” needed to cover basic costs for families.

The report’s biggest recommendation was that the commission should become a permanent, independent body to study and advise government ministries on how to address the prevalence of low-wage work.

But the Labour Ministry rejected the call, saying in an unattributed statement Thursday that it “is not considering making the commission a permanent entity at this time.”

Green Party MLA Adam Olsen said the decision shows the government isn’t interested in accountability on the critical issue.

“What the Fair Wages Commission was supposed to do was to remove the politics and give government the facts on how to make life more affordable,” he said.

The NDP government established the Fair Wages Commission in 2017 as part of a deal it made with the provincial Green Party to win support to form government.

The commission was given three tasks: charting a path to increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, as the NDP had promised; making recommendations around workers who don’t get the minimum wage, such as some farm workers; and advising government on narrowing the large gap between the minimum wage and the salary people need to live in B.C.

But some groups, including the BC Federation of Labour, argued the commission should become a permanent fixture to study and advise on the prevalence of low-wage work and advise government on how to make life more affordable.

Commissioner Danielle van Jaarsveld agreed. “When you’re thinking about the living wage, it’s related to a lot of different policy questions,” van Jaarsveld said, naming the cost of housing, transportation and the prevalence of gig and contracted work as examples.

“I think the pandemic really highlighted cost of living pressures for various parts of the workforce,” said van Jaarsveld, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.

“And I think having a permanent commission in place allows us to not only ask difficult questions, but also think carefully about what types of policies can help support low-wage earners and address some of the questions that the future of work is presenting to governments.”

The concept of a living wage, van Jaarsveld said, arguably goes back to ancient Greece, where Plato and Aristotle argued households must be self-sustaining.

In B.C., the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has calculated and published data on the living wage since 2008. The centre bases that wage on what two working people with two children would need to make to afford housing, food, transportation, child care and other basic expenses.

In 2022, it calculated living wage for Metro Vancouver was $24.08 an hour — a record, and more than 40 per cent above the current minimum wage of $16.75.

Anastasia French, the manager of Living Wages for BC, said that reflects the mounting cost of living and especially the cost of housing, which has grown even faster.

French had long awaited the publication of the commission’s third report, which has been in the works since 2018.

Van Jaarsveld said it was repeatedly delayed, first by the COVID-19 pandemic and then by high inflation rates that dramatically changed the living wage.

French said she understands those delays but wishes the report had come out earlier.

“It feels like a bit of a missed opportunity to develop plans, to figure out what we’re actually going to do to help low-wage workers make ends meet,” French said.

Iglika Ivanova, a senior economist with the CCPA, said the commission’s report does an excellent job of examining the concept of a living wage.

But she says she wishes it also included stronger recommendations about reducing the gap between the living wage and the minimum wage, either by suggesting the minimum wage be hiked or proposing specific measures to reduce costs.

The commission’s first recommendation was to make itself a permanent body. Its second was to eliminate exemptions for certain workers who do not receive the minimum wage, like farm workers who are paid a “piece-rate.” Its third recommendation was to continue reviewing funding for a government oversight group that enforces provincial employment rules.

Sussanne Skidmore, BC Federation of Labour president, said in a statement that the federation had supported making the commission permanent “because the more voices within government calling for fairer wages for B.C.’s lowest-paid workers, the better.”

“B.C. was already an expensive place to live, and the past two years of profit-driven inflation has made it that much harder for workers to make ends meet. So the need to close the gap between the minimum wage and the living wage has never been more important,” Skidmore said.

“I was hoping for some recommendations that would actually reduce the gap,” Ivanova said. “They very clearly show that low-wage work is a problem.”

The report found, for example, that a disproportionate amount of minimum-wage work is concentrated in specific industries like housekeeping and retail work. It noted that women and Indigenous workers are overrepresented in low-wage work.

And it noted that low-wage work is an issue far beyond urban centres like Metro Vancouver and Greater Victoria. The village of Daajing Giids in Haida Gwaii, for example, reported a gap of more than $10 between the hourly minimum wage and the living wage in 2022, according to the CCPA’s analysis.

The report was published on Aug. 10 without any media advisory or announcement and is only accessible by a link on a subsection of the Labour Ministry’s website.

French, Ivanova and other stakeholders who contributed to the report were not told about its publication and only became aware after The Tyee contacted them for an interview.

“I’m surprised. We’ve been waiting for it,” French said. “They should have known that at some point, someone would have noticed.”

Olsen argued government had published the report discretely because it “erodes the rosy picture the NDP wants to tell about the economy.”

Olsen said some of his constituents in his riding of Saanich North and the Islands have told him they are paying as much as 60 per cent of their annual income on rent alone, something he says is “creating a fundamental fragility in our communities.”

Van Jaarsveld said the mounting cost of living in British Columbia underscored the need for a permanent commission.

“We already see people leaving the province, right? That’s a cost for employers. That’s a cost for communities. That’s a cost for the province,” van Jaarsveld said. “I see it as a great responsibility for the government but also for employers to think about how to get this right.”  [Tyee]

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