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Minimum wage should not be poverty wage

Thursday, October 1, 2020

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As published in the Winnipeg Free Press, October 1, 2020. 

THE COVID-19 pandemic has shown how we all rely on workers whose wages are too low to pay the bills, even with full-time work. These workers deserve our thanks, but they also deserve to be paid enough to make ends meet. Having a job and working full time should be a path out of poverty, not a poverty trap.

But Manitoba’s minimum wage is one of the lowest in the country, meaning the working families relying on minimum-wage jobs are falling behind families in almost every other part of Canada. They deserve better from their government.

The evidence is clear that growing numbers of minimum-wage workers are adults. Nearly one in three minimum-wage workers has a post-secondary degree. The majority of minimum-wage earners are women, so keeping Manitoba’s minimum wage at poverty-wage levels means more working women are forced to live in poverty. It also contributes to Manitoba’s child poverty problem.

And despite the commonly held notion that most minimum-wage earners are teenagers working at mom and pop stores while attending school, the truth is that minimum-wage workers are more likely to work at businesses that employ more than 100 people, and they are more likely to have worked for the same employer for more than one year.

A recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Manitoba office shows that the current minimum wage of $11.90 is not enough to raise workers who earn it out of poverty. We need to increase the minimum wage up to $15 an hour in order to ensure full-time minimum-wage workers earn enough to stay out of poverty.

Minimum-wage workers are moms and dads, everyday Manitobans who are working hard and trying to make ends meet. But they are struggling. Keeping the minimum wage at poverty levels forces families to make difficult decisions between paying the rent, buying groceries, or school supplies for their kids, bus fare and other essential things.

The financial insecurity faced by workers is compounded by the fact many of them do not have any access to paid sick leave at work. The lower-paid the work is, the less likely it is that workers are to have access to paid leave in the workplace. This is particularly important for those Manitobans working in lower-wage jobs and in the service sector. The vast majority of these workers do not have job-protected paid leave provided by their employers.

According to recent data, only 48 per cent of the workforce in Winnipeg has access to any paid workplace leave at all, and workers in the accommodation and food-services sectors have the least amount of access to paid leave.

Our chief public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, has stressed for months that workers must stay home if they are sick, in the interest of public health and stopping the spread of the coronavirus. But to make this happen, workers need to have the ability to choose to stay home without taking a pay cut if they are sick or need to self-isolate. Forcing workers into the impossible position of choosing between staying home and earning a paycheque simply will not cut it.

Premier Brian Pallister was in the news a few months ago saying he is committed to a paid sick leave program to deal with this issue. But workers are still waiting to see any tangible results, and they are no better off than they were six months ago. With experts advising that we could continue to see a continued rise in COVID-19 transmission this fall, all workers need to have a paid sick leave program in place immediately. Now is the time for this government to deliver for working families.

The pandemic has shown that governments can act quickly on priorities when they have the will to do so. It is time to support working families in our province by bringing in a minimum wage that is enough to pay the bills, and by providing paid leave for workers to help them do their part to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Kevin Rebeck is the president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour

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