City one step closer to living wage

By Daniel Pagan

Vibrant Communities Calgary presented its case for a living wage at the Finance and Corporate Services standing policy committee Wednesday.

The committee passed the report, which gave the city three options for how to proceed on the issue. However, critics like the Winnipeg-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy are calling it a symbolic idea that would do nothing for the city’s workers, warning it could have negative economic consequences.

The first option promises a living wage to all full- and part-time city employees.

VCc director Salima Stanley-Bhanji said that this option would not further their cause, as these employees are already paid a living wage.

The second and third options extend this wage to either 504 casual city staff or 140 service contractors, respectively.

Currently, Waterloo is the only other city in Canada investigating a living wage proposal and about 140 cities now have similar wage policies in the United States. Calgary city council will vote on the recommendations April 6.

In February, the Calgary Chamber of Commerce declared it would pay all of its employees a living wage, or a salary that would allow someone to reach a specific standard of living, in partnership with VCC.

Stanley-Bhanji said it was necessary for Calgary to take a look at this policy because of its homelessness problem. She said one in eight children live in poverty, adding that a living wage policy is an opportunity for the city to show leadership by establishing an ethical standard for other employers to follow.

“Living wage is about recognizing that when we don’t do this fair, common sense thing, we end up paying more later to address things like homelessness and other social support,” said Stanley-Bhanji.

Some are skeptical of the claims about living wages’ benefits, including Maclean’s editor-at-large, Peter Taylor. He released a report named “Why a ‘Living Wage’ Won’t Kill Poverty” for the FCPP two weeks ago. It argued that a new municipal living wage of $13.25 would have substantial hidden costs and is the wrong way to help the working-poor in Calgary, especially when a living wage would benefit few municipal workers.

“Why would you champion an idea that provides very small benefits to very few people, in Calgary’s case mostly concession attendants and babysitters?” asked Taylor. “Living wage fails on all these counts. It provides a low social return by focusing on only a few, fortunate individuals. It is inefficient because it cannot guarantee that its beneficiaries are in poverty. It is unfair to shift these burdens to business and may create all sorts of undesirable incentive effects, such as reduced skills training and reduced employment.”

Stanley-Bhanji said the new policy will guarantee staff that their wages would not fall below a certain amount during an economic downturn. She noted that about half of the part-time employees are living in low-income households. More than half were over the age of 18 and a quarter were supporting dependants.

There are other options that can help people living under the poverty line, argued Taylor. He supported raising the minimum wage, which is under provincial jurisdiction, or changing tax codes for working poor.

Alberta is raising the minimum wage from $8.40 to $8.80 on April 1.

Taylor said the people behind the campaign are union activists, who tend to gain when job out-sourcing is made more expensive through a living wage, or citizens who gain nothing from the new policy, but were mobilized due to a sense of collective obligation.

“People wouldn’t really get involved for something obscure like a change to the tax code, but they will rally for a program that will help the janitors in their building,” he said.

Stanley-Bhanji stressed the wage increase is one strategy to assist in the reduction of poverty and people shouldn’t be opposing the idea just because the strategy doesn’t solve the entire problem.

“The nice thing about living wage is that it allows people to earn what they deserve so they can stay out of poverty through their own efforts and not through heavily reliance on social support,” said Stanley-Bhanji.

Ward 12 alderman and Finance and Corporate Services standing policy committee chair Ric McIver predicted a lively debate at the council in April. He is concerned about how students, seniors and others might lose their part-time employment in favour of full-time staff.

Instead of living wage, the city should provide training opportunities to part-time workers enabling them to qualify for higher paying positions, he said.

“It was established at the last public meeting by proponents that it is largely symbolic rather than helpful,” said McIver. “In the end, some of the committee was not willing to implement the policy, but agreed to getting the additional information on the impact of living wage.”

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