People’s Voice, Feb. 15-28, 2015

It took a huge campaign by the labour and student movements to finally compel the B.C. Liberal government to raise the minimum wage rate for the first time in over a decade. But less than three years after that 2012 victory, the province is back near the bottom – eighth in Canada behind Ontario, Nunavut, Yukon, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Prince Edward Island.

Even though Statistics Canada reports that BC has the highest cost of living in the country, 120,000 workers here are paid only the $10.25/hour minimum wage, and a total of 517,000 earn $15 or less. Shockingly, liquor servers and farm workers can even be paid lower than the minimum. Restaurant owners often take full advantage of a legal loophole to pay employees just $9/hour, by scheduling some staff to do table service just often enough to claim that they fall into the liquor server category. Farm workers are still paid at piece rates.

These harsh realities led the BC Federation of Labour to launch a new campaign to raise the province’s minimum wage. Taking a page from similar struggles across the border, the demand is for a $15/hour minimum to be won by the end of 2015. Already there is strong public backing; surveys indicate that about three-quarters of British Columbians support an increase.

The campaign aims to dispel longstanding myths about minimum wage earners. Fast food corporations and other employers often claim that these are mostly high school students working the occasional shift while living for free at home, or that only new employees are paid the $10.25 rate while they learn on the job.

In fact, 47% of the 120,400 minimum wage earners in BC are 25 or older, and nearly 10,000 are over 55 years old.  Almost two-thirds are women, and 55% have worked in their jobs for at least a year. Nearly half of these workers are employed by companies with more than 500 employees, and 14% – one in seven – hold a university degree.

Unlike some other provinces, British Columbia has no provision to review the minimum wage, leaving the issue to become a political football. That was the strategy used by Christy Clark shortly after she became Premier in 2012, when she boosted the minimum wage to project an image of caring for ordinary working folk.

The “Fight for 15″ campaign argues that “work should lift you out of poverty”. A $15 wage would put BC’s lowest paid workers 10 per cent above Statistics Canada’s low income cut-off, and give them a better chance to cover the cost of basic necessities.

And it would also help counteract the trend of increasing income inequality in Canada’s most expensive province. For example, young people from low- and middle-income families are finding it harder to access the university or college education they need to get a good job. Tuition fees here have doubled since 2002, leaving many with crippling debt loads. Just to cover the cost of tuition, a student earning minimum wage must work 550 hours – fourteen weeks of full-time work – which does not include any other living costs.

The “Fight for 15″ campaign went public on January 15, with petition drives at locations in Vancouver, Burnaby, Surrey and Victoria. Similar events will be organized on the 15th of each month, to highlight unique aspects of the campaign. In January, the focus was on students.

“We know that many students are struggling to put themselves through school and make ends meet on minimum wage jobs,” said Irene Lanzinger, President of the B.C. Federation of Labour. “Post-secondary graduates are leaving school with an average of $35,000 of debt. That is not good for our young people, and not good for the economy.”

For more details and to get involved in the campaign, visit www.fightfor15bc.ca.

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