Should be no such thing as the work­ing poor

The Beacon (Gander) - - Editorial -

I’d like to com­ment on the de­bate about the pro­posed in­creases to the min­i­mum wage and, specif­i­cally, re­cent let­ters from New­found­land and Labrador Fed­er­a­tion of Labour pres­i­dent Mary Shor­tall, and Vaughn Ham­mond, di­rec­tor of pro­vin­cial af­fairs, Cana­dian Fed­er­a­tion of In­de­pen­dent Busi­ness.

In her Sept. 13 let­ter, Shor­tall says labour or­ga­ni­za­tions and their so­cial jus­tice part­ners have been work­ing hard for min­i­mum wage in­creases for decades, and that we need to start a con­ver­sa­tion about how and when we can get to a real liv­ing wage.

The busi­ness com­mu­nity will cer­tainly not of­fer to pay it. Ham­mond even ar­gues against in­dex­ing the min­i­mum wage by the in­crease in the cost of liv­ing. They would rather that you and I pay for any in­creases. In fact, he states, ide­ally, the govern­ment will use the tax sys­tem to put more money in the pock­ets of low-in­come work­ers rather than re­ly­ing on in­creases in the min­i­mum wage.

Cer­tain busi­nesses — those that are pay­ing star­va­tion wages — are al­ready get­ting a free ride from tax­pay­ers and those who do­nate to help the work­ing poor.

First, why — de­spite decades of ef­fort — do things ap­pear to be get­ting worse for the low-wage earner? Per­haps the ap­proach has been flawed. Let’s ex­am­ine some of Shor­tall’s sug­ges­tions.

The fed­eral Lib­er­als in­creased the Canada Child Ben­e­fit to help lower the cost of liv­ing. This was nec­es­sary be­cause many em­ploy­ers do not pay a liv­ing wage. In ef­fect, tax­pay­ers’ dol­lars are sub­si­diz­ing low wages paid by those em­ploy­ers.

Why should the govern­ment, as Shor­tall sug­gests, pro­vide uni­ver­sal free child care? Sub­si­dized child care is only for those em­ployee par­ents who are not earn­ing enough to af­ford child care. By us­ing tax dol­lars to sub­si­dize child care, we are again en­abling some em­ploy­ers to con­tinue pay­ing such low wages that it keeps their em­ploy­ees in poverty. It is or ought to be the re­spon­si­bil­ity of em­ploy­ers to pro­vide child care on site, or else pay em­ploy­ees enough so that they can af­ford it.

The fed­eral govern­ment has tried be­fore and is at­tempt­ing again to make in­come tax more pro­gres­sive. This plan is be­ing met with fu­ri­ous opposition from well-or­ga­nized busi­ness lobby groups that claim the pro­posed changes will re­sult in many lost jobs. In re­al­ity, they are hid­ing be­hind the very em­ploy­ees they just lob­bied against get­ting a raise in min­i­mum wages. Our pro­vin­cial govern­ment is also op­pos­ing the pro­posed changes, know­ing full well that busi­ness lobby groups con­tribute fund­ing to both the Lib­eral and Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive par­ties.

Labour or­ga­ni­za­tions have been lob­by­ing the govern­ment for pay eq­uity for men and women. Shor­tall points out that women in the work­place are 40 per cent more likely than men to be min­i­mum wage earn­ers. The same is prob­a­bly true for those who work at places that pay a lit­tle above the min­i­mum wage, such as fast-food restau­rants.

The ap­proach of pit­ting women’s wages against men’s wages is flawed. The fo­cus must be, as Shor­tall noted, on get­ting low-pay­ing em­ploy­ers to rec­og­nize the hard work of their em­ploy­ees, re­gard­less of gen­der.

More and more peo­ple are vis­it­ing food banks and places like the Gath­er­ing Place. Many are low-in­come earn­ers or se­nior cit­i­zens whose em­ploy­ers didn’t value them enough to pro­vide a pen­sion that could keep them from hav­ing to spend their last years in poverty. These em­ploy­ers also left that re­spon­si­bil­ity to the tax­payer. There is also in­creased use of school break­fast and lunch pro­grams by chil­dren from low­in­come fam­i­lies.

Labour or­ga­ni­za­tions and their so­cial jus­tice part­ners have to lead a peace­ful so­cial rev­o­lu­tion in or­der to move the poverty line. Busi­ness lobby groups are pow­er­ful and have great in­flu­ence over gov­ern­ments. The first step is to dis­credit their ar­gu­ments by point­ing out how we, as tax­pay­ers, are en­abling them to con­tinue to pay be­low liv­ing wages by spon­sor­ing govern­ment ser­vices for the work­ing poor. The term “work­ing poor” is an oxy­moron and needs to be elim­i­nated.

Ed Downey Marys­town

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