Min­i­mum wage needs scru­tiny

The Daily Courier - - OPINION -

Some­times, it’s a good thing when a new govern­ment re­treats from a cam­paign prom­ise.

The New Democrats’ elec­tion plat­form promised to in­crease the min­i­mum wage to $15 an hour by 2021.

In­stead, in­flu­enced by its Green al­lies, the govern­ment has re­ferred the is­sue to an in­de­pen­dent Fair Wages Com­mis­sion.

It has 90 days to make a rec­om­men­da­tion on how — and how quickly — to move to a $15 min­i­mum from the cur­rent $11.35.

Gov­ern­ments too of­ten play pol­i­tics with th­ese kinds of is­sues.

The for­mer BC Lib­eral govern­ment re­fused to in­crease the min­i­mum wage for a decade, as em­ploy­ees fell fur­ther and fur­ther be­hind, then played catch-up ahead of the 2013 elec­tion.

The com­mis­sion is well-bal­anced. Mar­jorie Grif­fin Co­hen, a left-lean­ing econ­o­mist, is the chair, and is joined by Ken Pea­cock from the B.C. Busi­ness Coun­cil and Ivan Lim­pright of the United Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers Union. (Though a per­son with re­cent ex­pe­ri­ence liv­ing on min­i­mum wage would have been a use­ful ad­di­tion.)

And it will play a crit­i­cal role in a de­bate typ­i­cally dom­i­nated by in­ter­est groups that wildly over­state the ben­e­fits or risks of an in­crease.

For ex­am­ple, when the Lib­eral govern­ment an­nounced a three-step, 28 per cent in­crease in the min­i­mum wage in 2011, the Cana­dian Fed­er­a­tion of In­de­pen­dent Busi­ness pre­dicted 32,760 to 199,560 lost jobs. The Fraser In­sti­tute pro­jected job losses of 26,097 to 57,194.

In fact, em­ploy­ment in­creased by 2.2 per cent in the 16 months af­ter the first in­crease, com­pared with na­tional growth of 1.3 per cent.

There are le­git­i­mate ar­gu­ments for and against. Higher min­i­mum wages could lead busi­nesses to in­vest in au­to­ma­tion, for ex­am­ple. But the com­puter-or­der­ing sta­tions pop­ping up in fast-food restau­rants re­mind us that they will do that in any case.

The com­mis­sion has the op­por­tu­nity to look at facts, and the way any change would af­fect the 94,000 peo­ple — al­most half of them over 25 — be­ing paid min­i­mum wage.

The com­mis­sion also has a man­date to look at the re­la­tion­ship between the min­i­mum wage and the “liv­ing wage.” That is an im­por­tant is­sue.

Our so­ci­ety and econ­omy suf­fer when the gap between what it costs to live in a com­mu­nity and wages be­come too great — as the in­creas­ing num­ber of “Help Wanted” signs in­di­cate.

The 90-day time­line for the com­mis­sion’s first re­port is tight. But there is a large amount of re­search avail­able, and ad­vo­cacy groups pre­pared to present ar­gu­ments on both sides.

Ul­ti­mately, the leg­is­la­ture will de­cide on how much and how quickly to in­crease the min­i­mum wage.

How quickly is a crit­i­cal is­sue as busi­nesses need time to pre­pare and plan.

But its de­ci­sion will be based on a se­ri­ous, in­de­pen­dent re­view of the costs and ben­e­fits, not on po­lit­i­cal cal­cu­la­tions in the premier’s of­fice.

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