News / Vancouver

British Columbia launches Fair Wages Commission to decide on $15 minimum wage

Commission will be responsible for setting path toward $15 minimum wage and to address gap between pay and living wage, labour minister says.

Surrey-Newton NDP MLA Harry Bains arrives to the start of the debate at B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, June 26, 2017.

Chad Hipolito / The Canadian Press

Surrey-Newton NDP MLA Harry Bains arrives to the start of the debate at B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, June 26, 2017.

The new chair of British Columbia’s Fair Wages Commission says the province’s low wages are driving inequality.

Economist Marjorie Griffin Cohen, professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University and the first chair of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in B.C., was named head of the provincial commission responsible for steering B.C. towards a $15 minimum wage on Thursday.

The new NDP government had initially promised to implement a $15 minimum wage by 2021 but chose instead to remove the timeline and defer to a commission made up of experts.

“We want to de-politicize this whole process to make sure [the commission] comes back with recommendations that will give small businesses gradual, predictable and common sense increases,” said Minister of Labour Harry Bains. “That’s something that the businesses want and they deserve that, to have that clarity. We are going to depend on the wisdom of the commission.”

Cohen is joined on the commission by United Food and Commercial Workers Union president Ivan Limpright and Business Council of B.C. vice president Ken Peacock.

“We will work very hard to ensure that people throughout this province are consulted and heard,” Cohen said. “Right now, B.C. has average hourly wages that are below the national average despite having a strong economy. These low wages have contributed to growing inequality and poverty for many working people and their families.”

Increasing the minimum wage is “an important first step for both poverty reduction and improving the quality of life for low wage earners,” she said.

But the commission’s work won't be done there.

It is also being tasked with determining what the living wage in B.C. communities actually is and how the province can close the gap between the minimum wage and the actual cost of living, according to Bains.

“It is a complex issue because what living wage is in Vancouver is different than in Courtney or in Kamloops,” said Bains. “There are some studies out there coming from other cities that once they lower their costs of living and, at the same time, increase their minimum wage, the gap between the two has decreased considerably. That’s the route this government wants to go.”

According to a 2016 report from Cohen’s former organization, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, there are 105,600 “working poor” living in Metro Vancouver who live below the poverty line despite being employed.

That makes up 8.7 per of the entire working-age population of the region.

Bains said government action to eliminate bridge tolls, increase the minimum wage, raise assistance rates and eventually eliminate MSP premiums are all an attempt to tackle affordability concerns.

The province raised the minimum wage to $11.35 per hour as of Sept. 15.

Both the B.C. Federation of Labour and the B.C. Green Party released statements welcoming the launch of the commissions’ work.

The B.C. Liberals, meanwhile, warn government faces a delicate balancing act raising the wage to $15.

Small business critic Coralee Oakes worries the comission won't have enough time to adequately consult the sector and that jobs could be at risk.

"There is significant data ... that when you look at a 10 per cent increase in minimum wage the consequences usually is negative employment effects," Oakes said. "We have good intentions and we want to make sure that we are supporting individuals, we just have to make sure that the decisions that we make don’t have unintended consequences."

The commission must file its first report and recommendations within 90 days of its first meeting.

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