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Workers deserve to be paid a living wage

Written by Think Forward Staff
Monday, 22 April 2013

Earlier this month hundreds of fast food workers in New York City made a heroic statement by walking off their jobs to protest the growing gap between their low pay and the sky-high profits of the corporations that they work for, such as Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC.

The employees demanded a $15 an hour wage that would allow them to escape poverty and live with dignity by meeting their basic needs. While media coverage of the historic protest has died down, the idea that workers should be paid enough to afford a decent way of life will not be going away anytime soon.

Many service and hospitality employees make minimum wage, which typically fails to pay for necessities like rent, groceries, and utilities and often forces workers to take a second job or rely on food banks, soup kitchens, and welfare to survive. In fact, low earnings are the main reason why over one in ten Canadians live in poverty. This issue is especially important to youth, because 60 percent of all minimum wage earners in Canada are under the age of 25.   

Since the lowest legally required wage condemns workers to destitution, a growing number of employers are starting to pay a “living wage” to improve employee recruitment and retention and reduce absenteeism. The idea behind a living wage is that people and families who work full-time should make enough money to secure a reasonable standard of living. A living wage is usually higher than the minimum wage and is paid voluntarily by employers. It is based on the actual cost of affording everyday things – paying rent, buying food, covering transportation costs - in a particular community without going into debt.

Originally championed by anti-poverty activists in the United Kingdom, living wage policies have been adopted by various cities in the U.S. and England and private sector businesses like Barclays, Lush, and HSBC. In Canada the living wage movement is starting to take shape in British Columbia, as the municipalities of Vancouver, New Westminster, and Esquimalt, Vancity Credit Union, SAP Labs, and Briteweb, and the Parksville/Qualicum school district have all committed to paying a living wage following an intense grassroots campaign in that province.

Definitions of the wage vary by community according to the cost of living – for example, whereas Philadelphia’s municipal government pays its staff and contractors at least 150 percent of the minimum wage, Vancity Credit Union has agreed to match or exceed the City of Vancouver’s living wage of $19.14 an hour. But in most cases the pay rate is well above the legal minimum to afford workers a dignified life.

With benefits ranging from increased productivity to greater employee innovation to decreased sick leave, the success of the living wage highlights an important question that was first raised by Trish Hennessy of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives last year: what if the minimum wage was a living wage? Tell us what you think in the comments section below.

 

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