Michael Blais knows how hard it is to live off of minimum wage. That was his starting rate when he worked at IKEA in Coquitlam, and even though he eventually made roughly $14 per hour, he still couldn’t make ends meet.
“The only way was to live really close to work to minimize costs for transportation and food,” Blais said. “You can either work two jobs and buy everything out, or you can work one job and try to be close and reduce your commute time and (have) no meals out.”
That strategy is what drew him to Coquitlam, but after he and his family were demovicted from their low-cost apartment rental, they landed in Burnaby’s Metrotown neighbourhood and are facing yet another demoviction.
Then ACORN, an anti-poverty organization, came door-knocking in the neighbourhood, and Blais said he had a two-hour conversation about poverty, realizing he wasn’t alone.
“These issues are affecting thousands of people, and they are just suffering in silence,” he said.
Blais is now an active member of ACORN and spent last Thursday afternoon at the Metrotown SkyTrain station, collecting petition signatures for the Fight for $15 campaign, a push to raise B.C.’s minimum wage to $15.
ACORN joined union members from CUPE Local 23 (representing Burnaby city staff), the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union, Unifor and Move UP.
Burnaby city Coun. Anne Kang also showed up for the signing blitz. Kang said the City of Burnaby has not taken a position on the issue, but she was endorsing the campaign as a provincial NDP candidate.
“I really think people can stand behind this campaign. The amount of inflation – everything has gone up but the minimum wage.”
The blitz was timed with the provincial government’s Sept. 15 increase to the minimum wage from $10.45, the lowest in the country, to $10.85 – a 40 cent increase. A fulltime minimum wage worker would earn $1,627 per month before taxes.
B.C. Federation of Labour President Irene Lanzinger said the government is not doing enough.
“Alberta has a plan for a $15 minimum wage by 2018. They have an economy that is really struggling because of low oil prices. Our government likes to brag about the economy we have now, but that wealth is not being shared with the 480,000 people who work for less than $15 an hour, essentially poverty wages,” she said, addressing reporters.
Burnaby MLA Raj Chouhan also canvassed the crowd, trying to get people to sign. He too said the 40 cent increase was not enough but it was a good start.
“The first eight years of this government’s term, they didn’t even increase the minimum wage at all,” he said. “People working in low level wages, they are not able to sustain their lifestyle, they are not even able to help their family, forget about their lifestyle.”
But not everyone is embracing the idea.
Burnaby resident Mark von Schellwitz is vice-president for Western Canada with Restaurants Canada and he has concerns about increasing labour costs in a competitive sector that traditionally has thin profit margins.
“If you really want to see how the impact of this is and moving what I would say is too much too fast at the wrong time, just look what’s happening in Alberta right now. You’ve got a government there that’s moving to $15 an hour, they’ve eliminated a liquor server differential that will happen on Oct. 1, and they’re also doing that in the middle of a recession,” he said. “As a result of last year’s increase alone, our industry has shed 5,000 jobs in Alberta. When costs are going up and your revenues are going down and you have such a significant increase in the minimum wage, … that just ratchets up your entire wage scale, and at the end of the day for those this is meant to help get hurt the most.”
The 5,000 lost jobs von Schellwitz was referring to were the result of a number of factors, but members of his association cited wages as the main reason. The Alberta government increased the minimum wage from $10.20 per hour to $11.20 on Oct. 1 in 2015.
“It’s not just tied to the wage increase, it’s a combination of a number of things, but the wage increase, if you survey our members was by far the number 1 reason why they had to eliminate jobs,” he said.
“The minimum wage for someone who loses their job is zero.”
Von Schellwitz said raising the minimum wage sounds great in theory but it has to be done in the context of economic reality.
“What we would advocate for - instead of this arbitrary $15 an hour minimum wage, which the union movement is trumpeting all over North America - what should be happening here is your entry level wages should be tied to objective economic indicators, like average weekly wages, the consumer price index, because that’s what employers use to give all their employees pay raises, and we want our employees to keep up with the costs of living,” he said.
Even so, campaigners collected roughly 1,000 signatures in both Burnaby and Surrey on Thursday. That brings the total number of signatures to 47,150. The B.C. Federation of Labour’s plan is to partner with an MLA to present the petition in the legislature before spring. In the meantime, members will keep collecting signatures at transit hubs and sports and community events.
New Westminster resident Ashley Altun stopped to sign the petition. She works at Burnaby’s Charlford House, a recovery home for women, where she makes minimum wage. She also works two other jobs, and she’s studying addictions counselling.
“I’m totally down with this cause,” she said. “There are women coming out of recovery, (minimum wage) would be so overwhelming.”