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Vancouver, B.C.: Living wage policy: Why municipalities should start to lead the way
The Vancouver Sun
Michael McCarthy Flynn & Seth Klein

November 11, 2011
View the Original Article

A living wage by definition allows a family to cover basic living expenses - in Metro Vancouver it is calculated at $18.81/hour (including benefits). A municipal living wage policy, like the one adopted in New Westminster, means all city staff are guaranteed a living wage as well as anyone who provides contracted services to the city.

So far, just over 100 candidates have responded, covering almost every Lower Mainland municipality. Almost all have expressed support for this proposal or at least indicated interest in exploring the implications for their city. This is clearly an important issue in the Lower Mainland.

It's not hard to see why. The growing Occupy movement has put the issue of inequality and falling living standards front and centre. The living wage is being recognized as one concrete local response.

Many families are struggling to get by; they are working hard but just can't keep up with ever-rising living expenses. Despite the recent increase in the minimum wage in B.C., it is estimated that at least 25 per cent of families with children in the Lower Mainland still earn less than a living wage.

This is especially true of the "hidden workers" who support the work of our cities; the people who clean our buildings, who provide our security services, or who serve us our food.

So what have the civic election candidates been saying? In Vancouver, COPE has said it is supportive of undertaking a city study to investigate the feasibility of passing a living wage policy. Vision Vancouver and the NPA are a little more cautious, saying they are interested, but want to find out more before deciding how to proceed.

In Burnaby, both main parties have expressed a clear interest in exploring the possibilities of a living wage policy. Both Richmond and Surrey have a number of candidates running on a living wage platform, while the City of North Vancouver has already unanimously agreed to study this issue.

In the outer suburbs of Maple Ridge, Pitt Meadows and Coquitlam a large number of candidates have expressed an interest in pursuing this issue.

Why are low wages a compelling issue for municipal governments? Because low pay hurts the whole community.

Municipal governments end up paying a large price when families earning low wages have less money to spend in the local economy, and when parents (required to take a second job to make ends meet) have less time to spend with their children. Municipal governments and school boards end up filling the gaps by paying for additional services and policing costs.

A few candidates had some concerns, and some business leaders are critical of the living wage. They are worried about how it will affect the private sector.

However, many jurisdictions around the world that have implemented living wage policies have found that the private sector has not been harmed and the local economy has benefited. Families who earn living wages have more money in their pockets to spend in local businesses.

This is an area where municipal governments can and should lead. In doing so, B.C. cities will be joining 140 U.S. cities who already have living wage ordinances of some form.

Will living wage policies result in a slight increase in costs for municipal taxpayers? The short answer is "Yes, but only slightly." But the real question is this: do we as municipal taxpayers want people employed - on our dime - at a wage rate that cannot ensure healthy childhood development or allow parents the time to be with their children and participate in the social and civic lives of our communities?

Michael McCarthy Flynn is an organizer with Metro Vancouver Living Wage for Families campaign. Seth Klein is B.C. director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.