Halifax City Council should heed their staff’s recommendation to “engage external stakeholders and conduct further investigation on whether or not to adopt an employee compensation/living wage policy for Council’s consideration.” There is enough evidence in Canada that becoming a living wage employer is possible for municipalities -- indeed, they can take the lead.
In April of this year, Halifax city council identified poverty reduction as a priority and committed to develop a poverty reduction strategy. Ensuring that our public dollars are used to provide stable jobs at a living wage should be part of that antipoverty strategy.
While a living wage is not the only tool to end poverty, it is an essential contributing factor. The city needs to recognize the very real role that it plays in employing Haligonians at poverty wages. Whether because of the city’s use of casual and seasonal direct employment, the procurement policy’s lack of provision for a living wage or to consider social benefits, or by contracting out services to the lowest bidder, our city is helping to keep expectations low.
Should Halifax accept its responsibility to take a lead on this, it would be as a living wage employer. City Council could adopt a resolution committing to pay all direct and indirect city workers a minimum living wage. This sort of approach is not new in Canada: New Westminster, B.C. did it, as did the City of Cambridge in Ontario. Vancouver is following suit and Toronto has committed to advocating for a living wage as part of its poverty reduction strategy. Indeed many hundreds of employers have been certified in Canada from small non-profits, to credit unions and larger for-profits to large public sector employees like school boards, and hospitals.
It’s important to note that in this country, we cannot call for a geographic ordinance; in Canada, cities cannot require all employers in their jurisdiction to pay a living wage. But even if a living wage ordinance were possible in Halifax, research shows that in the United States, “in the largest cities with the broadest based living wage policies, there has been little measured employment loss”.
New Westminster's Living Wage Policy is reported to have cost less than a quarter of one percent of their budget. Haligonians deserve to see a full costed plan for implementing a similar policy here.
Cutting costs on the backs of low waged workers doesn’t save taxpayers money. The municipal budget is already impacted by the high costs of poverty whether by increased crime costs or by the pressures on its budget to help people live in poverty. The living wage is costed to reflect what it takes to live in dignity in our community. It also raises questions about the adequacy of the minimum wage and what should go into the configuration of the legislated minimum, but that is another discussion.
The research tells us that paying workers a living wage does have significant benefits including to increase the quality of contracts. In cities that have enacted these policies, they share that “competition for contracts is determined by more than which firms can drive wages down the lowest, and is influenced by other factors, such as service quality.”
There are broader benefits for the economy when we take a bottom-up approach by certifying as a living wage employer or increasing the minimum wage; these measures invigorate our local economy by boosting consumer spending. When we put more money in the pockets of lower income people, that money circulates in our community.
Nobody can deny that people are struggling to make ends meet in our city. The CCPA-NS’ recent child and family poverty report card shows that 28.8% of children in Halifax are living in these families. Poverty wages force many working people into the impossible choice between heat and food, while parents go without so that their children can have their basic nutritional needs met. As one low-wage worker shared with us, “we go without eating so my son can have his three meals a day, his snacks, his juice, his milk.”
Using the Canadian Living Wage framework, CCPA-NS’ calculations of the living wage for Halifax show that it takes about $19.17 an hour (2016) to ensure that people are able to not just survive, but thrive.
We all benefit when everyone is supported to participate fully in civic life. To pay a living wage is to support healthy childhood development and a healthier population in the long run; paying a living wage will help to bring our community together instead of leaving those in need to fight over crumbs, while others run away with the cake.
Halifax can choose to lift people up so that they do not have to fill out more paperwork to prove they are deserving whether of a subsidized bus pass or access to recreation programs for their kids. Our community will be stronger for it.
Christine Saulnier is the Nova Scotia Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.