That 55-cent increase to the minimum wage on April 1st undoubtedly felt like an April fools’ joke to some of the province’s lowest paid workers. Nova Scotia still has the lowest minimum wage in the country for inexperienced workers, and for experienced workers it has only just slightly surpassed its 1977 inflation-adjusted peak.
The economic and social consequences of declining real wages, increased cost of living, decline in purchasing power, rising household debt must be considered against the backdrop of increasing productivity in Nova Scotia, and an economy that continues to expand. We live in one of the richest countries in the world and our province produces billions in economic growth per year.
In 2002, Stephen Harper, the leader of the then-Canadian Alliance Party, suggested that bad attitudes were to blame for our region’s economic stagnation. Though, his statement, "there is a dependence...that breeds a culture of defeatism,” was publicly disputed, scores of Maritimers have internalized the sentiment.
Fourteen years after Harper’s infamous comments, the release of the report of The Nova Scotia Commission on Building Our New Economy repeated this concern about Maritimers’ attitudes. The report, entitled (rather alarmingly) Now or Never, diagnosed Nova Scotia with a severe case of economic decline, to be solved only through ending the province’s reliance on the public sector, cutting the debt-to-GDP ratio to 30 percent by 2024 (a target not substantiated by any evidence in the report itself), and reorganizing our economy around start-ups and export development.
Maritimers are intimately familiar with the rhetoric that unites Harper’s 2002 comments and the One Nova Scotia report of 2014; they have been on the receiving end of it for decades, and it continues unabated. As one columnist wrote in 2018, we are “too entitled to be truly innovative”. The recent NS budget -- with its funding for “incubators, accelerators and sandboxes” to build that entrepreneurial culture -- reinforced this same “innovation” rhetoric that has successfully distracted Maritimers from the entrenched structural inequalities that shape their lives and the region.
A living wage has been calculated to be $19 in Halifax, and $17.75 in Antigonish, and $18.18 in Saint John, New Brunswick. The chasm between working for a living and living to work in the Maritimes underscores the gross inadequacy of the wages earned by a significant chunk of our population, while highlighting the importance of expanding universal public services to include things like pharmacare and childcare. The attitude that should be of concern is one that has fostered such a low expectation of the government and the private sector by workers and their families in our province.
It is in our best interest to shift to a bottom-up inclusive and green economic growth strategy that includes paying workers a living wage. Businesses that continue to pay poverty wages externalize the costs of a business model that takes a negative toll on worker’s health and ability to contribute to their potential. Collectively, we must refuse to continue to pay the price.
Businesses must realize that a tried and true method to attract and retain workers is to pay them a living wage. Raising the minimum wage to $15 is one step forward, but it isn’t enough. We need to strengthen labour standards and workers’ rights, including for migrant workers. Businesses are also supported when we collectively invest in public infrastructure and quality public services, and ensure everyone pays their fair share through a progressive tax system.
This blog post is drawn from the introduction of a chapter written by Mary-Dan Johnston and Christine Saulnier in Living Wage Movements in Canada: Comparative Perspectives on Resistance and Alternatives to Low-Waged Work, a forthcoming edited book from University of British Columbia Press.