I attended a panel at Bakery Showcase yesterday about the Living Wage program in BC. While I was looking forward to the talk all week, I left feeling troubled.
I 100% believe that everyone deserves to earn a wage that will allow them to live in our society. Not just subsist, but live and thrive and raise a family if they choose. Enjoy their lives and share the bounty that the Earth provides.
And yet, I wonder if the Living Wage program is only part of the story.
Almost the entire panel discussion was around the question of whether a living wage is a good thing. As if there might be a downside to having workforce that wasn't worried about making rent or having enough to eat. The question isn't whether workers should make enough to live from a single full time job. The question isn't whether it's acceptable for full time workers to be earning less in a month than the cost of an apartment. It's categorically not OK that this happens for many, many, many workers in Canada.
The real question here is whether the burden falls 100% on the employer in all circumstances.
Here's my issue. Let's say in 2021, the living wage in Victoria was $20 per hour. That's what two adults, working 40 hours per week each, would need to earn in order to support themselves and two young children.
Now let's say you own a bakery and want to do right by your employees. So you commit to paying a living wage to all employees. Junior employees make $20 per hour, senior employees might make more.
$20/hr starting wage is a big commitment for many small businesses, especially in food service, where workers are traditionally underpaid. Go into any bakery or coffee shop in Canada and look at the people standing on either side of the counter. The ones in front of the counter - the customers - are far, far more likely to be making a living wage than the folks behind the counter.
But let's say the business commits to a living wage. Other costs are cut, prices go up, and the targets are met. It's nowhere near that easy but several food service businesses made that commitment in 2021 and I applaud them for it.
And yet, look what has happened in the past year. Inflation hits, especially in two areas: housing costs and food costs. And it hits hard -- a 30% cost increase in two areas that are already a large part of the family budget. Now the living wage leaps from $20/hr to $24.40/hr. How can the business be expected to increase their payroll by over 16% in a year?
When grocery monopolies make record profits by raising prices across the board and keeping them there, and landlords increase rents by 25% just because, they put the squeeze on workers and small businesses alike. The Living Wage Employer isn't giving their employees a raise so they can live better; they're giving raises so workers can hand it over to Galon Weston and the landlords.
There's no doubt that all employees deserve to earn a living wage. But where is the effort being made to bring the living wage down again? Who is going to stop the monopolists from reaching deeper into everyone's pockets, employers and employees alike? Is there such as a thing as enough profit for a landlord? For Galon Weston?