Labour Views- Minimum Wage and the North

Across the country there is an increasingly accepted view that raising the minimum wage is both socially responsible and of net benefit to the economy.
Within the last year, the public discourse around this subject has shifted dramatically after progressive leadership in several provinces have either announced a $15/hr wage floor before 2020; or put plans in place to work toward that figure before 2020.

Last September, Premier Alberta Rachel Notley committed her province to boosting the minimum wage from $12.20 to $15 by this time next year.  Similarly, in May, the Province of Ontario announced its government would combat inequality by increasing its current minimum wage of $11.40 per hour to $15 per hour over a similar time frame. British Columbia, the new NDP is planning to implement that wage over the next few years.

Such increases will eclipse all three Northern territories as having among the highest rates in the country. This is despite the fact that Northerners face among the highest costs in the country for shelter, food, utilities and other basic amenities.

So where is the GNWT?

Since 2013, members of the GNWT’s Minimum Wage Committee have met annually to examine the minimum wage. In a June report to the Minister of Education, Culture and Employment, they opted to offer “no change” to the current $12.50 an hour, rather than accept alternative proposals of $13.46 or $14.96 raises.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada – North and the Northern Territories Federation of Labour finds this decision unacceptable. We demand a proper plan be put in place to increase the minimum wage and support low-income earners. As MLAs take their seats this fall in the NWT Legislative Assembly – and indeed across the North- we will be launching a new campaign called: “Fight for 15 – North”. The campaign will aim to push members of the public, MLAs, and the business community toward supporting a raise to $15/hr and forcing the government to implement a plan for increases tied to the Consumer Price Index.  

We see a number of benefits that such a plan would have in the North.

First, if attracting people remains a high priority for the GNWT to fulfill coming labour shortages, the government needs to take a much more serious look at what is being invested in people.

Although many employers may pay well above the current minimum wage, a $12.50 an hour minimum wage that is neither tacked onto or adjusted to the CPI annually is inadequate for workers. Based on what it costs to live here, the GNWT needs to acknowledge that a higher minimum wage is necessary.     

Number two, a minimum wage increase would be especially beneficial to women, Indigenous people and racially visible minorities who face unique barriers in the workforce and who need a better return from the economy.

We know that the Northern business community may not welcome a raise in the minimum wage. An increased price in labour cuts into profits and forces businesses to adjust their operations.  We feel, however, that a raise will have a positive impact on the economy. It will improve staff retention, provide relief to those who already feel squeezed by costs in the North, and boost customer spending in local small businesses.

We also feel an increased minimum wage to $15 per hour is a reasonable compromise given that a ‘Living Wage’- i.e. the hourly amount of earnings a two-parent, two-children family needs to cover basic expenses – is much higher.   In 2015, for example, Alternatives North showed in a report that for workers to earn a living wage in the NWT, they would have to make at least $20.68 per hour.

While the GNWT report notes that fewer than 1,000 workers make less than $15 an hour in NWT, it is clear that the territory can afford a raise. The GNWT cannot expect workers to continue facing new fees or cost of living increases and become further squeezed.

We look forward to working with community partners in pressuring our Northern governments to better support our low-income workers.