Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 18, 2002
Province perpetuates poverty
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
Maybe Jesus was referring to Alberta when he said: "You have the poor with you always" (Mark 14:7).
In May this year, the provincial government announced that it will not make any immediate changes to social assistance benefit levels, despite the fact that benefits have been fixed at the same level for the past 10 years. Human Resources Minister Clint Dunford explained the reason: this year's fiscal situation prevents us from moving ahead.
This, despite the fact that the province was forecasting a $724 million surplus for the year, and the spike in oil and gas prices was expected to swell that meagre amount beyond $1 billion.
A couple of weeks ago, the premier said: "I think that it's entirely appropriate (that Alberta has the lowest minimum wage in Canada)."
He added that his concern was for businesses that are burdened enough by having to pay minimum wage on top of the other costs they incur:
"We look at the economic impact of the service industry in particular, which I understand is having a hard time as it is, even with the wage being the lowest minimum wage." I suppose that means workers in the service industry are supposed to toil for nothing.
In addition, Dunford said there is little likelihood the minimum wage will increase in the short term, saying Alberta workers fare well compared to workers in other provinces.
I don't care how you attempt to package or sell it, there is no way anyone can argue that a $5.90 per hour wage constitutes a just wage in Alberta. The minimum wage has fallen, in real terms, by 20 to 30 per cent since 1980.
In determining a living wage, the social documents of the Church list five factors, which are related to the different kinds of value that can be distinguished in human work.
First, all human work has value to the individuals who do it: it is the expression of their person, and their God-given means of supporting themselves as persons.
The wage must be, not just a subsistence wage, but a living and saving wage, one that permits the worker to make allowances for the future, and for unexpected contingencies.
The wage to be paid must be sufficient to allow one to support one's family. The family is a natural extension of the person. This also means that mothers of families should be free to choose between staying at home with their families or working outside the home. They should not be faced with a situation in which the wage paid to one parent is so low, both parents have to work in order to support the family.
If mothers of families do choose to enter the work force, they must have the same chances as men, and the corollary to this is that the various levels of government should combine to ensure that there is a fully-funded child care system in place.
The second determinant of a just wage is how much contribution the individual workers make toward the production of goods. Clearly, the work of a particular person has a measurable economic value for the enterprise where this person is employed. This has to be taken into account in determining the person's wage.
There is also room for a graduated scale of wages in a business enterprise that takes account of special skills, valuable experience and particular abilities.
Thirdly, in determining the size of the wage, one must also take into account the state of the business and of those responsible for it.
Nevertheless, the first claim of labour, which takes priority over any claim of the owners to profits, respects the right to a living wage.
The fourth determinant of a just wage is: what are the requirements of the common good?
The wage scale should be proportionate to prices and people should receive the level of wage that makes it possible for them to purchase the goods and services produced in their society.
The fifth factor is: what are the requirements of the universal common good? This would involve, among other things, considering the wage levels in other parts of the country.
$5.90 per hour simply fails the test of justice.
We would do well to mediate on the Letter of James.
Consider this excerpt:
"Come now, you rich people, weep and wale for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasures for the last days.
"Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
"You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you" (James 5:1-6).
There is some consolation in the Lord's words: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, the kingdom of heaven is theirs" (Matthew 5:3).
However, why do so many have to wait so long for justice?
$5.90 per hour simply fails the test of justice.
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