Bob McKeon

JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

February 22, 2010

Thomas Lukaszuk, the newly appointed provincial minister of employment and immigration, announced this month that he was freezing Alberta's minimum wage. This is a major change in the policy enacted in June 2007 that linked the minimum wage to Alberta's weekly earnings.

Since this policy was introduced, the minimum wage in Alberta rose from $8.00 to $8.80 per hour. If this policy had continued, this year, the minimum wage would have risen modestly by 12 cents per hour to match the 1.4 per cent increase in average weekly earnings for Alberta workers over the past twelve months.

Past history shows that abandoning this minimum wage policy poses serious risks for low wage Alberta workers. In the past 30 years, when left to arbitrary political decisions, the minimum wage remained frozen for periods of six years or longer on three different occasions.

This government decision raises important issues that go to the heart of Catholic social teaching. Pope John Paul II said dignity in human work is the key to the whole social question. An important element of dignity in human work is that workers earn a just wage that can support them and their families in a reasonable manner. Pope John Paul argued that the paying of "a just wage is the concrete means of verifying the justice of the whole socioeconomic system" (Laborem Exercens 19).

ALBERTA'S POVERTY WAGE

By contemporary poverty measures, the present Alberta minimum wage is a poverty wage even for single people. In families, where workers are supporting dependents through their low wage jobs, the situation can be desperate.

This is confirmed by the 2009 Hunger Count report from Food Banks Canada, which noted that 27 per cent of food bank recipients in Edmonton reported employment income. This "percentage of employed people utilizing food banks in Alberta is twice the national average."

In his press release, Lukaszuk said the decision to freeze the minimum wage would help to ensure "that our province's industries are competitive and continue to attract investment to provide jobs and prosperity." One advantage of a provincial minimum wage is that it establishes a level playing field for the vast majority of Alberta businesses so no employer can gain a competitive advantage by underpaying their employees.

SIXTH PLACE

In the national context, the present Alberta minimum wage is already low, ranking sixth among all provinces. Important provincial competitors, including Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, pay a minimum wage of $9 an hour or higher. The scheduled Alberta increase of 12 cents an hour would not change Alberta's sixth place standing.

Is Alberta seeking a competitive advantage through poverty-level wages? Pope Benedict in Caritas in Veritate addresses this issue when he speaks critically of a competition for capital that leads "to a downsizing of social security systems as the price to be paid for seeking greater competitive advantage in the global market, with consequent grave danger for the rights of workers, (and) for fundamental human rights."

Significantly, many Catholic dioceses in the U.S. in recent years have moved beyond public debates about the minimum wage to become active leaders in Living Wage campaigns. These campaigns take place through broad-based community coalitions, similar to the Greater Edmonton Alliance. The campaigns acknowledge that current minimum wage levels cannot be considered as "living wages" for workers and their families.

The goal of the Living Wage campaigns is to insist businesses receiving government contracts include a living wage pay scale that is a specified amount above the minimum wage. By July 2006, 140 Living Wage ordinances had been passed in 115 U.S. communities. This has proven to be a successful way of reducing poverty among U.S. low-wage workers.

A couple of years ago, Public Interest Alberta launched a Living Wage initiative in Alberta, which so far has not been successful.

The Alberta government's decision to freeze the minimum wage presents an important challenge for Catholic organizations and parishes in Alberta. It can be an opportunity to learn more about what it means to be among the working poor in our province.

LISTEN TO REALITY

We can listen to the stories of those approaching our parish offices and food banks for emergency assistance. We can set up "listening sessions" for members of our parishes, especially youth and recent immigrants, to speak about how their human dignity is and is not respected in their work situations. We can learn more about the positive vision of human work contained in Catholic social teaching.

Lukaszuk also announced that he will establish an all-party legislative committee to review the current provincial minimum wage policy.

Concerned Albertans should ensure that the minister and the members of this committee hear their voices loudly and clearly.

Let's make sure that the Alberta Advantage does not rest on the further impoverishment of our lowest paid workers.

(Bob McKeon: sjustice@caedm.ca)