Workers deserve a living wage

February 27, 2006

Read: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nn. 301-309

Recently, I had the privilege of meeting a young man and his wife and baby who had recently moved to Edmonton from a foreign country. They chose Edmonton over other Canadian cities because the man (let's call him Robert) realized the job opportunities were better here than elsewhere.

Robert, an engineer, is now working in a pizza parlour, presumably earning minimum wage. So he gets about $1,000 a month before deductions. After paying more than half of that for rent, there's not much left for food and other basics.

Sadly, Robert would be getting a higher salary if he lived in a less prosperous province. Alberta has Canada's lowest minimum wage.


The Compendium not only talks about the spiritual meaning of work, it defends the rights of workers.

Workers have the right to form unions, which are "an indispensable element of social life" (n. 305). They have the right, as a last resort, to go on strike. They have rights to their moral integrity and to a safe and healthy work environment. They have a right to pension and other benefits.

- Design Pics Photo

But "the most significant means for achieving justice in work relationships" is a just wage (n. 302). "A salary is the instrument that permits the labourer to gain access to the goods of the earth."

A just wage is not necessarily determined by the interplay of supply and demand. It must at least provide the worker with enough for subsistence.

Locally, the Greater Edmonton Alliance has begun to push the City of Edmonton to guarantee that all firms that contract with the city pay their workers a "living wage." This campaign has just begun here, but great strides have been made in several American cities.


The most advanced is Sante Fe, N.M., where the city council set a minimum wage of $8.50 an hour in 2004, $9.50 an hour for January 2006 and $10.50 for 2008. In the U.S., the federal minimum wage is $4.25 an hour.

The Sante Fe initiative has not been without controversy. It has withstood court challenges and gloom-and-doom predictions. Yet, to date, the city's employment has remained healthy and overall employment has continued to increase.

This is not what traditional economists would have predicted. Academics used to believe that an increase in the minimum wage would lead low-wage businesses, such as restaurants, hotels and stores, to hire fewer people.

But a recent New York Times article describes the work of economists David Card and Alan Krueger who studied the effects of a 1992 increase in the minimum wage in New Jersey. Their studies demonstrated that modest increases in wages did not appear to cause any harm to employment.

Since 1891, popes have maintained that paying workers less than a just wage is a form of exploitation. In 1931, Pope Pius XI argued that the right to a just wage had to be tempered by a company's need to survive and that wage levels should allow for the greatest number of opportunities for employment.

Few would disagree that pushing the minimum wage ever upwards would eventually create more harm than good. But that should not provide an excuse for underpaying workers.

In 1981, Pope John Paul II introduced the notion of a "family wage" into Church teaching. If all workers were paid a family wage, mothers would never be compelled to work outside the home.

Some feminists argued that the notion of a family wage perpetuated a patriarchal view of family, condemning women to be forever chained to the kitchen. Others noted it would be discriminatory for employers to pay their staff based on their marital status and size of their families.

The Compendium avoids the concept of family wage and sticks with the general principle that all workers should be fairly paid. This general recommendation probably does not help most employers set their salary guidelines, but it does provide a moral admonition against the worst forms of exploitation.