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November 26, 2010

Vulnerable BC Workers

On November 1st. 2001 BC's minimum wage was set at $8.00 an hour. It is now the lowest minimum wage in Canada. Labour Minister Iain Black announced that he has asked senior ministry staff to meet with key business and labour stakeholders to discuss employment standards, including minimum wage.

Prior to Black's announcement, the two declared BC Liberal leadership candidates were asked by the media for their position on the minimum wage. Moira Stillwell said she'd increase it to $10/hr over two years in 50 cent increments; George Abbott said he'd strike a committee of business representatives and others for advice on what to do. Strong move George! Stillwell's position is inadequate but Abbott's is pathetic. A search of the debates in the BC Legislature indicates that no BC Liberals, including the leadership hopefuls, have previously expressed concern about the minimum wage.

A myth advanced by critics of a higher minimum wage is that it kills entry level jobs for young people. The hard evidence indicates that the price of a coffee or hamburger can easily absorb a decent wage for food service workers. Economists David Card and Alan B. Krueger confronted economic dogma with their study of the effect of the 1992 increase in the minimum wage in New Jersey. In 1994, their study, titled "Minimum wages and employment: A case study of the fast food industry in New Jersey and Pennsylvania" compared 410 fast-food restaurants in New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania before and after the increase in New Jersey's minimum wage. They found no indication that the increase in the minimum wage reduced employment.

Unlike food service workers who might at least get some relief with tips, a dirty little secret in BC is how tens of thousands of "caregivers", usually Filipinos on work permits, are exploited at or below $8.hr. The next time you see a Filipino caregiver pushing a stroller or a wheelchair think about what that worker earns and how she is treated. You don't have to imagine; just go to the Service Canada job bank, enter "caregiver" under search text, click and you will be shocked. There you will find hundreds of job advertisements for 40 hours per week, $8/hr jobs where the live-in-caregiver must pay $325 per month out of her $8/hr for board and room (in reality working many unpaid overtime hours). The only protection the workers receive is from a complaints-driven employment standards act, but the workers tend to be in Canada on work permits which prohibit them from changing employers unless they go through a complicated three month application process. There are thousands of caregivers in BC who are working under conditions of another century; they are victims of a low minimum wage and an employment standards system that puts the burden on the victims. I know of horror stories of what the real conditions are when a vulnerable caregiver applies for some of the jobs on the Service Canada site. A few advocacy organizations, like the West Coast Domestic Workers Association, do what they can to fight against obvious injustice, but they face federal and provincial governments indifferent to the exploitation of vulnerable workers.

Iain Black is right that more than the minimum wage needs fixing; the entire system of employment standards is broken and the consequences are unconscionable for decent people. Some investigative media should send in a hidden camera and expose the real truth behind the exploitation of BC's most vulnerable workers. Black's review on the eve of the BC Liberal leadership race is too little, too late. The real story of BC's exploited workers needs to be told.