One step forward for low-waged workers in Halifax?

Today the Halifax Regional Municipal Council will consider a staff report that recommends that Council approve the adoption of a Supplier Code of Conduct (including Living Wage requirements). Voting in favour of this recommendation would be one important step forward, but will not have the impact that a broader living wage policy could have.  Council should adopt a living wage policy for the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) that ensures that all HRM employees, service providers and sub-contractor employees are paid a living wage with very few exemptions.

Ensuring that our public dollars are used to provide stable jobs at a living wage should be part of the antipoverty strategy that the Council committed to in 2017. While a living wage is not the only tool to end poverty, it is an essential contributing factor. The city needs to recognize the very real role that it plays in employing Haligonians at poverty wages, whether because the procurement policy lacks a provision for a living wage or to consider social benefits, or by contracting out services to the lowest bidder, and also because of the city’s use of casual and seasonal direct employment.

Should Halifax Regional Municipality accept its responsibility to take a lead on this, it should be as a living wage employer. Why should HRM ask its contractors to pay a living wage and not do so itself? City Council could adopt a resolution committing to pay all direct and indirect city workers a living wage. This sort of approach is not new in Canada: a decade ago New Westminster, B.C was the first to do it and many other jurisdictions have followed suit. Indeed many hundreds of employers have been certified in Canada from small businesses, non-profits, to credit unions and larger for-profits to medium and large public sector employees like school boards, and hospitals.

Cutting costs on the backs of low waged workers doesn’t save taxpayers money. The municipal budget is already impacted by the high costs of poverty whether by productivity lost or by the pressures on its budget to help people manage to live on a low-income. The living wage is costed to reflect what it takes to live a decent quality of life in our community: to work to live and not live to work.

Nobody can deny that families are struggling to make ends meet in our city.

People are finding it very difficult to pay for what they need, whether that is shelter or food, transportation costs or child care. The CCPA-NS’ child and family poverty report card shows that 20.4% of children are living in poverty in Halifax. Poverty wages force many working people into the impossible choice between heat and food, while parents go without so that their children can have their basic needs met. As one low-wage worker in Halifax shared with us, “we go without eating so my son can have his three meals a day, his snacks, his juice, his milk.”

Using the Canadian Living Wage framework, my organization’s calculations of the living wage for Halifax show that it takes $21.80 an hour to ensure that people are able to not just survive, but thrive.

The estimated cost in the staff report coming to Council amounts to about 1% of the municipal budget, but what is not accounted for are the benefits. The research tells us that paying workers a living wage has significant benefits including increasing the quality of contracts. In cities that have enacted these policies, they share that “competition for contracts is determined by more than which firms can drive wages down the lowest, and is influenced by other factors, such as service quality.”

There are broader benefits for the economy when we take a bottom-up approach by boosting the pay of low waged workers; these measures invigorate our local economy by boosting consumer spending. When we put more money in the pockets of people living on low-incomes, that money circulates in our community.

We all benefit when everyone is supported to participate fully in civic life. To pay a living wage is to support healthy childhood development and a healthier population in the long run; paying a living wage will help to bring our community together instead of leaving those in need to fight over crumbs.

Christine Saulnier, PhD is the Nova Scotia Director of the CCPA and is lead researcher on the living wage in Atlantic Canada and co-author of the most the 2020 living wage report.

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