We all pay a price

Calls for a living wage in Manitoba

Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour (Photo by Keeley Braunstein-Black)

Sayings like “the bigger the dream, the harder the grind” and “hustle, don’t sleep” echo the toxic productivity ingrained in Canada’s cultural consciousness. Latestage capitalism has further advanced the idea that people must constantly work to achieve success and stability.

But romanticizing a gruelling work schedule at the expense of physical and mental health takes the focus away from the reality that many workers, despite their heavy workload, still don’t make enough money to survive.

Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, defines a living wage “as the minimum someone needs to get by, so that they’re able to have a roof over their head, that they can eat a decent meal every day and have a little bit of discretionary money beyond that.”

In 2022, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives calculated that a family of four, with two working adults, would each require a wage of $18.24 per hour. The report specifies that younger adults in particular need a living wage, so they are able to start and care for their own families.

The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality is ludicrous, Rebeck says. If someone doesn’t “make enough to exist, how are they supposed to conjure up more money to go get an education or conjure up more money to better themselves if they can’t make basic ends meet?”

He says full-time work was once considered a path out of poverty but it is no longer a reality for thousands of workers in Manitoba.

“How can we expect people to participate in the workforce and then not have a home to go to, not have a decent meal to eat or be stressed about being able to pay their hydro bill or their heat bill this month?” Rebeck says.

Without a living wage, people must often rely on different social safety nets, such as rent-assistance programs and food banks.

“We can either let employers pay their fair share, or we can all pay in a dozen different ways that are less effective than making sure people who work full-time can make basic ends meet,” Rebeck says.

A living wage can drive the economy, he says, as “low-wage workers spend every penny they earn right back in the local economy.”

Shauna MacKinnon, an associate professor with the University of Winnipeg’s urban and inner-city studies department, says a reluctance to pay employees a living wage is tied to a fear of cutting into business profits and a belief that a person’s value is equivalent to their job position.

“The jobs that we need are there for a reason, and somebody’s going to have to do them,” MacKinnon says. “Why is it that we don’t see those jobs as valuable, and why do we not pay people better?”

She also says many people misunderstand what a living wage actually means. For instance, the right-wing Fraser Institute has claimed that living-wages laws would hurt unskilled workers because such laws would incentivize employers to hire more experienced candidates.

“People tend to distort that from what it actually is. So, quickly, it just becomes drawn out of proportion, and that’s the way to dismiss it, by turning it into something that it’s not.”

MacKinnon also says the potential to move up in jobs is less common than it once was.

“There’s fewer unionized jobs. We’ve seen the implications for people who’ve tried to unionize some of these factory floors, like Amazon, and they ended up suffering pretty serious consequences,” she says.

According to information from the Canadian Rental Housing Index, those living in Manitoba without children spend anywhere from 40 to 49 per cent of their income on rent and utilities.

“The issue around housing has a huge impact on, obviously, what would be an acceptable living wage. It’s one thing to increase the living wage, but people can’t afford to live anywhere,” MacKinnon says.

Jerry Buckland, an international development studies professor at Menno Simons College, says the rise in conflicting cultural signals contributes to the connection between hard work and success.

“We’re presented with this notion that if we just work harder and we’re more innovative, we could all become these billionaires,” he says.

Buckland says wage rates for those at the lower end of the employment spectrum have stagnated.

According to 2021 data from Statistics Canada, the wealthiest households by quintile, or the top 20 per cent, held more than two-thirds of all net worth in Canada, while the lowest two quintiles, the bottom 40 per cent, held 2.8 per cent.

“This heavy value placed on these billionaires and this hypereconomy idea is really taking us away from what really does bring us meaning.”

Published in Volume 77, Number 20 of The Uniter (March 2, 2023)

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