by Daniel Tseghay
A long line of people stand under a grey sky, awaiting their bus. Others pass them, flooding the loop, having descended from the Skytrain at Surrey Central station. It’s a Saturday afternoon but people look rushed, with many likely on their way to, or from, work. Most of them will pass by uninterrupted but some might pass a small stand with two volunteers. They’re passing out fliers and getting signatures for the Fight for $15 campaign. One of the organizers, Chris Fofonoff, has been at it every Saturday since late-2014. And now, with British Columbia set to have the lowest minimum wage in Canada as of April 1st, despite an increase of 20 cents to $10.45 an hour, it’s more important than ever.
“More people than I like to think about are coming up and saying they’re struggling,” says Fofonoff in an interview with Rankandfile.ca. “There was someone who was doing demolition, not exactly a low-skill and low-risk job, being paid minimum wage through a temp agency. Minimum wage for someone knocking down buildings cuts against the popular conception of the middle class teenager who is working 15 hours a week at the fast food place just to earn beer money.”
Fofonoff points out that 60 per cent of workers earning less than $15 an hour, low-wage workers, are women and that 80 per cent are above the age of 20, with many caring for dependents like children.
And Surrey, a rapidly growing city outside of Vancouver, is an important place for petitioning. “People are being priced out of Vancouver. They have to move farther and farther away and transit in to make the coffee for the people who work in the office towers,” says Fofonoff. “Surrey probably has the greatest concentration of low-wage workers in the province.”
There are 110,452 people making the minimum wage in BC, with nearly all of them unrepresented by a union. It means that for many of them with dependents they are below the poverty line even if they work full-time. And it looks like no end is in sight under the BC Liberal plan since, even with the inflation adjustment at an estimated 2%, the minimum wage in BC won’t reach $15 until 2034.
“The increase of 20 cents was such a pathetic response to what is a very significant problem of poverty,” says Irene Lanzinger, President of the BC Federation of Labour in an interview with Rankandfile.ca. “The Liberals have said that they’re announcing an increase in May and I’m suspecting it’s because they want to have an answer about why we are the lowest in April but that increase will not take effect until September, and if it’s like the last increase it will not be anywhere near enough to address the issues of poverty.”
Echoing Fofonoff, Lanzinger feels called to action by the incredible toll these low wages are having on people. “Workers who have families have to make very difficult choices. Some of them work more than one job which means they have less time for their family, or the own health and well-being,” Lanzinger says. “Some of them make tough choices about groceries and what they buy. We just had a demonstration in front of the HIlton Hotel, which is a unionized hotel, and we know that some of the workers work two jobs – cleaning in hospitals and cleaning hotels. They’re not earning enough in one job to make ends meet.”
A Living Wage
Lanzinger sees the Fight for $15 campaign as part of a broader anti-poverty campaign which includes a raise in welfare rates, a social housing plan, and, eventually, an actual living wage.
A living wage keeps track with the cost of living for a provider of a family of four in their city of residence. It’s the cost of “actively living and participating in your community” which, despite excluding debt repayment, savings, or children’s future education, does include “parent’s education so there’s a pathway out of low-wage work”, according to Deanna Ogle, campaign organizer for the Living Wage For Families Campaign in an interview with Rankandfile.ca. Since the minimum wage, according to Ogle, is simply “keeping folks in poverty”, the sensible response is a living wage, with it being as low as low as $16.82 an hour in some parts of BC while being $20.68 in Metro Vancouver.
While the province determines the minimum wage, the living wage is a voluntary decision by employers. But even then, there are stringent standards. Ogle notes that for an employer to be certified by the living wage for families campaign as a living wage employer they have to pay a living wage to both as well as contracted services, which includes cleaners and security guards.
Much of the campaign involves policy advocacy, looking at drives the living wage up in the first place. So that might mean acknowledging the second largest cost for families, childcare, and therefore supporting the call for a 10 dollar a day childcare plan. It also means actively calling on employers to pay a living wage. And the campaign has seen some success there. Workers employed by the City of Vancouver will earn a living wage. The City of New Westminster is already a living wage employer. And the Port Alberni’s Huu-ay-aht First Nation, on Vancouver Island, is currently a living wage employer. 58 employers across the province are signed on as well.
The Struggle Continues
But there’s still so much more to go. Most workers are still earning a minimum wage, or somewhere below $15 an hour, which is still far below the living wage.
“We have not had a lot of success with the government,” Lanzinger admits, but public opinion is certainly on the side of a wage increase. “The number one thing I get told is ‘It should be 20,’” says Fofonoff. “This is by far the easiest petition I’ve gotten signed.”
And so the struggle continues. Lanzinger talks about the work the BCFED has done to sign people up on a petition, hand out information about the minimum wage, hold rallies, lobby the government, and put together coalitions “of not just unions but anti-poverty groups, social movement groups.”
“We have a built a relationship with low-wage workers to try and engage them in this fight and mobilize them around the issue,” Lanzinger continues. “We’ve developed a strong relationship with the Poverty Reduction Coalition, Raise the Rates, ACORN, and others.”
The petitioning itself has helped connect and organize low-wage workers. “A lot of the point of going out there is so we can get contact with them later and try to build something that’s more than just names on a page,” says Fofonoff.
On February 20th, they even organized a Surrey working group meeting with a couple of dozen people. They discussed the possibility of holding monthly rallies, writing letters to local papers, and including migrant agricultural workers who often don’t even earn the minimum wage, instead earning a piece rate, or based on what they pick.
“It’s about going to meetings, organizing rallies, getting their friends and family members involved, building it up to a real popular movement,” says Fofonoff.
Not only is this possible but it’s a bare minimum for the labour movement.
“What we want to see,” says Ogle, “is that work is able to lift us out of poverty and not keep us there.”