$15 and the B.C. Fair Wages Commission: An interview with Irene Lanzinger

By Daniel Tseghay

The Government of BC is currently hearing from individuals and businesses across the province regarding timelines for increasing the minimum wage to $15/h; what to do with the minimum wage rates for farm workers, liquor servers, live-in caregivers, resident caretakers, and live-in camp leaders, which are currently lower than the general minimum wage of $11.35; and how to square the minimum with the living wage for various parts of the province.

Rankandfile.ca spoke with Irene Lanzinger, the president of the B.C. Federation of Labour.B0pbxFJIgAEod9-

Can you give us some background on the Fair Wages Commission? Who set it up; who’s participating; and what powers does it have?

The government set it up. It was in the Confidence and Supply Agreement between the Greens and the BCNDP that allowed the BCNDP to form a minority government. They put out a call and, I think, at some point said they were going to have a three-person commission, a chair, someone from labour, and someone from business. That’s the structure. They have a chair: Marjorie Cohen [Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Gender, Sexuality and Women s Studies at Simon Fraser University]. They have a person from labour who is the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 1518, Ivan Limpright. And a person from business.

The Fight for 15 movement is incredibly important. We saw the recent success in Ontario and it came with lots of press. This province’s Fair Wages Commission gives people an opportunity to express their views on increasing the minimum wage but many people haven’t heard much about it. Is that your sense as well and, if so, why is that?

We are pretty actively engaged. I’ll be presenting next Thursday. Our Women’s Committee will present in Abbotsford. Our Workers of Colour presented in victoria. Our young workers are pretty actively engaged. Many of our allies are also signing up to present. In terms of public buzz, I agree there hasn’t been a lot of advertising out there around it but I hope people will attend. We have a pretty active website around it at fightfor15bc.ca.

What’s the BCFED’s position on what the timeline for getting to $15/h should be?

The BCFED is saying January 2019. That brings us up to the same time that Ontario is proposing. But we’re not linking it to Ontario. We’re not saying we should get there the same time as Ontario. We’re saying we should get there January 2019. If there’s an election in Ontario and if it gets delayed that would not stop us from pushing for January 2019. The decision would be made before that in terms of timeline anyway. We say we should have a timeline that is consistent with Alberta and Ontario.

The BCNDP initially proposed a timeline that was a long phase-in – getting us to $15/h by 2021 – that the BCFED has been critical of. What are your thoughts on why that was?

They don’t have a majority. They have a minority government. The timeline now is the purview of the Fair Wages Commission. From our perspective that was a good thing because it moved away from the 2021 timeline which we felt was too long. The Premier and Labour Minister have both said that they haven’t necessarily committed to doing exactly what the Commission says regarding timeline but if it recommends earlier that could be persuasive or have an influence on them.

One thing we’ve all seen in other provinces and we’re already seeing here is a pushback from the business community. What do you think of that, how do you address that challenge, and what do you make of some comments from the BCNDP and the Greens that sound like they’re placating business?

I say a couple things to the business community. The first and most important one is that no one should work and live in poverty in this province. The business community should understand that too. That’s why we need a poverty reduction plan. Wages should be above the poverty line. For me that’s the kind of a fundamental social justice principle. While we think we’re being really reasonable, we’ve waited too long for a $15/h minimum wage. We should have had it years ago. We’re suffering from 16 years of liberal inaction on the minimum wage. We’re saying January 2019 – we think that’s a reasonable position. Ontario is going to $14/h in January of 2018. We will just be finished the Fair Wage Commission when they do. We are behind and we have to do something about that. The very first thing we need to insist as a fundamental principle is that wages should lift you above the poverty line. $15/h does that – not by much, but it does that. I’ve said this and I’ve been roundly criticized by business for saying it but I’ll say it again: your business plan should not be based on paying poverty wages. We have to demand this principle – that a viable business plan is based on paying good wages.

Some argue that if we’re going to raise the minimum wage it should be offset with tax breaks and relaxed labour laws. How do you address that proposal?

We shouldn’t be relaxing labour standards. We need tougher labour standards – not weaker labour standards. As far as tax breaks go I think we have given a lot of tax breaks to business in the past. I guess there might be some case to be made for very small mom and pop shops struggling to get by but, again, I would say they should pay wages that lift people up above the poverty line. I think we have a tax regime that needs to be fair but that also means that businesses need to pay their fair share. The tax regime has to not cripple business but I don’t think that’s the case right now. I don’t think we have a tax on either small or large corporations that’s not manageable by a well-run business.

I am not in favour of tax breaks. We need better labour standards – not weaker ones. I don’t know how a tax breaks is supposed to help people pay the minimum wage. Maybe you don’t have to pay overtime? Someone would have to explain to me what they mean by relaxing labour standards. I think we have very weak labour standards that were eroded by the Liberals. There are many examples of that. And we also have a much-reduced Employment Standards Branch that is not enforcing the few rules we do have. One of the things we’ve called for is tougher labour standards – not only going back to where we were in 2002 but improving some things like paid sick leave, paid leave for victims of domestic violence, and putting some resources into the Employment Standards Branch so we can have a situation where workers’ rights are enforced, where there’s a compliance regime, and employers actually have to follow the rules. We need improvements in employment standards.

There are currently a number of jobs that are exempt from the current minimum wage – basically they can be paid below what everyone else is legally entitled to. What’s the BCFED’s position on those with exemptions when it comes to the Fight for 15?

Our position is that the minimum wage should apply to everyone. There should be no exemption. That includes the liquour server wage. It includes farm workers, caregivers, camp leaders. We say everyone should get the minimum wage. We will be making that case to the Fair Wages Commission.

You think about farm workers – they get a piece rate. They cannot make the minimum wage at certain times of the year. They might be able to make it at a peak production time but they can’t make it at other times. They should have a minimum wage.

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