Sittin’ on a fence post, talkin’ ’bout the living wage

New Westminster led the way in April 2010 when it became the first municipality in Canada to adopt a living wage policy. Set by the Candian Centre for Policy Alternatives at $16.74/hour, the wage reflected the minimum rate necessary for a family of four with working parents to cover the cost of food, clothing, shelter, child care, education and health.

Since then, the cost of living in Metro Vancouver has continued to inch skywards, and accordingly, the living wage has been bumped up to $18.81/hour.

This means that all firms contracted directly or indirectly by the City of New Westminster are required to pay their employees almost double the provincially mandated minimum wage of $9.50/hour. (Or, put another way, significantly more than I have ever made ever. Including the summer I was solely responsible for the health and happiness of eight 5-year-old girls and was paid something absurd like $3.50/hour… while my friends at the arena concession gorged themselves on free pop and pizza to the tune of $150/shift.)

And while the policy certainly has it’s supporters (who isn’t favour of putting dinner on the table and paying their utility bill on time?), it also has it’s critics (and, to the surprise of no one more than myself, I’m starting to think I might be one of them).

When the Record ran a story about the allegations of one New Westminster resident who said that the policy was being violated by a firm contracted to work on the future civic centre on Columbia Street, John Ashdown wrote a letter to the paper saying that the man had “only touched the tip of the inequalities of the city’s fair living wage policy.”

According to Ashdown, who is the president of the West End Business Association and ran for council in the November municipal election, fair wage legislation impedes the contracting out of services to private companies and increases unions’ ability to compete for contracts.

“It’s time for this council to justify the real cost/benefits of this policy now and into the future,” Ashdown wrote.

“Tell us the benefit of adding $40,000 for a union position to provide sandwiches for staff, which was previously contracted out. Tell us about the $60,000 cost to bring jail custodians up to fair living wages. Tell us now what we can expect at the civic centre or Pier Park? A tube steak vendor forced to pay $18 per hour instead of allowing free enterprise to survive and prosper?”

Despite his attention-grabbing closing line (“stop trying to turn New Westminster into a bedroom of socialists”) I, um, kind of think he has a point. A few points, actually.

But since I also can’t quite convince myself that something so seemingly glorious is actually a bad thing, I’ve done what I often do when I have to make a tough decision: I’ve drawn up a list of pros and cons. Behold, figure A.

I did take first-year economics in university (I got a C!) so clearly, I know what I’m talking about.

Truthfully, there are a lot of much more authoritative, educated supply-and-demand types out there who are a lot more qualified to make a case for or against the living wage than I. You should check them out. And then report back to me. I’ll be here, sitting on the fence, when you get back.

Note to the curious: The title of this post is a throwback to my camp counselling days, referring to the beloved campfire song Herman the Worm. The original lyrics are “sittin’ on a fence post/chewin’ my bubble gum”. You can watch a 4-year-old sing it here. He kind of botches the lyrics, but I’ll forgive him because he is four.

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