Three days into her new government, Premier Christy Clark said goodbye to two of her predecessor Gordon Campbell's sturdiest policy planks by increasing the minimum wage and wiping out B.C.'s controversial training rate.
At a news conference in Victoria alongside her new Minister of Labour, Ms. Clark said the "long-overdue" decision reflected her commitment to help low-income families. B.C.'s minimum wage is the lowest in the country and has remained at $8 an hour since 2001.
The minimum wage will be raised to $8.75 on May 1. It will increase to $9.50 on Nov. 1, before hitting $10.25 in May, 2012. The $6 training wage will be repealed as of May, and a separate minimum wage for liquor servers will come into effect.
"Many from lower-income families in this province are finding it harder than ever to keep up," Ms. Clark told reporters. "There is no quick fix for that. It is going to be an ongoing focus of our government to make sure that families are at the centre of our agenda and that it's a little bit easier for people who are struggling to get ahead."
Ms. Clark said she's no stranger to minimum wage, having held down jobs as a waitress and short-order cook.
The restaurant and business communities were the harshest critics of the increase, arguing it will lead to layoffs.
"We are really quite concerned as to the magnitude of the increase," said Ian Tostenson, president and chief executive officer of the BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association.
Mr. Tostenson said the increase should have been between 25 and 50 cents an hour and is another blow to an industry already hurt by the economy, the harmonized sales tax and rising food prices.
"The question that I'm now fielding, which is coming from the business community, is how do you pay for increasing your wage cost when you're in a market that's flat and or losing sales?" he said.
John Winter, president and chief executive officer of the BC Chamber of Commerce, said he would have preferred the increase be implemented over two years.
"It still strikes us as being an awful lot very quickly," he said. "We would have liked to have seen that extended a little further in terms of the time frame. Many small businesses are still struggling to make ends meet coming out of the recession. The timing is never right, but this is not particularly good." Mr. Winter said a minimum wage increase generally results in younger workers getting fewer hours.
Said Mr. Tostenson: "My fear is that we're going to start to lose some employment over this."
Opposition New Democrats and labour advocates weren't completely satisfied either. They expressed frustration that it took a decade for the increase to be announced, and that it will be more than a year before the $10.25-an-hour wage comes into effect.
Jim Sinclair, president of the BC Federation of Labour, took issue with the job-losses threat, however, calling it a "bogeyman."
"I don't believe businesses make it or break it on these kinds of wages," he said.
Raj Chouhan, the NDP's labour critic, said the minimum wage increase is only a first step toward addressing poverty. He said his party is calling for a comprehensive strategy that addresses its root causes.
Ms. Clark promised to increase the minimum wage as part of her leadership bid. She was sworn in as Premier on Monday and the change was approved at her first formal cabinet meeting on Wednesday.
"Being last in the country on minimum wage isn't where we want to be," she said, adding the increase could mean more than $4,000 additional dollars annually for a full-time employee. About 41,000 British Columbians earned the minimum wage or less in 2009.
The minimum wage for alcohol servers is currently $8 an hour. It will rise to $8.50 on May 1, $8.75 on Nov. 1, and $9 in May, 2012.
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