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British Columbia Robertson’s minimum wage pitch drives debate on cost of hike

The Globe and Mail takes a look behind the pronouncements of public figures.

"It would be very important for addressing poverty in Vancouver given how challenging it is to afford to live in our city. … There's obvious connections to addressing the affordability crisis here." – Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, calling for a $15 per-hour minimum wage on Nov. 25.

Every penny counts for those struggling to get by on low pay in an expensive city like Vancouver. The B.C. minimum of $10.25 was announced in 2011 as part of what Premier Christy Clark called a "long-overdue" adjustment to the wage, which had been $8 for a decade.

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This week, Mr. Robertson, one of B.C.'s most powerful centre-left political voices, endorsed the B.C. Federation of Labour's call for a $15 minimum wage, saying it would make life in Vancouver more affordable for some.

The province slammed the door on the idea. "You're certainly not going to see us move to $15 an hour in the short term," Jobs Minister Shirley Bond said in Victoria the next day. She refused to comment on Mr. Robertson's remarks.

She noted that the average hourly wage in B.C. is over $24 an hour and over $14 an hour for youth.

She said the number of British Columbia workers on the minimum wage declined between 2012 and 2013 from 136,300 to 120,400.

But the B.C. Fed is pinpointing those 120,000 workers, and asking for consideration of their plight.

Statistics Canada data show that 6.4 per cent of B.C. workers were paid the adult minimum wage or less in 2013 compared to a national average of 6.7 per cent. The lowest level was in Alberta, with 1.8 per cent, and the highest was Nova Scotia at 9.4 per cent.

Thomas Davidoff, an economist at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, said he expects such a hike would help with the mayor's affordability goals.

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"I think it will help the target audience of low-wage young, less-skilled workers. I do think it will have some benefit for them. There will be a little bit of job loss. Small-business people will get upset," he said. "On aggregate, you're making a transfer from people with high to low wealth and it's fine, but it does have costs."

Richard Truscott of the B.C. branch of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, and others in the business community warned such a move would hurt employers.

"Hiking the minimum wage that far, that fast, would do significant damage, especially to the smallest of small business. Worse still, it would hurt the very people he seeks to help, since there would be fewer entry-level jobs," Mr. Truscott said in an e-mail.

Mr. Robertson said: "If all small businesses are raising [pay] up to the minimum wage being $15, I think we see a level playing field and we see people being able to address affordability across the board."

Iglika Ivanova of the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives was part of a research effort this year that suggested the living wage for a Metro Vancouver resident trying to raise a family is $20.10 an hour.

She said $15 would edge a single person above the poverty line. "With a $15 wage, you won't be rich, but you won't be living in poverty. I think that's very important."

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