New West Record: Living wage policy draws kudos from across nation

March 1st, 2010 by Theresa McManus - New Westminster's The Record

The City of New Westminster is getting kudos from poverty and health groups from across Canada after becoming the first Canadian city to agree to establish a living wage policy.

A living wage is often defined as being the minimum hourly wage that's necessary for a family of four, with two parents working full-time, to pay for food, shelter and other daily needs. City council voted unanimously to support a living wage policy that's tied to an hourly rate established annually by the Living Wage for Families campaign.

"New Westminster is the first city in Western Canada - why not be the first city in other things as well," said Coun. Jaimie McEvoy. "The pioneers would be proud."

After representatives from ACORN Canada - the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now - asked council to adopt a living wage bylaw, McEvoy encouraged council to consider the issue. He didn't know if it would fly, but he thought it would at least initiate dialogue.

McEvoy has received a lot of reaction to Monday's decision, almost all of it positive. The Canadian Cancer Society applauded the decision, saying poverty is one of the determinants of health, while the Canada Without Poverty organization said the living wage movement is a step toward ending poverty in Canada.

"The fact that there is a discussion and people are thinking about it, that is a big deal," McEvoy said. "The only people who oppose it are people who don't know the details."

The living wage policy applies to people working on city premises on a contract basis, such as a security guard at the library or employees in the cafeteria at city hall. Of the 24 vendors providing contracted services to the city, seven confirmed that some of their workers were paid less than the proposed living wage of $16.74.

McEvoy said the worst-case scenario is that the policy would cost the city $150,000.

"It's cheaper than having city council," he said.

Although only seven contracts would be impacted by the initiative, McEvoy said policies are developed on the basis of principle - not by the number of people who are impacted. He said the same applies if you're dealing with issues of racism or human rights.

"It's important that the city save money," he said. "You can't save money off the backs of the poorest people you employ. There's no fairness in that."

A staff report cautioned that it's impossible to quantify the "ripple effect" that would be created by increasing the hourly rates for those who fall below the suggested threshold.

"Other employees within the vendors' organization would expect their rates to increase proportionately to reflect their greater experience, years of service or higher position within the organization," the report said.

McEvoy has spoken to other local politicians about the living wage policy and believes there's a lot of interest in other communities in pursuing policies.

"How can you deny somebody a living wage, enough money to feed your children? I am very proud of us," said Coun. Lorrie Williams. "We are going slowly with it."