Labour shortage boosting low wages by itself, Manitoba premier says in defence of minimum wage

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson doesn’t appear too concerned her province may soon be home to the lowest minimum wage in the country.

Considering the labour shortage afflicting businesses, Stefanson figures employers are raising the wages of their lowest-paid employees on their own to recruit workers.

“I’ve talked to several different industries where they’re having difficulties finding labour … it’s a supply and demand issue. Right now, I suspect that there’s less that are actually paying minimum wage,” Stefanson said Monday, after announcing a $15 million funding commitment to fix roads.

“My primary concern is that shortage of labour and ensuring through our provincial nominee program and other programs that we can get people trained up for those jobs that are needed in Manitoba.”

Unless the premier changes her mind, Manitoba will offer the lowest minimum wage in Canada beginning in October.

40 cents more, but shy of Saskatchewan’s rate

The province ties minimum wage to inflation and, as such, the lowest earners will see their wages increase by 40 cents from the current $11.95 an hour to $12.35 this fall.

By then, Manitoba’s wage will be usurped by Saskatchewan, which is pushing aside its own formula of indexing the minimum wage rate to inflation to hit $13 an hour by October 2022 and eventually $15 by 2024.

After that, Saskatchewan will go back to following its formula.

By legislation, Manitoba’s minimum wage is slated to hit $12.35 in October, which will be, at that time, 65 cents lower than anywhere else in Canada. (John Gushue/CBC)

Stefanson did not rule out Manitoba diverting from its formula, as Saskatchewan has done, saying her government would “continue to monitor” wages at a time of sky-high inflation. 

The premier has regularly spoken about fixing the labour shortage as one of her main priorities since becoming premier last fall. She’s asking the federal government to permit Manitoba to accept more immigrants to fill needed jobs.

The Manitoba Federation of Labour doesn’t buy the premier’s position, however, that the ranks of minimum-wage earners is shrinking.

“If, like she says, she suspects more employers are paying greater than minimum wage, then what’s the harm in raising minimum wage to make sure all employers start getting paid closer to a living wage?” president Kevin Rebeck said.

“Poverty-level wages when people work full-time and still live in poverty is unacceptable in this day and age.”

The Tory government passed legislation in 2017 to index the minimum wage to the rate of inflation. Current labour minister Reg Helwer said the government’s policy has removed the politics from wage increases. 

Conservative premiers from other provinces have raised minimum wage rates of late.

Ontario’s lowest wage hit $15 an hour at the start of this year.

And New Brunswick’s minimum wage, once dead last in Canada — which the province’s labour minister called “downright embarrassing — increased earlier this year. The wage in that province will rise again in October to $13.75.

Stefanson’s apparent reluctance to do something similar in Manitoba is disappointing, Rebeck said.

“When other governments start making their moves and we’re falling further and further behind, that’s not fair for Manitobans,” he said.

23,000 among the lowest paid

Statistics Canada data requested by the Manitoba Federation of Labour estimates more than 23,000 workers were making the minimum wage or less in 2021. Individuals making less would include gig economy workers, whose pay is not always legislated by government.

Shortly after Stefanson’s swearing-in as premier, Rebeck said he asked Stefanson to embark on a consultative process on what the minimum wage should be, but the government has not followed suit.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew promised that his party, if elected in the fall 2023 election, would boost the minimum wage to $15 “immediately.”  

“It’s important for the minimum wage in Manitoba to keep pace with that so that everyone who’s working really hard, working full-time hours, should at least be guaranteed that they’re going to be able to provide for themselves,” Kinew said.

Meanwhile, Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the NDP is basically repeating its 2019 election pledge, which promised at the time to increase the rate by $1 a year until it hit $15. Lamont said that pledge is dismissing the impacts of inflation.

Lamont said neither the NDP’s commitment, nor the government’s current wage formula, goes far enough.

“This is a failure on the part of successive governments in Manitoba. We need to lift people out of poverty and minimum wage is part of it.”

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