“I took every shift I could get, up to 70-hours per week, to make ends meet. With wages that low, this is what you have to do.”
Devon Bartlett, Halifax airport worker
By Lisa Cameron
In September 2019, Justin Trudeau promised “a federal minimum wage of at least $15 per hour, starting in 2020 and rising with inflation, with provisions to ensure that where provincial or territorial minimum wages are higher, that wage will prevail.”
We are in the final days of 2020, and yet Trudeau has taken no steps to honour this commitment.
The majority of Canadian workplaces are regulated provincially. Provinces establish and enforce basic employment standards pertaining to matters such as overtime pay, mandatory breaks, statutory holidays, and the minimum wage.
Federal minimum wage pegged at provincial minimum
Only about 6 percent of Canada’s workforce is regulated by the Canada Labour Code; federal legislation that sets out the rights and responsibilities of workers and employers in affected sectors like transportation, telecommunications, broadcasting, and banking.
Currently, the Canada Labour Code guarantees workers the same minimum wage set out by the province in which they are employed. In Nova Scotia, this is only $12.55 per hour.
While the majority of federally regulated workers in Canada earn more than $15 hourly, 22% of employees in the transportation industry earn less. For these workers, the promised amendment to the federal wage floor would mean pay increases ranging from $0.40-$3.55 per hour – a significant improvement.
Poverty wages at Halifax airport
Craig Moss, a grounds-crew airport worker earning $13 per hour, feels held back by wages he describes as inadequate. “Car payments, insurance, affording food, and having a life I enjoy is tough,” says Moss. “Things can go wrong, too. I need my car to get to work, but there was a crack in my windshield that needed repairing. Things are so expensive. I can’t afford Christmas presents for my friends and family.”
The burden of poverty has made personal challenges even more difficult for Moss. “My girlfriend’s mom was diagnosed with cancer, so she had to quit her job to take care of her,” says Moss. “I am looking after all the bills at the moment and it is tough to keep up. Depression creeps in. I had to take a week off work due to severe stomach pains because of the stress this is causing, but I have no savings to rely on.”
A living wage for the city of Halifax is $21.80 per hour; nearly $10 higher than the minimum wage guaranteed to both federally and provincially regulated employees in Nova Scotia. “In terms of affordable living, especially in Halifax, things can be really expensive. Food costs are really high in comparison to what we earn. I still live at home and planning on moving out is really difficult on such a small wage,” says Moss.
“That could have killed me”
Devon Bartlett, another airport worker earning less than $15 per hour, finds his wages too low especially given the risks he and his co-workers face daily. “Our work super dangerous, even before COVID. Accidents happen all the time,” says Bartlett. “We’re outside, dealing with heavy machines and multi-million-dollar planes. I’ve been outside for 3-hours straight in freezing rain, completely soaked. I even had a plane door almost shut on me because the wind was so strong. That could have killed me.”
Until recently, Bartlett’s employment had been part-time. “I took every shift I could get, up to 70-hours per week, to make ends meet. With wages that low, this is what you have to do.”
Bartlett says higher wages would make a huge difference. “I enjoy the work, but we deserve better pay. Our jobs are necessary to get people to their destinations safely. We should be compensated better.”
On December 6th, Halifax’s Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign hosted a phone zap. Participants made calls to the Prime Minister, the Labour Minister, and Members of Parliament urging them all to take action. The Fight for Fifteen and Fairness campaign and the Halifax Workers’ Action Centre (Halifax-WAC) calls on everyone who is concerned with this issue to continue this outreach effort.
Organizing to raise standards
“We know that many workers in federally regulated industries are currently paid wages so low that they cannot afford the basic necessities of life, like rent, utilities, and groceries,” says Katrin MacPhee, a member of both the Fight for $15 and Fairness Campaign and the Halifax-WAC. “A $15 minimum wage is a step towards these workers attaining the dignity and financial security we all deserve.”
Given the small number of federally regulated workers in Canada, many have dismissed the importance of a new federal wage floor. However, holding the Liberals to account will not only benefit those working in federal sectors.
Currently, 10 out of 12 Canadian provinces have minimum wages below $15 per hour. “As workers in more jurisdictions across Canada enjoy a $15 minimum wage, the less acceptable it will be for provinces like Nova Scotia to set the minimum wage at less than $15,” says MacPhee.
The federal government must act quickly. “Making under $15 per hour is not livable, period, especially in uncertain times,” says Bartlett. “The smallest change helps when you are earning so little”.
Moss believes the Liberal government ought to keep its word. “We were told we would get a $15 minimum wage and they need to follow through,” he says. “There are many people out here earning less than that who are really struggling. We need to make this happen.”
The Halifax Workers’ Action Centre and Halifax’s Fight for $15 and Fairness Campaign are calling on the Liberal government to deliver on its promise.