With Manitoba’s minimum wage on target to be the lowest in Canada this fall, the Progressive Conservatives introduced legislation Monday overriding a 2017 bill that caps increases at the rate of inflation.
Labour Minister Reg Helwer introduced Bill 44 — the Employment Standards Code Amendment Act (Minimum Wage) — that allows cabinet to raise minimum wage above the Consumer Price Index when the rate of inflation exceeds five per cent in the first three months of that year.
The increase must be made within 30 days of taking effect and the effective date must be within the period of Oct. 1 to Dec. 31 of the applicable year, according to the bill that’s expected to pass by the time the house rises for the summer late Wednesday.
During question period and a scrum with reporters afterward, Helwer wouldn’t say Monday what the minimum wage will be in October or commit to increasing it.
It is is now $11.95 per hour and set to increase 40 cents on Oct. 1 to $12.35, making it the lowest in Canada, as Saskatchewan will be increasing its minimum wage to $13.
Helwer told reporters Monday that these are "very uncertain times," and his government will be consulting with business and labour groups about what the wage should be.
The bill provides a workaround to the Minimum Wage Indexation Act (Employment Standards Code Amended) passed five years ago under the reign of then-premier Brian Pallister, whose austerity measures have kept a lid on the minimum wage.
Until Friday, Premier Heather Stefanson’s government had defended the legislation and its predictability, even after Manitobans received a five-cent minimum-wage increase on Oct. 1 based on last year’s rate of inflation while trying to cope with soaring prices resulting from a 30-year high inflation rate.
After meeting with her western counterparts at a premiers conference last week, Stefanson acknowledged that Manitoba needs to remain "competitive" with other provinces and that it had "somewhat gotten behind."
Business and labour groups said they were looking forward to being consulted on what Manitoba’s minimum wage should be.
"We get that this year’s been a bit unique in terms of the impact of inflation, but it’s also had an impact on small businesses," said Chuck Davidson, president and chief executive officer of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce.
“The other reality, too, is that I’ve yet to talk to a business owner that’s paying minimum wage; the demand for workers is such that everybody is above and beyond minimum wage." — Chuck Davidson, president and chief executive officer of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce
"And that’s the concern — that it’s typically going to be small businesses that are impacted by any kind of increase like this," Davidson said. "The other reality, too, is that I’ve yet to talk to a business owner that’s paying minimum wage; the demand for workers is such that everybody is above and beyond minimum wage.
"I would like to see what the impact is and how many people are actually impacted by minimum wage right now."
Monday’s bill was welcomed by labour and income-equality advocates.
"I’m glad that government is now opening the door to do the right thing, but they haven’t done the right thing yet," said Kevin Rebeck, head of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, which called for a $16 hourly minimum wage two years ago.
"We’re calling for minimum wage to be a living wage," he said Monday. "We’ll be pushing hard through the consultation to call for government to do the right thing… our working Manitobans deserve it and are certainly facing lots of increases at the pumps and at the grocery stores. Minimum-wage workers are hit the hardest."
University of Manitoba economic professor Jesse Hajer said an above-inflation increase is needed for Manitoba rise above having the lowest minimum wage in Canada.
“We’re not going to stand in the way of working folks of getting an increase." — NDP Leader Wab Kinew
"It is now indexed, but tied to a relatively low amount, after a lack of increases to keep pace with inflation," Hajer said. "With inflation at 7.5 per cent year-over-year, minimum-wage workers will be struggling even more now. The reality is, though, that a substantial increase will be required to make up for these losses and allow minimum-wage workers to come closer to meeting their basic needs."
NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the Tory government should have already consulted with business and labour and arrived at an appropriate rate, given the rising cost of living and publicly lauding front-line workers throughout the pandemic.
While the Opposition is pushing for a "substantial" increase, it plans to support the government bill so it passes before the house rises, he said.
"We’re not going to stand in the way of working folks of getting an increase," said Kinew.
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the PCs’ "about face" on limiting minimum-wage increases to last year’s rate of inflation wasn’t motivated by a desire to help people earning that amount.
"A higher minimum wage is essential to attract and keep workers and will boost the economy, but it’s certainly not ‘aid,’" Lamont, who tested positive for COVID-19 and is working remotely, said in a prepared statement Monday.
"It’s proper pay for work done."
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.