Tories should stop patting themselves on the back for increasing minimum wage

EDMONTON - In his annual address to the province last night, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein promised to help low-paid workers by increasing the minimum wage.

But anything less than a jump to something close to $8 an hour would still leave Alberta at the bottom of the pack among "have" provinces, says the Alberta Federation of Labour.

"British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec all have minimum wages between $7.45 and $8 an hour," says AFL president Kerry Barrett. "As Canada's wealthiest province, having a minimum wage that falls below that range would, in our view, constitute a policy failure."

Barrett says the Alberta government has a long history of ignoring the interests of low-wage workers. At $5.90 an hour, Alberta has had the distinction of having one the lowest minimum wage in the country for years.

The provincial government has also shown a great reluctance to increase the minimum wage to compensate for increases in the cost of living.

"The minimum wage in Alberta was last increased in 1998. That's seven years without a raise," says Barrett.

"During that time, other provincial governments have raised their minimum wages multiple times. And the cost of living in Alberta has gone up by more than 20 percent. That means we would need a minimum wage of slightly more than $7 an hour just to return to where we were in 1998. So pardon us for not applauding the Premier's promise. It's really not as generous as he wants people to believe."

The difference between Alberta's minimum wage and minimums in other provinces is even starker when you compare it to average provincial hourly wages rates. In most provinces, the minimum wage is about 40 per cent of the average hourly wage rate. But in Alberta, minimum wage workers earn only 31 per cent of the average, the lowest in the country.

"The bottom line is that Alberta is a wealthy province that can afford to pay more," says Barrett. "The fact that we've remained at the bottom of the pile for so long is an indictment of the government and a glaring example for its disregard for people at the lower end of the economic ladder."

If Premier Klein really wants to earn applause, Barrett says he should raise the minimum wage to something over $8 an hour. He should also agree to a mechanism for annual inflation adjustments so the real value of the minimum was is not constantly being eroded. And he should consider a "living wage" procurement policy that would require all contractors doing work with public agencies to pay their employees well.

"He's always talking about Alberta being number. Given our prosperity, there's no reason why we shouldn't be number one in this area as well," says Barrett.

"And contrary to what the government says when it downplays the number of low-wage workers in this province, this would have a big impact. According to their own figures, there are more than 140,000 people in the province working for less than $8 an hour. That's about 8 per cent of the total work force. So a boost in the minimum wage to $8 an hour would help a lot of people. Our only question is: what is this government waiting for?"

For more information call:

Kerry Barrett, AFL President   at 780-720-8945 (cell)  or
Gil McGowan, AFL Communications Director at  780-483-3021 (work)

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