On Labour Day Let’s Support Workers’ Right to a Living Wage

Josh Brandon announces living wage campaign platform
(See media release – Sept 3, 2018)

It’s an annual tradition – each September, families head out to buy back-to-school supplies. Books, stationary, clothes and electronics can cost hundreds of dollars for each child. It is enough to strain the budget of any household, but for low-income families, these expenses take money from the budget for rent, food, utilities and other basic necessities. Children who can’t afford these supplies risk reduced educational attainment and social exclusion. This is the case for tens of thousands of Winnipeg families who depend on low wage jobs. Even working full time, they remain thousands of dollars below the poverty line and unable to keep up with rising costs.

It is time for the City of Winnipeg to show leadership in poverty reduction and fairness by ensuring that everyone doing municipal work, either as a direct or contract employee, is paid a living wage. People doing public services for our community should be paid enough to live in our community. Municipal and other governments should be setting examples as living wage employers that provide permanent unionized jobs with safe and appropriate working conditions.

A 2017 Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report calculated a family living wage in Winnipeg at $14.54 per hour.  That is enough for a family with two children and both parents working full-time to be able to afford rent, food, transportation, child care and other essential basic costs. It is not enough to provide for savings or luxuries, and does not provide much of a cushion for hard times, but it is enough to afford a hard working family to afford to get by. This is the minimum workers should expect.

Unfortunately, this has not been the direction the City of Winnipeg has been heading over the last four years.With the outsourcing of city services, long-term municipal jobs are often lost to low-wage part-time temporary work contracts. Long-term employees are replaced with day labourers.

In April, city council awarded a 10-year, $90 million recycling processing contract to Canada Fibers. Last year this company was ordered to pay $1.33 million for wage violations for underpaying their workers at its Toronto area facility. The award provides fair wage provisions for workers.

In 2016, Winnipeg city council voted to contract out garbage and waste recycling collection, despite evidence that it would increase costs and reduce quality of service.

Municipal waste workers, in particular, have lost out from outsourcing in Winnipeg. Trashed: How Outsourcing Municipal Solid Waste Collection Kicks Workers to the Curb, a 2018 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, found that outsourcing of waste collection has resulted in permanent unionized jobs being replaced with positions that pay less and are less secure, often filled through temp agencies. According to the report, approximately half of all garbage and recycling trucks were operated by third party contractors rather than employees of the waste company (then Emterra). Workers, many of whom earn minimum wage with no benefits, reported limited shifts, no control over working conditions and high risk of termination. They also reported unsafe working conditions and an unwillingness to report injuries for fear of reprisal, including being blackballed from working on garbage trucks.

Assiniboine Park workers, including ground and zoo keepers, were once city employees. In 2008, the Assiniboine Park Conservancy was created as a stand-alone entity with a board of governors selected mostly from the private sector. Municipal funding to the park has increased but so has the job insecurity of workers, who no longer have seniority or job security within the City of Winnipeg.

Outsourcing is the product of an anti-worker, anti-union ideology, and often does not save municipalities any money. Municipal revenue is diverted from the wages of working class families to the profits of private companies, including temp agencies. The city loses control over the quality of work and the work environment as private companies cut costs to maximize their profits. Workers are unable to develop a long-term relationship with an employer as contracts are awarded to different private companies. Multiple employers makes it harder for workers to unionize.

Other municipalities, including Vancouver, New Westminster and Port Coquitlam, are living wage employers. Winnipeg should be one too.

On Labour Day, we should celebrate the workers who collect and sort our waste; maintain our roads, paths, bridges and sidewalks; preserve our parks and public spaces; remove snow; treat sewage; and staff our arenas, pools and community centres. More importantly, we should support these workers by fighting to ensure that our municipal government provides high-quality city jobs that pay a fair wage to all of its workers. A living wage is an important essential measure to address poverty and inequality in our city.