Provincial commission seeks to close gap between minimum wage and living wage

People struggling to make ends meet in B.C. are hopeful a provincially mandated commission will make some strong recommendations to government to help them afford a better life in B.C.

Isatou Sonko is a mother of three who recently immigrated to Vancouver from the UK after growing up in Gambia. Despite being happy to be in Canada, and living with her brother, she's anxious about what she will be able to do to earn money and afford childcare.

"It's such a trauma for people to think where their next meal is coming from," she told the Fair Wages Commission in Vancouver on Friday at a public hearing. "I just want a job just like you and be able to fend for myself."

The commission has been touring the province seeking input on how to bridge the gap between B.C.'s minimum wage and what people really need to earn to live well.

"I think it's been very surprising to us," Danielle van Jaarsveld, commission chair, said about the testimony she and fellow members Ken Peacock and Ivan Limpright have heard.

Chad Pawson/CBC

She says people have told them that even though they work full time, they still rely on food banks to feed their families or choose to buy food rather than other necessities such as medication.

A previous version of the commission helped devise a process to increase minimum wage in the province.

It's currently at $12.65 per hour but will rise to $13.85 on June 1. There will be yearly increases until June 1, 2021 when it will top out at $15.20.

Despite the increases, it's still not enough for families to make ends meet, according to anti-poverty advocates.

Living wage

Each year the Living Wage for Families Campaign along with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives calculates what a working couple with two children each need to earn to pay for housing, childcare, transportation and other expenses once government taxes, credits, deductions and subsidies are taken into account.

That amount for Metro Vancouver in 2019 is $19.50 per hour.

It's less than the previous year, when the hourly requirement was calculated at $20.91, despite expensive fuel, housing and food costs.

The campaign says the reduction is largely due to government programs such as the income-tested Affordable Child Care Benefit, worth up to $7,013 a year, and the universal Child Care Fee Reduction Initiative, which can be worth up to $1,200 in a year.

The campaign is making 14 recommendations to the commission, which include paid sick leave for all workers, rental control, free transit for some demographics, and making the commission permanent.

"In the meantime, until or unless there's significant investment into these types of programs, employers can step up and say I'm choosing to pay employees more recognizing that there's this gap," said Halena Seiferling with the Living Wage for Families Campaign.

The campaign says that about 30 per cent of Metro Vancouver two-parent families with two children have incomes below the 2019 living wage, according to Statistics Canada data.

Meanwhile the commission wants to hear more from people struggling on low wages. On Friday there will be an open hearing in Victoria. Online submissions are being accepted as well.

Commission chair van Jaarsveld says a formal report from the findings will be presented to government before the end of the year.