The Municipal Role in the Living Wage Movement

In recent months, the living wage has been capturing the attention of local governments across the nation. Following New Westminster’s lead in 2011, Vancouver committed to a living wage last summer, and now Cambridge, Ontario’s City Council has just become the first in Ontario to make the pledge, with Hamilton and Toronto following close behind in consideration of their own policies. But why, what does the municipality add, what does mean for living wage advocates, employees, and the community?

I’ll never forget the day I was standing at the bus stop at Carleton University, huddled under a heat lamp trying to stay warm, and heard a peer declare ‘I’m just tired of being poor all of the time’. I silently echoed that sentiment. It’s hard to get rich. It’s even harder to live poor. In our growing low-wage economy, many of us are doing the best we can with what we have, sometimes working two or three jobs, just to keep the hydro on. 

I count myself lucky. I now work for an organization with a leadership that understands that employees working to reduce poverty need to live free of the fear of living in poverty themselves, and of course, has the means to make it happen. Non-profit organizations across the country have been the first among many to consciously step up and commit to paying a living wage, with the conviction that they are able to reduce poverty for at least their own employees and families.

Small and medium businesses have also been quicker to adopt the living wage. As the Ontario Living Wage Network’s, Tom Cooper has said, because of the close nature of the small or medium-sized business owner’s relationship with their staff and community, you might be amazed at how sympathetic local business employers are. Your own morning bakery could be the next great supporter.

Municipalities are the next frontier.

Maybe surprisingly, municipalities are in the business of creating and sustaining healthy, vibrant communities; unsurprisingly, a robust economy and social inclusion are two essential elements of this mandate. They care about how people are getting along, getting around, and interacting with the city’s infrastructure. Income security measures are intrinsically synergistic as they provide the space for individuals and families to be more independent, have positive impacts on well-being and community participation, and benefit the municipality as a whole.

But I often run into confusion and sometimes trepidation when I talk to people about municipal living wage policies. When a municipality adopts a living wage policy, it commits to employing its own city-staff at a living wage rate. Though it creates a positive market for contractors to employ at decent wages, it doesn’t necessarily mandate businesses and other organizations to follow suit. 

The municipality itself acts as a champion and advocate, inspiring other cities across the country and businesses in their own region, to adopt a living wage by being a role model. Municipalities can set the stage for others to get on board, shift our attitudes about the right to decent compensation, and make tangible changes for residents who are struggling to meet ends meet.

In Vancouver, a living wage policy will mean their 6,000+ city employees are guaranteed to earn at least $20.68/hr., and in Waterloo it will mean their 565+ staff are guaranteed to earn at least $16.05.  These wages will increase as the cost of living also increases. (For a sample of the goods and services included in a living wage market basket, visit the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives). 

Depending on the local certification program, this policy might extend to students, part time employees, contracted employees, and sub-contracted employees. For many municipalities, full-time staff are already earning a living wage, and the focus is on bringing contract workers, such as custodians, crossing guards, and interns up to an income that will cover proper housing, nutritious food, medical care, and other basic necessities for wellbeing.

I commend those municipalities who have taken the lead in the living wage movement. Among other traits, it takes courage, commitment, and strong leadership. Now as the movement marches forward, our focus will shift to the first followers and early adopters as key ingredients.


By: Natasha Pei

Community Animator
Vibrant Communities Canada - Cities Reducing Poverty


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