Tuesday, September 16, 2014

No full-time Canadian worker should live in poverty; my speech on reinstating the national minimum wage

I gave the following speech in support of reinstating the National Minimum Wage today (Sept. 16th) in the House of Commons.

Mr. Speaker,

I’m proud to say that, as many Canadians know (this isn’t a news flash), Newfoundland and Labrador is a have-province.

In 2008, for the first time since Confederation in 1949 (that’s almost 60 years), we hit a milestone in that we stopped receiving equalization.

Where for years we were seen as a drain, a poor cousin of Canada (although that’s most definitely debatable, I would say it was never the case, Mr. Speaker), today we officially contribute more to the Confederation than we get back.

Our confidence, our self-esteem as Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, as who we are, has improved.

We’re not cocky. We’re not uppity. We look down on no one.

The memory of hard times isn’t that far off (and it never seems that far away), and there are still far too many people who aren’t benefiting from the have status.

It feels good to be a have province.

We were always known across Canada as hard workers, as proud of where we come from, but now we’re just a little bit prouder.

But, and here’s the but, in the wise words of one of my constituents - there are too many have-not people.

There are too many have not families in a have province.

Former premier Brian Peckford once famously said that someday the sun would shine and have not would be no more.

Well, Mr. Speaker, the economic sun is finally shining in Newfoundland and Labrador, but there will always be have-nots.

That’s why I stand today in support of the motion by the honourable member for Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie) that, in the opinion of the House, the government should reinstate the federal minimum wage and increase it incrementally to $15 per hour over five years.

Mr. Speaker,

At $10 an hour, the minimum wage in Newfoundland and Labrador is tied for lowest in the country.

And, and we still have the highest unemployment rate of all provinces.

There hasn’t been an increase in the minimum wage since 2010.

That will change next month when the minimum wage in Newfoundland and Labrador will increase by 25 cents an hour.

For a full-time minimum-wage worker that 25-cent-an-hour increase will work out to about $10 a week.  

Which will buy four litres of milk and two loaves of bread.

Not a lot, Mr. Speaker.

A 25 cent an hour increase will not make much of a difference in the lives of our have-nots.

The New Democratic Party of Newfoundland and Labrador is calling for a greater increase in the minimum wage.

In August, 2012 the Progressive Conservative government commissioned a report that recommended increasing the minimum wage and tying it to inflation and the Consumer Price Index.

Government ignored its own report.

So much for the Prime Minister saying today during Question Period that he would leave it to the provinces to set the minimum wage.

Newfoundland and Labrador New Democrats held a minimum wage town hall in St. John’s earlier this month, an event that drew too many stories of poverty.  

Let me quote Russell Cochrane, a St. John’s resident in his 20s who’s worked several minimum wage jobs.

 “It’s degrading when you work a full-time job, you come out of it with only enough money to pay your rent and then have one week of groceries, wondering where you’re going to eat for the second week.

That hunger sticks. And it’s a hunger that doesn’t only degrade your body. It wears at your soul. It wears at your sense of self-worth.”

Mr. Speaker,

The motion before this House today is a starting point to address that degradation, that hunger, and to address income inequality.

By boosting standards for workers under federal jurisdiction – like banks and financial services, telecommunications and broadcasting - the federal government can show leadership and set an example for provinces – like Newfoundland and Labrador – and improve wages across the country.

Speaking of my home province, we have one of the highest percentages of minimum wage earners in Canada.

In 2011, 9.7 per cent of workers or 19,700 earned minimum wage.

In Canada as a whole only 6.8 per cent earned minimum wage.

New Democrats believe that Canadians who work hard and play by the rules should be able to make a decent living.

Is that asking for too much, Mr. Speaker?

Is that asking for too much here in Canada – Canada – one of the richest countries in the world?

Now Mr. Speaker, we’re not reinventing the wheel – there was a national federal minimum wage until 1996.

What happened then?

The Liberals eliminated it, Mr. Speaker.

Instead of doing the right thing and raising the federal minimum wage that had stagnated for a decade, the Liberals washed their hands of the problems and killed it altogether.

In real terms, between 1975 and 2013 the average minimum wage increased by just one penny.

One cent, Mr. Speaker.

That means that workers earning the average minimum wage have only received a one-cent raise over the past 40 years even though our economy grew by leaps and bounds.

Mr. Speaker, this motion to reinstate the federal minimum wage and increase it incrementally to $15 an hour over 5 years will have little impact on federal finances as most federal employees already earn above the minimum wage.

And most private sector workers under federal jurisdiction also make above $15 an hour.  

But the reinstatement of a federal minimum wage will show leadership, it will send a message to all provinces to follow suit.

Mr. Speaker …

Income inequality in our country is spiraling out of control.

The incomes of the top 1 per cent are surging while the typical Canadian family has seen their income fall over the past 35 years.

Over the past 35 years of mostly federal Liberal governments.

Mr. Speaker, let me summarize …

No full-time worker in Canada should live in poverty.

I repeat, no full-time worker in Canada should live in poverty.

In the words of Linda McQuaig, an author and journalist and one-time New Democrat candidate, a $15 an hour federal minimum wage would be a bold step towards establishing that principle.

That no full-time worker should live in poverty.

Minimum wage jobs aren’t just for teenagers, a way to occupy them after school and put spending money in their pockets.

These are real jobs and real incomes that too many families depend on.

Women, for example, are disproportionately minimum-wage earners.

In Newfoundland and Labrador women make up 60.4 per cent of minimum-wage earners.

Other minimum wage earners include immigrants, recent graduates and too many others who can only find part-time work and need to hold down two or three jobs to survive.

Mr. Speaker, let me bring this speech home with another quote from the minimum wage town hall in St. John’s earlier this month.

Let me quote Ellen, a Memorial University engineer student: “We need to stop being cheerleaders for the most wealthy interests in our society and stick up for someone else who needs it.”

More and more people in this country need sticking up for, Mr. Speaker.

More and more the gap between the rich and the poor in this country is widening.

Mr. Speaker, from the world’s perspective Canada is a have country.

Few countries have what we have.

But it’s the have-nots who we have to look out for.

If the measure of a great country is how well it looks after its most vulnerable, then we’ve fallen short under this Conservative government and Liberal administrations before it.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

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