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The fair minimum 

Editorial by Kyle Shaw

Summer break is almost over for the province’s elected officials, who start their fall session Monday, October 30. The MLAs who are returning to their seats are not exactly the politicians who left when the legislature closed July 14. For one thing, they should be well rested. For another, they are definitely better paid. This will be the first sitting of the legislature since the big raises came through in September. An MLA gets paid $13,944 more per year now, to earn $79,500. The premier’s salary jumped $23,944 to $150,824 this year, with increases scheduled over the next five years to get the top dog’s annual salary up to $190,000. And I’m happy about it.

“As Nova Scotians, our hearts tell us that our province holds great promise,” reads Opportunities for Prosperity, a turn-of-the-millennium report from the Department of Economic Development. “Our responsibility, to ourselves and to our children, is to ensure that we make the most of that promise by planning wisely and investing in Nova Scotians.” The politicians’ raises are such an investment, signalling the province is tired of its whining have-not reputation, and is ready to claim an above-average place on the national stage. The raise moves the local pay rate from the third lowest in Canada to among the highest—only Ontario, Quebec and the Northwest Territories pay better.

Of course, empowering the most empowered citizens is only part of meaningful social change. If Nova Scotia is to be a leader in paying its politicians, it must also be a leader in compensating people who earn minimum wage.

Raising the minimum wage can be contentious. The rate affects vital, industrious people differently: The working poor can always use more money in the struggle to make ends meet, while the small-business owner fears a humble venture may be overwhelmed by rising payroll costs. “However, not all businesses that pay the minimum wage, or close to the minimum wage, are really small businesses,” says the March 2005 report from the province’s Minimum Wage Review Committee. “In fact, they are some of the largest and most profitable companies in the world with operations or franchises in Nova Scotia.”

The Minimum Wage Review Committee is a relatively recent creation that, with members representing labour and business, presumably absorbs some of the politics surrounding the wage. “The function of the Committee,” according to that latest report, “is to conduct an annual review of the minimum wage and submit to the Minister a report containing the recommendation of the Committee.” Despite this straightforward job description, there hasn’t been a review since March 15, 2005, over 19 months ago. The committee seems to be borrowing its work ethic from politicians rather than the realm of minimum wage, where staff keep businesses running day and night all year long.

“The committee is meeting now,” says Janet Lynn McNeil, spokesperson for the Environment and Labour department. “We will be getting recommendations between now and Christmas.” A month after Environment and Labour minister Mark Parent receives the report, it will be made public and citizen consultations will start. A month after that, Parent will announce any change to the wage rate, which traditionally won’t take effect for at least six months to give businesses time to prepare. If the report comes out tomorrow, the earliest the minimum wage could go up is the end of June, 2007. By then, with increases already scheduled by other provinces, the average minimum wage in Canada will be $7.74.

Nova Scotia’s standard minimum wage is currently $7.15 per hour and needs to increase. Working full time for a year, that wage pays $14,872, or just a bit more than the MLA salary increased. But as the MLAs well know, Nova Scotia deserves an above-average rate. The Opportunities for Prosperity report from the year 2000 says one of the ways we’ll recognize success is a “good” minimum wage, $8 per hour. That day has arrived.

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