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Workers in Canada have fought for higher minimum wages for more than a century and a new wave of this campaign is percolating in workplaces across the country.

Low-wage workers struggling to make ends meet and organizations advocating for a realistic living wage — like the Fight for 15 movements — have won successive wage increases despite fierce opposition from business owners and politicians. Opponents usually point to unmanageable labour costs and warn that increases in unemployment will be a result.

rabble’s labour beat reporter Teuila Fuatai examines the issues around Canada’s minimum wage rates in a five-part weekly series beginning today.

During the federal election, the NDP promised to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour. The Liberals criticized Thomas Mulcair for making a promise that would not help most workers. They relied on Canadians’ lack of understanding of who regulates the minimum wage: Wal Mart cashiers, they argued, would not get a wage bump under Mulcair’s plan. But 100,000 workers would, including workers in the banking industry, telecommunications and the energy sector.

In part 1 of the series, we examine: What is a minimum wage and how does it apply to different workers?

Federal vs. provincial

Provincial and territorial governments are responsible for setting minimum wage rates.

At the moment, New Brunswick has the lowest general adult minimum wage at $10.30 an hour. At $12.50 an hour, the Northwest Territories has the highest minimum wage rate.

Industry-type and worker experience levels can also affect how much a minimum-wage worker earns in different provinces and territories.

For example, the minimum wage rate for liquor servers in Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario is lower than the general adult rate.

Rules around pay for domestic and live-in care workers also differ between jurisdictions.

In New Brunswick, minimum wage regulations do not cover domestic and live-in care workers, whereas those in Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut are generally entitled to the general adult minimum wage.

The federal government directs minimum wage regulations for employees of corporations in federally regulated sectors such as banking, shipping, telecommunications and railway and road transportation.

Currently, the federal minimum wage rate is the same as the general adult minimum wage in the province or territory a worker is based.

About six per cent of Canadian employees work in federally regulated sectors.

Changing the minimum wage

Minimum wage or labour boards are charged with reviewing and making recommendations around the minimum wage in some jurisdictions. In provinces and territories without boards, governments and appointed officials are responsible for monitoring the minimum wage.

In four provinces — Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador — it is mandatory for the rate to be reviewed either annually or every second year.

In Nova Scotia and the Yukon, the annual increase in the minimum wage rate is based on the change in the consumer price index.

On April 1, the hourly minimum wage rate is due to increase by $.10 to $10.70 in Nova Scotia.

Looking ahead

Workers struggling to make ends meet are battling to find a solution to low-wage woes.

According to a Statistics Canada study, just over one million Canadians were earning the minimum wage in 2013. Youth, women and those with a low level of education were the most likely to be paid at the minimum rate.

Currently, campaigns for a $15 minimum wage are underway across the country, while proponents for a guaranteed annual income are also exploring options.

Under a guaranteed annual income policy, all Canadians would receive an income at a “level sufficient to meet basic needs and live with dignity, regardless of work status,” the Basic Income Canada Network states. This differs from a minimum wage rate as the minimum wage only applies to people who are currently employed and being paid wages.

The Liberal and Green federal parties have previously voted in favour of guaranteed income programs. But some people warn that proponents of a guaranteed basic income would fund this program by redirecting other forms of social assistance.

The Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Association of Social Workers have expressed support for a guaranteed income as a way of improving the living and health standards and for families and workers on low wages. The Liberal Party of Quebec announced on Thursday during a cabinet shuffle that it supports a minimum guaranteed revenue, a statement that seems out-of-sync with the cuts of social programs and services that they have ushered in since 2014.

The pros and cons of a guaranteed annual income scheme, and the effects of higher minimum wage rates will be investigated as part of this series.

Follow this series on Canada and the minimum wage:

Part 1: Wages vs. workers: How Canada’s minimum rates compare

Part 2: Scraping by on the minimum wage and the Fight for $15

Part 3: Canada’s minimum income experiment and the fight against poverty

Part 4: The business of the living wage

Part 5: Despite campaign pressure, minimum wages remain stubbornly low

Teuila Fuatai is a recent transplant to Canada from Auckland, New Zealand. She settled in Toronto in September following a five-month travel stint around the United States. In New Zealand, she worked as a general news reporter for the New Zealand Herald and APNZ News Service for four years after studying accounting, communication and politics at the University of Otago. As a student, she had her own radio show on the local university station and wrote for the student magazine. She is rabble’s labour beat reporter this year.


Teuila Fuatai

Teuila Fuatai is a recent transplant to Canada from Auckland, New Zealand. She settled in Toronto in September following a five-month travel stint around the United States. In New Zealand, she worked...