Last spring, Manitoba’s provincial government told its minimum wage board to hold public hearings. After the hearings, the board had to submit recommendations on a number of issues, including the level of the wage, as well as a proposed structure for a two-tier wage, accounting for workers earning tips or in training. To no one’s surprise, the report submitted in October included three separate sets of recommendations: one by the chair, and one each by the labour and employer representatives on the board.

So far, nothing unusual. Except that the provincial New Democratic government’s response was no response at all. More than two months later, the recommendations were beginning to seem almost mythical. Did they really exist? Had they been misplaced, buried under paper on the Labour and Immigration Minister’s desk?

Finally, this week the government acknowledged that it did indeed have the recommendations, but claimed it simply could not make up its mind. Instead of, well, governing, the government has published all three reports in summary form, and thrown open the door to public debate.

By the government’s logic, this is all part of a fair and open process. Yet it’s no fairer or more open than the process already concluded, and will contribute nothing of value. The most we can expect to learn is that the fast-food industry has ample resources to attempt to sway public opinion while minimum-wage workers have none.

It is bad process, to be sure, but it is more than an abstract problem.

According to Winnipeg Harvest, the fastest growing segment of the population using its food bank is people who have jobs. In the last half of the 1990s alone, the percentage of household income derived from work — as opposed to social assistance — among families who depend on Harvest for food rose from 19 per cent to 27 per cent.

You might think the Manitoba NDP would be reluctant to leave the growing ranks of the poorest, most vulnerable workers to fend for themselves on this issue. You would be wrong.

By dithering for months without a decision on the minimum wage, the government is telling people who hold low-wage jobs but still can’t feed their families just to sit tight. While they wait, various options will be run up the flagpole to test which way the political winds are blowing.

These options include one that is, at best, the first stumble down a slippery slope: a two-tier minimum wage.

Fugitive Raisins

One summer when I was in university, I worked in the bulk-food department at a local grocery store. My responsibilities were straightforward: when the supply of peanuts or oats or powdered cheese or whatever got low, I was to refill the tub.

The raisin bin became my nemesis. Because raisins are sticky, they are difficult to scoop neatly into a bag, and fugitive sultanas often escaped their container and landed on the floor. When this happened, I had to move in quickly to sweep them up; any delay meant the wheels of shopping carts would mulch the raisins into a pulpy mess that required a putty knife to scrape off the floor.

It’s safe to say that I was fully trained at this job after the first shift, if not the first hour. I quit to go back to school after three months. Most minimum-wage jobs require a similar amount of training: take the fries out when they’re done, put the glasses in upside down, and so on.

Yet, under one proposal now being considered by the province, I would have been paid less than the minimum wage for the duration of my raisin-scraping career. That’s because I would have fit the “in training” employment category.

This is the problem with a minimum training wage: for the most part, there is no training. Minimum-wage jobs are almost by definition low-skill. That doesn’t mean the work isn’t of value. It is. But it’s very hard to believe that dishwashers or video-store clerks are worth significantly more to their employer after twelve weeks on the job than they are after, say, six or eight.

Let’s imagine that the NDP government introduced a two-tier minimum wage, for training, tipping or non-adults. Would some employers indulge in the obvious temptation of hiring a steady stream of people for three months, replacing them just before they are due to earn the standard minimum wage? No doubt. Would some adults working at the standard wage be replaced by teenagers for whom the minimum wage was lower? Of course.

If the government implemented a two-tier wage, it almost certainly would include measures to limit such abuse. But minimum-wage workers are economically vulnerable. They can be desperate for work, are almost never unionized and are unlikely to pursue the long and intimidating process of filing an official complaint. The result would be all-but-unenforceable rules.

Open to Abuse

Similarly, evidence suggests that a tipping wage is also wide open to abuse. Earlier this year, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Manitoba, where I work, conducted a survey of seventy-five Manitobans who work at or near the minimum wage. We learned of the incredibly varied nature of tips and the inappropriate methods some employers use to manage or even claim their employees’ tips.

Before tinkering with potentially dangerous ideas like a two-tier minimum wage, the provincial government’s first priority should be a significant increase. The minimum wage ain’t what it used to be, and it continues to be steadily eroded by inflation.

And one more thing. After a strong increase now, the wage level should be tied to an impartial standard, such as the low-income cut-off, a measure commonly used to designate the poverty line. The NDP could not do a better job of demonstrating why the minimum wage should be removed from the vicissitudes of electoral politics if it tried.

This would be a valuable lesson, but not one that should have been learned on the backs of people who work exceptionally hard at often unpleasant jobs, trying to feed their families, pay for their education or simply live with dignity.