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Minimum wage numbers a convenient truth

Posted on June 4, 2014 by Taber Times

Usually punctuated by a celebratory spin on the part of the provincial government, the announcement last week that Alberta’s minimum wage would be increasing to $10.20 from $9.95 per hour starting Sept. 1 was conjoined with a collection of statistical sleight of hand that tends to obfuscate what some might consider more important information.

Government statistics show that only 27,700 individuals, or roughly 1.5 per cent of employees in Alberta, earn minimum wage. This compared to 6.8 per cent nationally, and 9.1 per cent in Ontario. An almost insignificant percentage which supports an image of the province as a bastion of responsible employers, which taken as a whole largely pay more than minimum wage.

People often say that numbers don’t lie. And in the strictest sense, they don’t. But selective manipulation — or selective exclusion, as the case may be — that’s a whole different kettle of fish.  

Although minimum wage increases are no doubt welcomed openly by the apparent handful of employees that work for minimum wage in Alberta, the numbers put forth by the province only show those individuals that work for the bare minimum, not those that might only make $10.30 or $11 per hour.

Absent from the province’s glowing remarks about their new general minimum wage ranking as the second highest in Canada is any indication of how many people might actually make only cents more per hour. Would that not be a more distinct and accurate measurement of how many people hover just above, or below, the poverty line in Alberta?

It’s indeed possible that Alberta really is the land of milk and honey that flows with countless oil dollars, a blissfully affluent middle and upper class, and that poverty really is the anomaly as opposed to the rule.

It’s possible, but unlikely — most societies, no matter how affluent, still maintain a sizable lower class. No one has yet found the universal solution to dealing with inequality, shrinking middle classes, and widening gaps between rich and poor. It doesn’t matter if you’re in downtown Edmonton or downtown Mogadishu — that same maxim usually applies, to a greater or lesser degree.

Also absent from the government’s figures is how many of those 25,700 people working for minimum wage might be temporary foreign workers, or if those individuals are even included in the government’s statistical analysis.

One could guess temporary foreign workers probably make up a significant amount of the people working at this wage level, which calls into question a troubling economic anomaly which didn’t find its way into Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. If our system of economics worked as it is supposed to — if the ‘invisible hand’ of the market system truly vindicated the corporate laissez faire ideology — we wouldn’t need temporary foreign workers at all.

The idea that a business might fail because it costs too much to operate due to labour expenses is a convenient excuse that doesn’t bear close examination. If a business fails because it can’t pay people higher wages — because the market dictates they should be higher based on supply and demand — then it’s not a business that should be in operation anymore.

That’s a fundamental principle of capitalism. Indeed, it was the communist’s planned economic system that regularly propped up ailing and inefficient businesses. It’s a good idea for us to do the same with a temporary foreign workers program? Look at it this way — is it better to employ an army of temporary foreign workers for jobs that Canadians no longer seem to want because of their pay scale?

To suggest that there isn’t something wrong with that idea isn’t just an opinion in Canada — it’s policy now. The recent suspension of the temporary foreign workers program for a period of re-tooling would seem to prove that its massive expansion under the Harper Conservatives left the program open to flagrant abuse by unscrupulous employers.

While raising Alberta’s minimum wage will certainly be an advantage to that 1.5 per cent of the province’s wage earners, the government might be better served by highlighting for Albertans just how many individuals make up the province’s working poor. While enlightening, those numbers are much less likely to figure prominently in a government press release.

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