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Halifax living wage ordinance slips away into a distant future and Council is fine with that

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – One of the more prominent issues during the 2016 municipal elections in Halifax was a living wage ordinance, much like the one in place in Vancouver and other Canadian municipalities

Somehow councillors allowed that issue to go away again.

The ordinance would force city contractors to pay their workers a living wage. A living wage, unlike a minimum wage, is sufficient for a family of four with two people working to eat healthy, live in a safe home, and altogether live a dignified life. 

The wage is calculated based on the cost of living in a specific location. In Halifax the living wage is calculated to be $19 per hour. That’s not a whole lot of money. It’s a living wage, not a living in luxury wage. 

Among the councillors who were elected Sam Austin, Waye Mason, Shawn Cleary, Richard Zurawski, Steve Streatch, and Lisa Blackburn all went on the record as being supportive of a living wage ordinance, albeit sometimes with qualifiers. Others, like Sam Austin and mayor Mike Savage said no, while others again didn’t bother replying to the Halifax Examiner’s questionnaire.

Some 7 months after that election, in June 2017, Council unanimously approved a motion by Councillors Lindell Smith and Waye Mason that “Halifax Regional Council direct staff to create a cross departmental working group to engage external stakeholders, conduct further investigation and recommend with respect to whether or not to adopt a policy framework for the consideration of social economic benefit, employee compensation/living wage and environmental impacts in the procurement process (excluding local preference) and report back to Council.”

That’s pretty straightforward. 

When I asked the City where that motion stands spokesperson Maggie-Jane Spray told me it had been absorbed into something much broader, namely a staff report on a social policy framework through which to assess future initiatives. 

“Once the social policy has been approved at Regional Council, staff will be able to provide further direction and information regarding the application of a social lens for future procurements as requested by Regional Council, such as a living wage,” Spray wrote me in January. 

As a result, on Tuesday this week, almost three years later, Council will discuss a report that doesn’t even contain the term “living wage,” or “wage” for that matter. Instead, we get a theoretical policy framework that talks about lofty visions and principles.  

Not to say it isn’t a thoughtful report. But it isn’t going to help you if you are struggling to make ends meet. It isn’t about a living wage ordinance, it doesn’t tell you what implementing a living wage would cost, what city contractors pay their workers now, or anything else that you’d need to consider if you were at all interested in doing something for real. 

Meanwhile the City has been awarding all sorts of contracts to the lowest bidder, whether it is for janitorial services (Halifax Council continues to ignore fair wages for outsourced services), parking enforcement (Op-ed: Fair wages clause in Halifax tenders nothing but fluff) or whatnot.

During this term Council had an opportunity to do something about the low wages paid by its contractors, and instead it chose to do nothing at all.

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