Winnipeg worker says no minimum wage hike could mean families like his go hungry

Manitoba's Opposition says the decision not to raise the minimum wage is hurting women and families, while the government says NDP increases were made without enough consultation and hurt small business.

CBC analysis shows minimum wage increase would put $458 in low-income workers’ pockets

Robert Giles is a single dad who lived on minimum wage for three years before recently getting a raise. (courtesy Ken Mason)

Robert Giles says minimum wage increases make a huge difference for people like him.

The Manitoba government elected in April has said minimum wage won't go up this year, which could cost full-time workers more than $450 in annual salary.

Giles, a cleaner at a North End non-profit organization who lived on minimum wage for three years before recently getting a raise, supports two children and a grandchild. He said the small government-mandated increases in minimum wage are needed.

"It might not seem that much for other people, but for a minimum wage earner, it could mean another meal or two for the week," he said. "You either pay the bills and pay rent or buy food."

Under the previous NDP government minimum wage went up 15 times, rising from $6 an hour in 200o to $11 an hour in 2015, increases Premier Brian Pallister said in late September were made without proper consultation.

"They never were able to develop a consensus around action that both employees and employers could agree with and I'd like to see that happen and I want to work with organized labour, but I am also very interested in working with small business people as well," Pallister said.

The premier said his government will instead focus on indexing tax brackets and the basic personal exemption to inflation, and restore the rent assist program.

The average annual minimum wage increase under the previous NDP government was 32 cents an hour. Another increase of that amount would have increased the take-home income of a full-time minimum wage earner in Manitoba by $458 a year.

To put the same amount of money in a minimum wage earner's pocket using Pallister's measures, the government would have to reduce the tax rate in the lowest income bracket from 10.8 per cent to 7 per cent, or increase the basic personal amount — the amount of money the government lets you keep tax free — from $9,134 to $13,227.

All Manitoba taxpayers would benefit from those changes, which the Manitoba Federation of Labour says could cost the province as much as $72 million a year in tax revenue.

'Largely adult women'

Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, said the average minimum wage earner is not a teenager living at home – it's someone who needs the money to make ends meet.

"The reality is [they] are largely adult women. Sixty per cent are female and over 65 per cent are over the age of 20. So this is your friends, your neighbours, these are people who live in your community who are trying to make ends meet and struggling," Rebeck said in late September.

NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine, the opposition critic for families and the status of women, criticized the premier's decision to not raise minimum wage after "topping up his own salary."

"The premier owes an explanation to women of Manitoba and their children after he chose to not raise minimum wage."

Minimum wage: a blunt instrument

But Wayne Simpson, a professor of economics at the University of Manitoba, called increasing the minimum wage a "blunt instrument" for dealing with poverty.

"In the context of raising incomes for working people, it helps some people who are working. It doesn't help those who don't have a job. It helps less those who have a part-time job," he said.

It also benefits people who don't necessarily need the raise, such as those teenagers living at home or second income earners in well-off families, he said.

Wayne Simpson is a professor of economics at the University of Manitoba. (Leif Larsen/CBC)

"The least blunt instrument, the 'scalpel,' would probably [be] something that's really targeted at low income workers along the lines of a refundable tax credit," Simpson said.

"The new Canada child benefit is that kind of targeted instrument. It's not very sharp, because it doesn't really focus on the poor, it goes right into the middle class, but there are other tax credits that could be targeted more directly."

But Giles said for people like him, "every little bit helps" — he has felt lucky to work in a building with a soup kitchen, because he was guaranteed at least one meal a day.

He hopes the people making decisions that impact families like his are able to see things from his perspective.

"It's very disheartening for people out there that are trying to make ends meet. You work just to have a place to live."

With files from Sean Kavanagh