The hard facts about B.C.'s minimum wage

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Appeared in the Vancouver Sun

Last week, B.C. Labour Minister Murray Coell floated a trial balloon that his government would consider an increase to the provincial minimum wage. Union bosses, including B.C. Federation of Labour head Jim Sinclair, cheered the move. NDP leader Carole James, highlighting her pedestrian knowledge of economics, declared that an increase in the minimum wage is actually an economic stimulus.

Both Sinclair and James argue that B.C.'s minimum wage is the lowest in the country, that increases are needed to reduce poverty for the working poor and that increases can miraculously be imposed without negatively impacting employment. The hard facts, however, tell a remarkably different story.

Start with the claim that B.C.'s minimum wage is the lowest in Canada, a view based on the statutory minimum wage rate -- the hourly rate established by government. This measure, however, does not account for the ability of businesses to pay the minimum wage. A more appropriate way to measure minimum wages is to examine income generated by earning the minimum wage relative to the average worker's productivity in the province.

For example, Alberta's statutory minimum wage rate ($8.80 an hour) is higher than B.C.'s ($8) but productivity is also higher in Alberta, meaning businesses are able to pay a higher minimum wage. Alberta's minimum wage is 13 per cent of the average worker's productivity compared with 19 per cent in this province. Adjusting for productivity, B.C.'s minimum wage is higher than that in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland.

Next, consider the claim that the minimum wage needs to be increased to raise the income of society's low-income workers. While this claim certainly appeals to the emotions, the typical minimum wage earner is not the person depicted by advocates of minimum wage hikes.

Data from Statistics Canada reveal that 59 per cent of minimum wage workers are 15 to 24 years old, and most of them (93 per cent) live at home with family. Many of the remaining individuals earning minimum wages are adults supplementing their family income with part-time work during child-rearing years or after retirement.

Additionally, workers earning minimum wage are not the same people who earned the minimum wage a year or two ago, since minimum wage work is largely temporary. The vast majority of minimum wage earners quickly experience upward income mobility. Research shows that after two years, more than 80 per cent of minimum wage workers earn more than the minimum, with a typical wage gain of about 20 per cent.

Herein lies the main problem with minimum wage increases. Employers respond by reducing the number of workers they employ and/or the number of hours their employees work. Consequently, minimum wage increases take away opportunities for low-skilled workers and young people to enter the workforce, gain experience and move up the income ladder.

This sad reality is well documented. A review of academic studies from Canada and around the world demonstrates convincingly that high minimum wages lead to lower employment levels.

For example, 14 studies examined the impact of minimum wage increases in Canadian provinces, including B.C. The Canadian research indicates that a 10-per-cent increase in the minimum wage is likely to decrease employment by three to six per cent for workers aged 15 to 24. For those young workers most directly affected -- earning between the current $8 hourly wage and the proposed $10 hourly wage -- the impact is more acute, with employment losses of up to 20 per cent.

Given the negative employment impact of minimum wages, it should come as no surprise that while the overall unemployment rate in British Columbia is 7.3 per cent, the unemployment rate for those aged 15 to 24 is more than double at 14.7 per cent.

A recent Fraser Institute study estimated that if the B.C. government succumbs to calls from unions and other activists to increase the minimum wage rate to $10 an hour from the current rate of $8, the province would shed upwards of 52,000 jobs.

If Sinclair and James are successful, their efforts will rob young and unskilled workers of the chance to participate in the labour market and gain the skills and experience they need to increase their incomes. For the benefit of the province's young workers, the province would be wise to ignore calls to increase the minimum wage.

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