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Vancouver, BC - Living wages: An idea whose time has come
The Vancouver Sun
Deborah Littman

April 8, 2011
View the Original Article

As cities, Vancouver and London, England, have a lot of things in common. They are both global and cosmopolitan. They are both leading proponents of developing sustainable and livable urban spaces. They have both been chosen to showcase the Olympics - while Vancouver hosted the last Winter Olympics, London is hosting the next Summer Olympics in 2012. However, they both also have very high costs of living and unacceptably high levels of child poverty, especially for children in families with parents working in lowpaid jobs. Yet it is London alone that is using the living wage to ensure that these hard-working families get what they deserve - a wage that actually covers their core expenses and supports their children's healthy development.

When the living wage concept was first explored in London 10 years ago, it was called "unrealistic." Now it has broad political support. The current British Conservative Party Prime Minister David Cameron has said that "it is an idea whose time has come."

Every year, the Greater London Authority calculates what a living wage is for London, defined as the hourly wage needed to be earned so that a family of four, with both parents working, can pay for their basic living expenses and stay out of poverty. A number of large public bodies now use this figure to ensure that nobody earns less than a living wage while working on a public contract. Unlike the minimum wage, the living wage has been implemented on a voluntary approach. It also varies throughout the country as local living expenses vary.

Businesses in London have also got behind the idea, with numerous organizations, such as KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers, London's Underground subway system and the London School of Economics, going so far as to be certified as Living Wage Employers. Under this designation, they commit to paying all their direct and indirect staff (including contracted staff such as cleaners and security guards) a living wage. In fact, the 2012 Olympics will be the first 'Living Wage Olympics,' where all 7,000 workers are guaranteed to be paid a living wage. Now that's what I call creating real social sustainability!

London's living wage enjoys such broad support because employers have realized that paying a living wage improves productivity, attendance, service quality, and reduces retention costs while enhancing their reputation. The community has benefited by having more money circulating in the local economy, and by having fewer stressedout parents working multiple jobs with no time to spend with their children or on voluntary activity. Families have benefited by simply having enough money to pay their bills rather than being forced into unsustainable debt.

Compare this with what is happening in Vancouver. Despite the recent announcement by Premier Christy Clark of an increase to the minimum wage to $10.25 by May 2012, it is estimated that at least 25 per cent of couples with children in Metro Vancouver still earn less than a living wage, recently calculated at $18.81 per hour. As in London, immigrants often hold a disproportionate number of these low-wage positions.

As with any new idea, there will be concerns and questions: Will it cost jobs? How will it be paid for? Will it make any difference? These were the same concerns raised in London when this idea was first explored. However, the empirical evidence from London is that living wages are a resounding success. So much so that the Conservative mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who was last in Vancouver to receive the Olympic torch from Mayor Gregor Robertson, has remarked, "Paying the London living wage is not only morally right, but makes good business sense too. What may appear to a company to be an unaffordable cost in a highly competitive market should more often be viewed as a sound investment decision."

Maybe it's time that more cities in B.C. considered following London's lead.

Deborah Littman is the vice-chair of London Citizens, one of Britain's largest citizen organizations, and will be speaking at two public forums on Child Poverty and Living Wages, in the Alice McKay Room in the Vancouver Public Library downtown on Monday, April 11 at 7: 30 p.m. and at SFU Surrey on Tuesday, April 12 at 7: 30 p.m. For more information, see www.livingwageforfamilies.ca.