The incredible shrinking province: minimum wage, immigration and bilingualism


OK. Find a pair of lace-up shoes and slip them on. Tie the laces of one shoe to the other shoe. Now, get up and run as if your life depended on it.

That’s what it’s like to survive on New Brunswick’s $11-an-hour minimum wage, which amounts to a little over $21,000—and that’s before tax, EI and CPP deductions. Just getting to work is a challenge. It costs about $3000 a year to operate a car, not to mention the actual cost of buying it. A small apartment eats up $7500 (forget about buying a house, you don’t earn enough to qualify for a mortgage). At $19 a day, food adds up to $7000. Then there are clothes, work boots, household expenses, and cell phone-cable payments (roughly $1200 a year), and the odd lunch out. You might want to forget about having a family.

There are a lot of jobs that start at $11 or $12 an hour here in New Brunswick. Employers complain that there are not enough workers to fill these jobs, even though provincial unemployment rates are high, implying that New Brunswickers are too lazy to take these jobs. They continually pressure the government to increase immigration to attract the workers they need, that is, workers who’ll work for piss-poor wages.

But immigration, rather than offering a solution, poses another problem. Immigrants don’t especially like New Brunswick. Yes, they’ll come here to gain a foothold in the country, but before long they move on to bigger urban centres, either in Ontario or further west. Perhaps they see what’s obvious to the locals: it isn’t easy to move up or move ahead here. And the latest statistics prove it. New Brunswick is the only province in Canada to be losing its population. Most of the population loss is happening in the francophone north of the province. Cities like Campbelltown (–6.8 percent) and Bathurst (–3.1 percent) are shrinking dramatically, which is no real surprise given the poor economic performance of the region.

That’s not to say that most jobs in New Brunswick are minimum wage. Like the rest of Canada, there are well-paid technical and managerial jobs. Trouble is, to get one of those better jobs, odds are you’ll have to be bilingual. New Brunswick is, after all, Canada’s only officially bilingual province. This means that every government service—and any other private sector service connected to the government or the public—usually requires bilingual workers.

Worse yet, New Brunswick’s school system does not offer across-the-board French immersion schooling to its students. Yes, it’s offered on a limited basis. But that’s hardly effective when it comes to educating an entire population. And it does nothing to offer equal opportunity to all students. So there are bilingual “haves” and “have nots” in the province. Lucky are those who grow up in bilingual homes.

There it is, New Brunswick’s employment three legged race: low wages, low levels of immigration and very real language barriers—with shoe laces tied together. But that’s not all. The general economy is stagnant. There are just three main employers: the government, the Irving group of businesses (over 250 in all), and the McCain Foods operation in the north. The rest is small business infill. In a province with a 10 percent unemployment rate.

As a former small business owner, I was acutely aware of staff costs, and like most other small business owners I knew, I dreaded any increases in the official minimum wage. With payroll due every two weeks, and with government invoices lagging up to 120 days, keeping staff costs down seemed to be the only way to the doors open. Recent evidence in Colorado, Washington and other states shows that raising the minimum wage does not increase business failures. On the other hand, in 26 of the 27 states that increased the minimum wage, the increase has been less than a dollar an hour—in some cases as low as 5¢ an hour—and none topping $11 an hour. Hardly survival wages.

Did I mention stress? Financial anxiety, the kind that low-income New Brunswickers experience, is a full-blown epidemic south of the border. The U.S. has one of the world’s highest rates of mental illness with an estimated 47 percent of the population displaying symptoms. Suicide rates among American blue collar workers is now an epidemic.

These problems are just the tip of the economic iceberg. In a globalized economy with production offshored, international tax havens overflowing with hidden wealth, more union-busting legislation, increased military spending, and a race-to-the-bottom approach to tax giveaways to attract new business, we’re told the best we can hope for is just holding on to what we have. Really? All that and a 15 percent HST is the best we can do?

Just to match 1970 levels, today’s minimum wage would have to be $21 an hour. Now that might be a good start.

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