On Oct. 7, a group of anti-poverty advocacy groups and unions in Quebec, including La Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ), Syndicat de professionnelles et professionnels du gouvernement du Québec (SPGQ), and Collectif pour un Québec sans pauvreté, sent out a memo demanding that Quebec increase their minimum wage to $18/hour—a marked shift from their 2016 demand of $15/hour. The groups cited the province’s increasing costs of living that threaten to push workers deeper into poverty as the driving force behind their renewed calls for a living wage. Not only would an $18/hour wage make Quebec a more egalitarian society, it would simultaneously increase the purchasing power of the population—especially for women, a move that may help reduce the widening income gap. On behalf of the students, parents, immigrants, and other diverse communities that make up much of the minimum-wage earning class, Quebec must concede to these demands and move toward a living wage.
Quebec’s minimum wage currently sits at $13.50/hour without tips and at $10.80/hour with tips. Quebec is the only province that differentiates between a tipped wage an untipped one, with the tipped wage being the lowest wage in Canada. Some might explain away the lower wage by pointing to Montreal’s lauded affordability in comparison to the devastating housing and cost of living crises in cities like Toronto and Vancouver. Ontario and British Columbia’s minimum wages are $14.35/hour and $15.20/hour, respectively. However, it remains that the average minimum-wage earner cannot afford rent in any of these provinces. In Montreal, only one-fifth of neighbourhoods have affordable one-bedroom options for minimum wage earners, and next to no affordable options for two-bedroom apartments.
Added to the inflation of grocery prices, workers in Montreal face challenges to their physical needs and safety. These issues, compounded by the strain of deteriorating mental health, simultaneously decrease productivity and cause long lasting cyclical and detrimental impacts on the working class. By refusing to increase an unlivable minimum wage, Quebec sends a clear message to the workers that their basic needs and dignity are not a priority.
An $18/hour wage would protect workers’ lives. No government posturing or corporate social responsibility can make up for the lack of a living wage. Currently, workers sacrifice their physical and mental health, family time, and upward mobility in education for just enough money to scrape by. Facing an economy where a university degree is no longer enough to secure financial success in the future, many low-income and international students grapple with the additional burden of paying tuition without the benefits of intergenerational wealth. International students in particular are subjected to miscommunication and below minimum wage earnings.
The $10.80/hour tipped wage alone raises questions. Even though wages should not depend on performance, workers end up relying on arbitrary factors like their customers’ unpredictable goodwill, wallet, and even what time of day it is. Factors like cultural norms, vaccine scepticism, explicit and implicit gender, racial, and sexual biases, and the restaurant’s prices cause disparities in tipping. Quebec should not regulate an unregulatable practice. While this move may appear to place a drastic and unreasonable burden on the province, living on minimum wage should not be synonymous with poverty. With pandemic benefits and restrictions steadily lifting, changing to a living wage could potentially solve labour shortages and stimulate economic participation by incentivizing workers to re-enter the local economy as well as mitigating tipping disparities.
Though not without a fight, the living wage campaign has glimmers of hope. The federal minimum wage’s increase to $15/hour for federal workers will put pressure on the Quebec government facing a re-election campaign in 2022. The signatories can look optimistically at Canadian labour history where groups like the Canadian Union of Postal Workers’ “militant” strikes and walkouts for above average wages succeeded in sending workers’ rights shock waves across the country. Quebec is no stranger to acquiescing to demands: Facing strikes, Quebec recently increased daycare workers’ pay. Without essential workers, society falls into disarray. Without a living wage, workers suffer inhumanely. Quebec should go the distance to implement a living wage, and if not, should expect resistance.