Living Wage Symposium brought multiple sectors together to tackle the affordability crisis

Living Wage Symposium brought multiple sectors together to tackle the affordability crisis
Sidney Coles, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Panel mebers left to right: Danella Parks, Phillip MacKellar, Linda Geggie, Dallas Gislaison.

On Wednesday morning, representatives from the not-for-profit, private and public sectors gathered at the Living Wage Symposium at Victoria City Hall to discuss creative ways they can address the economic squeeze people are feeling in the CRD.

The event was organized by the Community Social Planning Council of Greater Victoria (CSPC) in partnership with the United Way Southern Vancouver Island, Vancity, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Living wage Families for BC.

At $25.40/hour, the 2023 living wage for Greater Victoria represents a $1.11 (4.6%) increase from the 2022 rate of $24.29/hour.

The CSPC defines living wage as “the hourly wage that two working parents with two young children must each earn in order to meet their basic monthly expenses (including rent, child-care, medical needs, food, and transportation), once government taxes, credits, deductions and subsidies, have been accounted for.” The organization calculates the living wage annually, based on a 35-hour work week.

The event was a hybrid of panel and roundtable discussions that generated conversations, across sectors, about how to create a culture of recognition of the social benefits of a living wage, how to support employers in being able to pay them, and the complex issues workers who need them are facing.

The symposium kicked off with comments from MLA Grace Lore, who spoke to the province’s focus on reducing child-care costs as a release valve for some of the economic pressures that some families in the region are facing. In her welcome to participants, Diana Gibson, executive director of CSPC, confirmed that since the $10-a-day child-care agreement with the federal government was announced in 2021, child care costs are no longer in the top tier of household pressures.

She also acknowledged that the affordability crisis “is not evenly felt across our communities” and recognized its greater impact on newcomer, racialized and Indigenous people living in greater Victoria. We can’t continue, she said, “to put the burden of high inflation on those who are earning the least.”

According to the CSPC 2023 Living Wage Report, the top three household expenses in Greater Victoria are shelter and communications ($34,805), food ($15,854) and other expenses ($13,545) like medications and expenses not covered by insurance, school and household supplies. The shelter and telecommunications calculation is based on the cost of a three-bedroom rental, two cell phones per household, high-speed internet, tenant insurance, and utilities, etc.

It’s not just these individual expenses, but the ways they intersect and are impacted by legislative frameworks generated by all levels of government, that will either alleviate or exacerbate the current economic squeeze.

Arts and culture sector has been particularly affected

Challenges to the uptake and implementation of living wage among employers exist across sectors in Victoria, but for the arts and culture sector, those challenges are unique and relate to both reality and perception. The arts are chronically underfunded. Work in the sector, particularly in live entertainment, is largely gig-based.

What’s more, as Dara Parker, vice president of grants and community initiatives for the Vancouver Arts fund, pointed out in a talk to sector colleagues, a cultural bias persists among patrons who view its resilience, creative make-do spirit and reliance on volunteers as endearing character traits and not as the existential threats they really are.

“We’ve been in the gig economy since 1893,” said George Scott, President of IATSE Local 168 the union local that represents live entertainment workers in the city  “At the McPherson Auditorium, our members are the custodial staff, box office ushers, bartenders, merch vendors. In other venues we are the arts administrators, who write contracts for shows, reconcile shows and do social media for shows.”

His concern is for those workers who live paycheque to paycheque and are not eligible for EI or a pension plan. He wants to see more accountability from the civic-owned spaces they work in to look after them by way of supporting a living wage for his members.

“Living wages are not a nice to have, they are a must to have for building resilient communities,” said Ryan Hunt, a spokesperson from the BC Museum Association, adding that his faith in the BCMA being able to maintain its certification as a Living Wage employer, “isn’t one hundred per cent solid.”

It’s very difficult for not-for-profits and arts groups who rely on municipal, provincial or federal grants to survive, let alone pay living wages. To sharpen his point, Victoria saw the closure of two beloved cultural sites in the past year.

Other key policies needed to achieve full impact of the living wage

During the round table discussion, moderated by Danella Parks from the United Way Southern Vancouver Island, participants put the spotlight on interconnected policy impacts and generated in-depth conversation on equity issues upstream and down from the living wage.

Housing supply advocate Phillip MacKellar from Homes for Living identified the city’s dearth of purpose-built rental housing and the rise of short-term rentals as significant contributors to the housing crisis, but he places the lion’s share of the housing crisis squarely on restrictive municipal land use policies and dubiously lengthy public hearing processes.

He lauded the Missing Middle Program, a suite of bylaw changes announced by the City of Victoria in January that effectively eliminates single-family residential zoning in the city to encourage the construction of house-plexes, townhomes and apartment buildings. Bringing down the cost of housing and implementing a living wage can help make home ownership more achievable.

Food security is also tied to a living wage. When asked to identify the drivers of high food costs in the region, Linda Geggie—executive director at Capital Food and Agricultural Initiatives Roundtable (CFAIR) and co-chair of the BC Food Systems Network—cited inflation, transportation costs, and a grocery supply system shift that encourages super stores models like Walmart and Loblaw.

She also pointed to the high cost of agricultural land in the region, and the ongoing labour shortage and regulatory barriers to increasing effective food networks. Living wages make work in that sector far more appealing and will help get locally grown food to Victoria’s tables.

Dallas Gislason, also from CFAIR, spoke to the importance of ownership and equity in local economies, referring to assets that present positive appreciation and cash-flow opportunities for people over time. These opportunities, he said, “include dividend stocks, bonds and GICs, businesses, rental property (or even a home with a secondary suite) and argued that the inability to access them creates tremendous gaps in people’s ability to exert control over the unfolding of their lives.”

He pointed to the role of existing government interventions like legislated municipal housing targets, curbing vacancy and short-term rentals, and supporting affordable child care as key factors in increasing affordability in the region.

Gislason acknowledged that Victoria’s per capita GDP of $50K USD is relatively high compared to other places in the world. But he said Victoria could be doing more to support its charitable organizations, co-operative business ownership or community enterprise initiatives—commercial models that keep consumer money in the region and in the pockets of local owners who have an interest in the financial health of the community.

Those changes could come in the form of contractor and vendor procurement policies, where living wage employers would receive credits in bids for contracts, or insurance breaks.

Organizer Erica Stenson, executive director of Southern Vancouver Island United Way, summarized the symposium’s central aim this way:

“It was about the conversations. There is no silver bullet to solving these problems. It’s about bringing policymakers, business owners and not for profits coming together to find solutions together and move the bar together.”

A brief list of certified Living Wage employers in Victoria includes the City of Victoria, Dogwood, Bee’s Knees, the BC Museum Association. The full list is available here.

Sidney Coles, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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