The idea that people should be paid equally for work of equal value is not exactly new. It has been recognized internationally since the 1970s by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and United Nations, and more recently in pay equity legislation enacted in many Canadian provinces.
Yet in 2001, the BC government introduced a reduced minimum wage that allows “new entrants” to the labour force to be paid at $6 per hour for their first 500 hours of work. This reduced wage — at 25% below the standard $8 minimum — effectively targets youth because they are the vast majority of “new entrants” to the labour market.
Equal pay for work of equal value means you can’t pay some people less for doing comparable work — unless it can be shown that their labour isn’t worth as much as the labour of more experienced workers. Otherwise it’s considered discrimination. What grounds might there be for thinking that the work of a newcomer to BC’s labour force is worth 25% less than that of his or her colleagues?
One possibility is that the new workers need 500 hours of training to get up to speed and perform as well as more established workers. The ILO recognizes, for example, that apprentices can be paid less than their fully qualified colleagues. (Apprentices in BC are typically paid more than the standard $8 minimum, but less than full journeyman rates.)
Does this rationale apply to young workers employed in minimum wage jobs?
Most youth entering the labour force are not apprentices. The majority are finding jobs in food services, retail and a variety of low-end occupations. A recent survey (conducted by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives) that asked public school students about their employment experiences found that less than one tenth of those who had been paid below $8 per hour had received much training; the rest had either never been trained at all or had received only a few training sessions, typically at the start of the job.
Another explanation for thinking young workers are worth less might be that they require more supervision than those with more than 500 hours of experience. The survey results do not, however, support this idea. The vast majority of even the very youngest workers in the survey — 12 to 14 year-olds — reported that they worked without adult supervision all or some of the time (in spite of being required under the Employment Standards Act to be under continuous adult supervision while working).
Clearly, for most of the jobs being done by young workers, little or no training is needed (nor are employers actually required to supply training in order to pay the reduced wage) and minimal supervision is provided. After a very brief initial period they are performing work equivalent to that of others, but receiving 25% less pay for the privilege. No wonder the survey also showed that 71% of working youth considered the reduced wage to be unfair.
In addition to being discriminatory, there is no evidence to suggest the reduced wage has accomplished what the provincial government said it would do. In the words of then-Labour Minister Graham Bruce, “the first-job rate will increase youth employment by giving employers a new incentive to hire young people.” However, changes in BC’s youth unemployment rate tend track the overall rate — if the economy is growing, as it is now, and overall unemployment falls, youth unemployment falls as well.
It is difficult to view a policy that forces young people to accept sub-standard pay as beneficial either for them or for society. Instead of helping young workers, the reduced wage merely subsidizes low-wage and often inefficient employers. There is a reason we call it the minimum wage. It is meant to be the basic floor below which no employer can go, no matter how little bargaining power an individual worker might have, or how little an employer might think a particular job is worth.
It is time to eliminate this discriminatory policy.
Stephen McBride is a Professor of Political Science at Simon Fraser University and the lead author of Child and Youth Employment Standards: The Experience of Young Workers Under BC’s New Policy Regime, published in September by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. http://www.policyalternatives.ca.