It is time that the minimum wage is raised to a livable wage and for all workers to have paid leave. There is no reason for any New Brunswicker to be living in poverty. It is the goal of the Common Front to advocate for the people of this province. Below are our recommendations to assist in creating a more equitable New Brunswick.
As social work students working with the Common Front for Social Justice, we are committed to upholding the value of social justice as we advocate for the prosperity of all New Brunswickers.
The Employment Standards Act (ESA), which governs the guaranteed rights of New Brunswick workers, was written 40 years ago and has only seen minor amendments since. The ESA as written is woefully out of date, especially considering the current state of the workforce and ongoing pandemic. An ESA that does not guarantee a living wage, paid sick leave, and other protections for workers is no longer acceptable. There needs to be a drastic overhaul of the ESA so that it not only reflects current societal beliefs but also addresses the current cost of living.
While the government has acknowledged that wages are too low, even with the 2022 increases to the minimum wage to $13.75/hour (by October), minimum wage workers are still earning far below the living wages needed to afford basic essentials like housing, transportation, child care, health care, education, social inclusion, and emergencies across New Brunswick.
In reforming the ESA, the province should raise wages immediately to at least $15/hour for all workers, with a concrete plan to make sure every worker earns a living wage. An up-to-date ESA should ensure wages are meaningfully adjusted annually as inflation and costs of living rise, such as to meet the astronomical increase in housing costs driven by corporate landlords.
New Brunswick workers need, and deserve, paid leave. Leave for illness, bereavement, and other life events are all unpaid, putting an added financial burden on low-wage workers. All workers should have access to 10 job-protected, non-cumulative annual paid sick days, and easier access to vacation and leisure pay.
Recognition that Employment Standards should guarantee these and other protections to New Brunswick workers is growing. Since the start of the pandemic, the NB Federation of Labour has called for paid sick days. More recently, Green MLA for Fredericton South David Coon looked to begin making amendments to the ESA under proposed Bill 81: An Act to Amend the Employment Standards Act. Mr. Coon’s bill proposed critical reforms to this long-outdated legislation, including ten guaranteed paid sick days for all workers, a minimum wage raise to $15/hour and government supports for small businesses, co-operatives, and nonprofits to help implement these new protections.
So far, however, the Higgs government and the major parties have not been willing to listen to workers. Bill 81 was voted down after its first reading and Employment Standards have not been addressed since.
In their 2022-2023 Pre-Budget Consultation, the government acknowledged that as inflation continues to rise, families will have to adjust their household budget. But for the tens of thousands of minimum wage workers and their families living paycheck to paycheck, this is impossible without significant personal suffering and decline in quality of life.
In a province with already staggering rates of child poverty and deep poverty, a “hands-off” approach to low wages is unacceptable. The government of New Brunswick needs to take an active role in protecting workers and their rights and make sure everyone in our province can earn enough to get by.
Christen Curran-Wall, Janet Gourley and Julie Higdon are Bachelor of Social Work students at St. Thomas University.