Opinion: A lower minimum wage for youth is easily defended

When the NDP government increased the minimum wage to $15 an hour, it argued that working Albertans — especially single-parent families headed by mothers — needed a reasonable income.

“We’re committed to bringing Alberta’s general minimum wage up to $15 per hour to give lower-income Albertans the ability to support their families,” said former labour minister Christina Gray three years ago.

The new provincial government hasn’t reduced the minimum wage. The United Conservatives seem to agree that workers need a roof over their heads as well as a fighting chance of supporting a family.

The Jason Kenney government has created a separate category for youth, however, reducing the wage, for all intents and purposes, to $13 an hour for those 13 to 17 years of age.

There’s hopefully no 15-year-olds working full time and raising a family on a single income. If there are, the loss of $2 an hour is the least of their worries. Like others their age, they should be in school preparing themselves for a career that will provide them with the income required to support a family later on in life.

This hasn’t stopped the NDP from railing against the legislation, which also includes changes to the way overtime hours are calculated. Members of the former government delayed passage of the bill last week with a filibuster, which is the Opposition’s right. It’s one of the few powers left to a party that was decisively trounced at the polls in April.

What’s difficult to reconcile is that opponents of the new legislation want it both ways: they argue that a lower wage discriminates against teenagers, and then claim that older workers will be at a disadvantage because employers will be inclined to want to save $2 an hour by hiring youth.

The government isn’t mistaken in believing the needs of a teenager living at home aren’t as great as those of an adult responsible for feeding a family. A lower wage will provide young people with an all-important foothold in the workplace, helping to reduce high unemployment for the age group.

And frankly, if you’re an adult with experience in the workplace, you shouldn’t have to worry about being replaced by a 13-year-old. If you are fretting, it means you chose your career poorly, or you need to up your game to put distance between yourself and the next fresh face that walks through the door.

Employment isn’t a right, after all. It’s something earned.

The NDP and its friends in organized labour must realize the debate over a lower wage for young people is largely moot. Alberta had the smallest proportion of workers earning $15 an hour or less in 2016, noted the left-leaning Parkland Institute.

Just 18.2 per cent of Albertans toiled for such a wage, compared to 25.5 per cent in British Columbia, 22.7 per cent in Saskatchewan and a nation-leading 38.4 per cent in Prince Edward Island.

The Parkland Institute notes that 67.3 per cent of minimum wage earners are not teenagers. Just seven per cent of minimum wage earners in Alberta are single parents.

Of course, instead of improving their qualifications and gaining more work experience — and hopefully putting themselves into a higher wage bracket — the dissatisfied can always go in search of greener pastures.

They can go to B.C., for instance, where the minimum wage is $12.65 an hour, regardless of a worker’s age, or Saskatchewan, where the minimum wage is $11.06 an hour for everyone. In fact, the only province or territory with a minimum wage higher than $13 an hour is Ontario, at $14.

Nunavut’s is the same as Alberta’s youth minimum wage: $13.

Alberta has many challenges facing it. A lower minimum wage for young people isn’t one of them.

David Marsden is managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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