The Minimum is Never Enough

The CSU Living Wage Campaign is fighting for better working conditions in BC

Jayde Atchison // Contributor
Naomi Evers // Illustrator

When the pandemic arose, and companies were forced to shut down or turn to remote delivery methods, the world had an awakening about workplace conditions. When jobs were lost, and CERB became the only available income for some, there was a realization that minimum wage workers were making more money with their government payout. Two thousand dollars was deemed the appropriate amount to live off of across the country, yet minimum wage workers previously worked overtime just to scrape by. When I was a student, I watched my friends struggle to find work with flexibility for their class schedule and that paid enough to afford their rent. One of the most convenient jobs a friend managed to snag was with the Capilano Students’ Union (CSU). She worked split shifts around her classes, enjoying the ease of working and studying on campus while earning more than the minimum. 

The CSU became a certified Living Wage Employer in 2017, with the help of their Executive Director, Christopher Girodat. They began their Living Wage Campaign to create awareness and advocate for change within the province. A common misconception is that minimum wage is enough to live on, but according to the Living Wages for Families Campaign, Vancouver requires an hourly rate of $19.50 per hour—while our current minimum wage was just recently increased to $14.60 from 13.85 last june. The cost of tuition, transportation, rent, food and textbooks all adds up, and minimum wage is not enough to comfortably afford them all. 

For students that are not fortunate enough to rely on their family for tuition, rent or living arrangements, living wages are necessary to get through their degree. When I first moved out, I worked two or three jobs to stay afloat with all my bills—and I wasn’t unique. I have watched friends hustle between their nine to five to their five to nine–and go home to study until dawn, just to do it again the next day. 

Many companies offering practicum space do not pay their interns, which can create barriers for low-income students. When I was looking for a practicum in my last semester of university, I didn’t even bother looking at in-office jobs because I was unable to take time off from my paid workplace. I was lucky to find a woman that started her own public relations company where I could submit work to her on a more flexible timeline (right before or after my opening shifts). My practicum experience was unpaid, but I didn’t have to quit my day job or miss rent payments.

Many university programs require a practicum or co-op to graduate, which is only feasible for those who are financially able to produce free labour. This can have negative consequences when it comes to job advancements, graduation or even completing a program. Low-income students that have to decline an unpaid internship can miss opportunities to network and learn from experienced employees in their field. This perpetuates a cycle of privileged students gaining traction in their studies and career, while others are left to climb the corporate ladder at a much slower rate. Students that underneath the glass ceiling with mental illness, race, language, cultural or disability barriers are faced with more of a struggle. When we graduate, people expect us to have approximately 30 years of experience for an entry-level job. Without a practicum under your belt, it can feel like you are never going to first choice of applicants.

There are many avenues to advocate for change within the province, and one of the most accessible is contacting local policymakers. The CSU encourages all students to reach out to their local MLA to let them know living wages should be a provincial standard. Policymakers are unable to create palatable change if they are not aware of the demand. A form letter was written and is available for all students to access the CSU campaign website. I know what it’s like to be busy with classes, homework and life circumstances. Having a form created to make it easy for everyone to use their voice takes the pressure off those who feel like they don’t have time to make a difference. 

Students are frequently forced into working conditions that do not reach the standards under the current employment legislation. All students and young people should know their rights as employees. This can include confirming when you will be paid for stat holidays, who to talk to about overtime pay and how to check your pay stubs for accuracy. Unfortunately, some employers count on younger people not knowing their rights and continue to cut corners. We also need to move past the stigma of talking about money. When coworkers discuss their income openly, they can know how much they are worth to the company, how much to ask for and work together to create change.

A list of certified living wage employers can be found on the Living Wages for Families Campaign website.

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