Occasionally, there comes a time where the intentions of those in charge must be called to question. Sometimes it’s about human rights, other times it’s about the standard of living, but much of the time it’s about money.
As many of us are aware, especially we, the scrimping young adults who populate colleges and universities, the Alberta minimum wage has gone up to $15 an hour this month. Some love the idea, including perhaps a single mother who might finally be able to quit her third job, while opposition is likely arising from well-tailored corporate bigwigs, calculating exactly how much the increase is going to impact their holiday bonus. Or maybe not. Maybe negative reactions stem from love and concern for local businesses, and people who may see minimum wage work as only fit for gangly 15-year-olds flipping burgers for pocket change.
Businesses have been given the grace of a slow and steady increase over several years, this October being the last big jump before completion of the wage hike. Many people who worked under the previous minimum wage, $9.75 (or $9.05, if you served liquor), would attest that it wasn’t enough: a reported 7.2 per cent of Albertans were living in poverty, including those with multiple jobs. As a server at the time, I can recall friends’ stories about the owner of their restaurant, which didn’t serve liquor, buying a flat of beer and shoving it under the counter in order to pay them 70 cents less.
It’s this same greed with which some employers, primarily small business owners, are asking for what they call a “youth differential,” a lower minimum wage for workers below the age of 18. They claim that since youth workers have less skill than adults due to lack of experience, employers should be allowed to pay them less. However, aren’t the two still doing the same job? An employer isn’t going to hire someone who can’t do the duties of a specific job regardless of their age, so this feels like a cheap ploy from greedy employers. Kids are people too, despite the fact that they may have less experience. Employers know who they’re hiring when they give teenagers jobs, so less experience shouldn’t equal lower pay.
Differentials aren’t a new idea. The aforementioned server differential was only abolished in 2016. Differentials also exist in less pleasant terms, historically materializing in the form of companies outsourcing to sweatshops, where corporations get to pay vulnerable workers abroad less than domestic workers. Though not quite the same, there’s a surreal parallel between the willingness of corporations to allow children to stuff bullets for pennies an hour and the refusal of businesses to acknowledge that the work of a teenager is worth the same amount as the work of an adult.
The proposal of a youth differential shouldn’t be taken lightly, and shouldn’t come to fruition either. If we start paying children less because their equal labour is somehow unworthy, then who is to say marginalized groups aren’t next? We must stop perpetuating the idea of teenagers as bratty and incompetent and treat them with the respect they deserve as mature young adults. It’s our job to ready them for the world, and a youth differential might break their spirits before they even make it there.