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Sorry Walmart Canada workers, no raises for you

"The announcement made today by Walmart US pertains to the US business and does not impact Walmart outside of the US," a statement from Walmart Canada said. Chris Hondros/Getty Images

A decision from Walmart to lift wages for hundreds of thousands of front-line employees in the United States has hit a wall at the border.

Walmart Canada, the country’s biggest general merchandise retailer, isn’t considering hiking Canadian workers’ pay, it said Thursday, saying its hourly pay is competitive and that many front-line workers collect compensation that’s “significantly above” minimum wage already.

“Walmart Canada is committed to providing competitive wages and benefits, and in fact all Walmart Canada jobs start above the minimum wage,” a statement from Alex Roberton, director of corporate affairs, said.

Roberton added that full-time “hourly associates” earn significantly above minimum compensation rates set by provincial governments in Canada, which are also generally higher than government-set minimum pay in the U.S.

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said Thursday the world’s largest retailer was hiking base pay for nearly 40 per cent of its U.S. staff, lifting full-time pay to $13/hour (all figures U.S.) from the current rate of nearly $12, while part-time workers will see their hourly base rate rise to $10.

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The federal minimum wage in the United States is $7.25, a rate that hasn’t been changed in six years. Many state governments are in the process of legislating higher minimum wage standards.

MORE: Nearly 40 per cent of Walmart’s US workers are about to get a raise 

More slack

Experts said Walmart’s decision is in part a response to a U.S. labour market on the upswing. A strengthening U.S. economy is creating more competition for workers across a variety of sectors, applying inflationary pressures on hourly wages.

In contrast, Canada’s job market has more slack amid weaker economic growth, serving to suppress wage growth. Target Canada’s decision last month to shut its 133 stores means the dismissal of its 17,600 workers by the late spring, a process that will further undermine upward pressure on pay.

The widespread pay raise for U.S. workers, which Walmart announced as it reported fourth quarter results, also comes amid sustained concern for the plight of U.S. hourly workers while attention remains fixed on the widening income gulf separating America’s wealthiest from the rest of society.

Thousands of U.S. hourly workers and their supporters have staged protests across the United States in the past couple of years to call attention to their financial struggles.

Labour unrest has been more muted in Canada, but similar concerns exist here, experts say.

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Former employees who spoke to Global News suggested experienced staff members, such as store managers, made about $17 to $18 an hour.

Depending on experience levels, new hires made anywhere between a few cents above minimum wage to a dollar or more. Michelle C., a warehouse shipper who brought some experience to the job last year was making $13 an hour, she said.

She was paid a small premium for working nights in Edmonton. But when nights proved too tough, she was given the option to become a cashier, starting at “ten and change.” Alberta’s minimum wage is $10.20.

Wasn’t happening

Walmart Canada took in an estimated $23 billion in sales last year, making it the largest general merchandise retailer in the country. It employs about 94,000 people.

“The constant talk around the watercooler was, ‘We’re not going to make it,’” said Michelle C., who at 37 quit Walmart and became a certified driving teacher. Many workers required a “second breadwinner in the house” to make ends meet.

“That’s standard in Edmonton. Everybody who was working there just needed some cash. Nobody would have dreamed of living off of it. It just wasn’t happening.”

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Roberton said Walmart often serves as a stepping stone into the labour market.

“We strive to provide a career ladder for thousands of associates as well as an important gateway into the job market for many people who are beginning their working careers,” Roberton said.

“Walmart is the first job and the career foundation for many Canadians.”

jamie.sturgeon@globalnews.ca

— with a file from the Associated Press