Wed | Aug 16, 2017

Jaevion Nelson | Increase minimum wage, the poor need more

Published:Saturday | June 17, 2017 | 6:06 AM

It is time the Government act in the interest of Jamaicans who are among the poorest and most vulnerable, regardless of the opposition that might arise as a result of the disparagement we tend to have for the poor. The review of the minimum wage that is currently under way presents the Holness Government with the perfect opportunity to deliver on an election promise to enable the poor to be prosperous, too.

The scarce benefits from the improvements in our economy however meagre they may have been are unequally distributed. While many medium and large enterprises are posting increased profits, low wages for the educated and uneducated continue to be an embarrassing feature. Additionally, while many of us are now wallowing in the increase in our take-home pay (thanks to the J$1.5-million tax break), the poor, as pointed out in a recent study published by the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) titled Measuring The Impact of Government of Jamaica Tax Reform Measures on Consumption Expenditure by Decile, "will be made worse off, as they are less likely to benefit from the increase in the income tax threshold, but will face higher prices as a result of the tax measures".

It is high time we undo this gross economic injustice. The minimum wage is ridiculously low and ought to be increased to a much higher figure. In 1992, the minimum wage was J$600 per week (J$120/day), J$4,070 (J$814/day) in 2009, J$4,500 (J$900/day) in 2011, $5,000 (J$1,000/day) in 2012, J$5,600 (J$1,120/day) in 2014, and J$6,200 (J$1,240/day) in 2016. This is not even subsistence. One can barely buy anything with such low wages.

While in Opposition, Audley Shaw, as the feisty spokesperson on finance, told us the solution. He gave us a glimmer of hope that at least one more member of parliament agrees that the minimum wage is too low and is bold enough to say it.

On January 25, 2016, Shaw remarked in a post on Facebook that despite the increase, the "minimum wage, in real terms, decline[d] under the PNP government". He highlighted that in 2012, the minimum wage was J$5,000 (US$56.18) and the increase to J$6,200 in 2016 was actually US$51.30. He went on to say that "devaluation has savaged the purchasing power and standard of living of poor and working-class people, with no discernible benefits such as improved exports. Exports have actually declined, while prices of basic necessities have gone up, in some cases, to unreachable heights. Poverty continues to increase under the PNP Government. This is not progress!'

Michael Manley, in his first Budget Debate presentation on June 4, 1969, titled 'A Society in Crisis', argued that the country's economic strategy was not benefiting the masses, but a select few because Jamaica was seemingly "organised on the basis of privilege, for some and mere survival for others". In his mind, "Our [...] economic strategy sees us working away from the goal of equality rather than towards it." I feel very little has changed in this regard. He posited that "We are totally failing to provide a forum of economic development which substantially contributes to the spread and distribution of national wealth." It means, therefore, as he suggested, that as part of our thrust to find solutions to grow and develop our country, we must begin with a "vision of justice".

 

Minimum wage too low

 

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr Shaw that the minimum wage is too low. It does not enable people to cover their daily expenses comfortably, nor does it allow them to lift themselves out of poverty. The $6,200 paid to individuals for a 40-hour workweek should, therefore, be increased to $12,586 as he proposed in January 2016. Let's create a "vision of justice".

We cannot continue to be so reluctant to address the underdevelopment and economic insecurity faced by a large class of people. Let us stop romanticising struggle.

I expect that the Government will be as strident as it was during the debate about the tax break. We expect to see that Government again. The poor are waiting for their payday, too. Economic empowerment and justice and protection for low-wage earners/workers must be central to our development agenda.

- Jaevion Nelson is an advocate for human rights and social and economic justice. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jaevion@gmail.com, or tweet @jaevionn.