By Jaevion Nelson
Would you believe there are many Jamaicans who can hardly buy a cheese patty with what they earn hourly? An inexpensive dinner for many of us is $1,000 - someone's salary for the day. That's also what many minimum wage earners pay for transportation for the week. On top of that, some of us pay $5,000 - the exact amount someone earns for the week - to be a patron at an all-inclusive party (even if it means taking a loan).
Currently, a minimum wage earner is entitled to no less than $5,000 for a 40-hour workweek. In 2000, the minimum wage was $1,200, and by 2007 it increased to $3,200. In September 2012, it increased to the current level.
In June 2013, the Honourable Derrick Kellier, the minister of labour and social security, informed Parliament that the Minimum Wage Commission will be undertaking consultations and making recommendations in keeping with the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) decent-work agenda. Decent work involves opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organise and participate in the decisions that affect their lives, and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men (ILO).
'Decent work' is so important because there are so many Jamaicans who are working for little or nothing under some inhumane conditions. My friend Juliette earns $5,000 for more than 40 hours weekly without health insurance. Thankfully, health care is free. Her two children, an 18- and 22-year-old, and the child of one of her deceased siblings live with her. Luckily, Juliette's daughter works as well but she only gets about $1,000 more than minimum wage, after taxes, weekly. One-fifth of this lady's salary goes to transportation. Her other monthly expenses include rent, utilities and groceries. By the time she is done with all those expenses she can hardly afford to buy something to eat while at work.
I hope the commission will be able to make some strong recommendations to ensure 'decent work' is a reality and advocate for living wage. It is so very important that people are paid enough to meet their basic expenses for shelter, nutrition and clothing. This is especially crucial when you consider the fact that minimum wage earners are also parents. The situation of families where the breadwinners are minimum wage earners is exacerbated when you think about poverty - child poverty in particular.
Children make up about 33 per cent of the population and are one of the most vulnerable and affected groups in the society (OCA & UNICEF, 2009; Witter, 2006; Witter et al, 2009). Today, about 41 per cent of our children are living in poverty.
According to UNICEF (2007) child poverty is the 'experience [of] deprivation of the material, spiritual, and emotional resources needed to survive, develop and thrive, leaving [children] unable to enjoy their rights, achieve their full potential or participate as full and equal members of society'.
UNICEF notes that more boys live in poverty than girls. Children, especially those between 14 and 19 years, comprised 5.3 per cent of the 2003 labour force, which rose to 6.1 per cent by 2005. The numbers were highest among males, as they all sought to support themselves and families. This exposes children to physical and physiological abuse as well as increases their vulnerability to illiteracy (Witter, 2006; STATIN & UNICEF, 2007).
What is even more frightening is that there is seemingly a preoccupation with public health and education programmes within our poverty-alleviation strategy. For example, between 2003 and 2006, 78 per cent of the expenditure on children was on education, 18 per cent on health, and only 3 per cent on social welfare and protection (Witter, 2006). In addition, even within more recent strategy papers/policies little mention is made of the importance of expanding the opportunity structures and capabilities of the poor, and in particular children, as a key component for poverty alleviation.
This is not to say that there aren't a number of government-led or -funded programmes, which are geared towards increasing social capital, community cohesiveness and the empowerment of people. In my humble opinion, these are not linked to poverty-reduction programmes. They are generally concerned with tackling crime and violence (see PIOJ Medium Term Socio-Economic Policy Framework 2009-2012).
Going forward, we must ensure that we support the Ministry of Labour's initiatives to make 'decent work' a reality for every Jamaican. We must work assiduously to ensure our children grow up in families that do not have to decide whether they eat dinner tonight or send a child to school tomorrow. This has to be part of the economically prosperous country that we intend to be.
Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV and human rights advocate. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.