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National Minimum Wage: Almost a century of marginalisation

Published:Friday | December 21, 2012 | 12:00 AM
A member of Tamika Small-Campbell's Executive Housekeeping & Laundry uses a wet cloth to clean this leather single-seater sofa.- Norman Grindley/Chief Photographer
Many household helpers receive the mimimum wage. -Norman Grindley/CHIEf Photographer
Columnist Orville Taylor says the case of security guards best illustrates the travails of the Jamaican worker since the National Minimum Wage was mooted and enacted into law.-File

Jamaica continues to celebrate 50 years of Independence. We have achieved a lot. However, there is much work left to be done if we are to progress as a country. We must begin to tackle Jamaica's chronic problems in a targeted and sustained way to make this country a better place to live, work and grow families. The Next 50 Years, a special Gleaner series, will spotlight some of the challenges we must fix in the coming years. We want to hear from you. Email us at and join the debate.

IN 1974, Jamaica passed its first tranche of the National Minimum Wage Orders. Michael Manley, as part of his socialist revolution, had piloted this worker-oriented 'pauper-centric' statute.

It was a good piece of legislation, although resisted by elements in the private sector as being an imposition on market forces and by trade unions because it was a drop in the bucket. Nonetheless, this law now made it clear that no worker in Jamaica could be paid less than the nominal $25 per 40-hour workweek.

Manley's initiative was bold because, for the first time since universal adult suffrage 21 years earlier, a government was doing what had been expected in the late 1800s. The script for this had been written in 1865 when the Royal Commission visited the colony and concluded that the labour system needed reforming by
implementing workers' rights and tribunals for the airing of their grievances.

An unimaginative colonial government did little to follow the advice of the commission, and by May 1938, pandemonium broke out. The labour uprisings in Jamaica are legendary, but for the purposes of this article, the most significant development was the passing of the National Minimum Wage Act (NWA) in December of that year.

It was not as landmark a statute as might be believed, because it should have put in place what its title suggested. For the first 16 years, it was just a nominal piece of statute, which did not implement the lower wage limit. True, it was not a creature of the Jamaican political parties; however, in 1944, when the population received universal adult suffrage, the victorious Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) beat the People's National Party (PNP) to form a worker-supported government for the first time in its history.

Yet, nothing occurred for the 11 years of the JLP to fix a national minimum wage (NMW), although in 1956, it legislated that records be kept by employers to allow for the determination of the rate. After Norman Manley's PNP won in 1955, the following two years saw amendments to the law, but these only referred to records and penalties. None said what the rate was to be, and this continued until Independence in 1962.

Nothing happened between 1962 and 1972, despite the irony of having a labour party in power. Therefore, when the PNP enshrined the permanent Minimum Wage Advisory Committee (MWAC) in the act and passed the Orders under the act, the original promise, although 36 years late, was finally being fulfilled. For 30 years after Jamaica elected Labourites and Comrades to run its affairs, neither did anything to give teeth to a law that, paradoxically, was given to us by the colonial oppressors for our own good.

Nonetheless, in 1974, the same year the PNP declared democratic socialism as its official doctrine, it also passed the Minimum Wage Orders for the garment industry, outlining rates for a range of occupations. Then in 1975, the National Minimum Wage Orders for the entire nation were enacted.

flawed statute

Quickly targeted also were industrial security guards, but the NMW, which was the rock-bottom rate, though well intentioned, was a porous statute with two major flaws. First, it was implicitly discriminatory, having two different rates. On the one hand, the rate for household workers averaged 75 per cent of the NMW. This major discrepancy for the first two decades of the Orders was the perhaps unwitting way in which it perpetuated the sexual division of labour and gender disparities.

It was double jeopardy, however. Although the Orders made no distinction between males and females, the household workers who worked outside of the dwelling - typically a gardener, a groundsman, or a caretaker - earned around 25 per cent more than the person who worked inside the house preparing meals, washing, giving childcare, and carrying out general critical duties. Examples of gardeners being remunerated twice that of their 'helper' counterparts are not unusual, nevertheless, household work, which is female-dominated, was by law remunerated at a lower rate.

A mockery was made of the Employment (Equal Pay for Men and Women) Act (EEPMWA), passed the same year as the Orders. Indeed, in 1990 and subsequent years, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) lamented the fact that the designation of equal work for equal pay did not prevent 'feminine' work from being paid less, despite the work being of equal value.

Consistently, for the past 20-plus years, the ILO has asked the Government to amend the EEPMWA to address work of equal value instead of equal pay for equal work. Nonetheless, nothing has occurred in this regard.

Interestingly, the Orders coincided with the beginning of the association between the Government and the International Monetary Fund, a relationship which ran from until 1992. The structural adjustment programme of the Fund put ceilings on wages, depressed the abilities of the working class to employ household workers, and created a chasm between those who earned income from labour and the owners of capital. At the end of the 1980s to the beginning of the 1990s, all scientific data indicated a widening of the rich-poor gap and the paradox of the majority of persons listed as poor being also classified as employed.

slow increases

In 1988, a consistent measure of poverty emerged. Thus, the real analysis is from the 1990s to the present.

In the past 20 years, the NMW has increased by more than 1,000 per cent. In 1992, it was $300 for a 40-hour work-week. Modest increases took it to $1,200 in 1999. Another three years were to pass before it moved again, this time by the princely sum of $400. After two paltry $200 increases between 2002 and 2003, nothing else went the workers' way until 2005 when another $400 was added, bringing it up to $2,400.

Another $400 topped the rate in 2007 to $3,200, just before the new JLP administration pushed it up by $500 to finally end with $4,500 in 2011. Finally, in the first six months after its December victory, the PNP announced new rates of $5,000 a week and $7,155 for industrial security guards.

The case of security guards best illustrates the travails of the Jamaican worker since the NMW was mooted and enacted
into law. Since 1976, their salaries have been 20 and 25 per cent more than the NMW. Starting from $30 in 1976 when the rate was $25, penultimately, it was $6,655 when the NMW was $4,500.

What is laughable is that every single time that the rate has risen, the Opposition has berated it as insufficient. Yet, as the tables turned, the ruling party switched and moved it by inches as well. The fact is, none of the political parties has seriously legislated a rate that is sensitive to poverty.

Since there was no standardised test to measure poverty before 1988, it is difficult to state definitively how wide the gap between the national minimum wage and the poverty line was before the 1990s; however, a study completed by my former sociology master's student, Deborah Fletcher, revealed "... that an average industrial security guard does not earn enough money to take his salary above the poverty line for a reference family .

It is even worse for 'Guardie', because they have contracts described by the International Labour Organisation as disguised contracts of employment. Sadly, if one is not a worker, one has no right to be paid the minimum wage. Similarly, there is no right to sick, vacation, or maternity leave. Neither do they have entitlements to redundancy payment. When one quantifies the value of this protection, the more than 15,000 security workers employed to approximately 240 firms puts them further below the poverty line.


Any attempt to construct new policy regarding the NMW has to begin with an education programme from the Ministry of Labour to sensitise the public and prospective employers about household work. The underlying philosophy must be, "if you cannot afford to employ a worker, you simply cannot afford to".

The trickle-down sort of economic policies, which allowed the capitalist classes to earn profits with the unrealistic expectation that the benefits would filter down, has not happened - and is not likely to happen.

Government must increase its campaign to inform workers of their rights and force employers to register their household workers and thus avoid them falling through the cracks. Possibly, consideration could be given to persons who employ household workers being allowed to claim benefits under the tax legislation. This would induce employers to pay the National Insurance Scheme and National Housing Trust contribution of the workers to the Government, thereby making them less likely to be deprived of benefits.

Legislative Change

The Labour Relations and Industrial Disputes Act must see a further amendment of Section 2 which, unfortunately, still allows workers to be disguised as contractors. This leads to massive exploitation, especially in the security industry.

An amendment which labels workers who work under 'labour only' contracts can be patterned on the 1972 Trinidadian Industrial Relations Act, or the 1999 St Lucia legislation which, strangely, was ignored by the legislators. These changes are simple, but must come with the boldness of a government which must show that it has not sold out to campaign contributions by the powerful.

Orville Taylor, PhD, is a senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Psychology and Social Work, University of the West Indies, Mona, and a talk -show host. Send feedback to