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Raffique Shah


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Minimum wage, maximum farce

By Raffique Shah
Sep 12, 2010

Let us be realistic about this burning issue of the minimum wage: no employer who is worthy of being called an entrepreneur pays anyone in his establishment $9 an hour. Put another way, no worker worth his or her sweat, however desperate she may be, would work for eight hours to take home $72. He would be better off hustling on the sidewalk, picking pockets, or robbing others of their valuables.

I interact with many from the business sector on a regular basis, and when this question comes up, they would remark, "If we pay what is now the minimum wage, we'd get no one to work for us." Contractors speak of being unable to retain unskilled labour at less than $150 a day—which is close to $20 an hour. Even in agriculture, farmers cannot get workers to tend to their fields for less than that. The latter may work for no more than five hours, given the nature of what they do. But sure as hell, they won't work for less than $100.

So who are the poor sods who actually work for $9 an hour or less? Mainly, they are low-level employees at small groceries, mini-marts, auto-repair shops (where they can be considered apprentices), gas stations, roti and doubles establishments, and few small fast-food operations.

Most trade unions, and workers so affected, expected the new People's Partnership Government to address this question in Finance Minister Winston Dookeran's budget presentation. He didn't. Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar said her Cabinet had the issue under "active consideration". I found those responses strange. After all, the Partnership, during its elections campaign, promoted itself as being for the people, and most of all for the downtrodden in the society.

The previous Patrick Manning regime had before it a three-year-old recommendation from the Minimum Wages Board to raise the minimum wage to $13.50 an hour. Not surprisingly, Mr Manning ignored that. After all, he made no pretensions that his government had a bias towards the middle class and the wealthy. During the elections campaign he even held a "private" meeting at an upscale residence in Goodwood Park—which is why he lost the damn elections!

So we knew where the PNM stood on this minimum wage issue. It's alarming, to say the least, that the Partnership Government would now raise the very issue of the ill-effects implementation of the $13.50 an hour would have on the economy. "Whaaaaaaat?" as my friend Anil Roberts would say (and I hope he echoed as much in the Cabinet chamber when the matter came up for discussion).

The new Government had no problem raising old age pension to $3,000 a month—very commendable: I expect to get mine when I register that number next year. It is spending $83 million on laptop computers for first-form students, with which I do have a problem (I proposed an alternative suggestion before the elections).

In its Budget, the Government gave generous concessions to local manufacturers. It adjusted the special petroleum tax to facilitate billion-dollar oil companies. It doled out a tax-free, $1,000 a month grant to police officers (including those who now collect more than that from "their" drug blocks or "gun rental services"!). And it granted a tax amnesty that will give a free ride to delinquent business operators who broke the law by not remitting VAT they collected, and avoided paying corporate tax.

I should add that I have no quarrel with some of these measures. For example, I understand that in order to attract oil and gas exploration in a globally competitive field, Trinidad and Tobago must make some concessions. I also do not have a problem with the "special duty allowance" for honest, hard working police officers. And if the Government can raise sufficient revenues without imposing the Property Tax the PNM had introduced, that, too, is appreciated.

But why must those poor roti and doubles makers, older women in the main, who leave their humble homes at ungodly hours, and labour in the heat of the kitchen, quite literally, be denied decent wages? Answer me, Madam Prime Minister. Why must the exploited security guard, subjected to working 24 hours at times (more the rule than the exception), to enduring woeful working conditions, be denied his or her just dues? Answer me. Why must gas station attendants and similar "low class" workers, take home $700 a week—if they are lucky?

I want this Cabinet to explain to me how and why raising the minimum wage to $13.50 an hour would send the country's economy into a tailspin. I want Mr ECA, who was gloating over concessions to business, but stoutly resisting raising the minimum wage, to tell me if he would have his son or daughter to work for $700 a week, even if they are "duncy"?

Governments' refusal to deal with "dog wages" in this era of opulence is partly responsible for the "crime factory" that has emerged in urban and rural Trinidad and Tobago. While I insist that poverty is not an excuse for crime, starvation wages sitting side by side with million-dollars-a-year "packages" provides ready avenues for young people who have the daring to narrow the rich-poor gap by any means necessary.

If this is really a people's Government, it must be seen to act on behalf of the most vulnerable in society. It cannot continue with Calder Hart-style rip-offs and not expect a backlash. Be warned.

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