Taxpayers picking up slack’ for underpaid
Taxpayers will continue to “pick up the slack” if workers do not get a living wage, a public forum heard this week.
Martha Dismont, the executive director of Family Centre, said financial assistance for food and housing for struggling Bermudians was paid for by those who contribute to the system.
She also warned that society would become “more destructive” if nothing was done to prevent greater inequality.
Ms Dismont said poor wages in lower-skilled jobs meant families found it difficult to earn enough to cover household expenses.
The charity’s founder added: “We know that when even working people can’t make enough to live, they eventually take money from the Government.
“They take money in the form of financial assistance for housing, daycare, transportation, food and clothing, but we never stop to think that if we can provide a living wage and require employers to pay their employees enough so that they can house, feed and clothe their families, taxpayers will not have to pick up the slack.”
She said the high cost of living in Bermuda was her “greatest concern”.
Ms Dismont was speaking as part of a panel discussion organised by the Progressive Labour Party, called The Living Wage — Relief is on the way.
She was joined by PLP backbencher Rolfe Commissiong, who chaired a bipartisan parliamentary committee on the topic; statistician Cordell Riley; and the Reverend Nicholas Tweed, the pastor of St Paul AME Church. Kim Swan, also a PLP MP, moderated.
Ms Dismont told Thursday’s meeting: “You can work with families and encourage them to be good to their children and send their children overseas to university, and we all know it, the individual comes back and they either can’t get a job — and I’m talking about bachelor’s and master’s degrees — or will take a small job and will find business practices not what they should be and get very frustrated.
“So what sense does it make in encouraging parents to be good to your children, make sure they get their education and they return to Bermuda and are full of frustration?
“I believe that solutions must be in the consideration for a living wage first because we will become a much more destructive society if the income gap continues to widen — we’re already seeing it.”
The Joint Select Committee report on the introduction of statutory minimum and living wages was approved by MPs in August.
Recommendations included the introduction of a $12.25 an hour minimum wage on May 1 next year and the establishment of a wage commission to determine the appropriate level for a living wage, to be implemented in May 2021.
Mr Tweed told the meeting inequality was created not by employment levels but by a “system that has been constructed to preserve the privilege of the few over the many, often requiring the exploitation of the many”. He said: “If we think that by creating monolithic policy initiatives, we’re going to address our deepest rooted aspiration, which is a desire for equality, then I daresay that in the next hundred years we will be sitting in a forum similar to this one, having a conversation similar to this one.”
Mr Tweed said it was important to understand that “livable income has to be done simultaneously with tax reform”, and that these “go hand in hand in arresting the unrestrained cost of healthcare”.
Mr Riley told the audience the “very essence of a living wage is to give dignity to those who have less”.
One audience member spoke about his experience as a maitre d’ in one of the island’s main hotels more than 30 years ago.
He said he had responsibility for about 100 members of staff and 70 per cent were Bermudians who made “twice as much as a hotel worker is making now in the gratuities system”.
The man added: “We have to find out what’s happening to the money that’s coming in to the industry now.”
Mr Commissiong said data shows that, among service workers, black Bermudians make up the largest group of workers in hospitality jobs, as well as in roles like gas station attendants and airline agents.
He added: “Our brothers and sisters, our nephews, our cousins — those are the ones who we need to give a leg up in this economy.”
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