Inequality not going away’
Bermuda’s entrenched disparities must be tackled for black workers to get a fair shot, according to former minister Wayne Perinchief, who said that inequality remained alive and well ten years after his Workforce Equity Bill was proposed.
“I’m 75; I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve seen a lot of this unfairness,” Mr Perinchief said.
Speaking with The Royal Gazette after social activist Eva Hodgson called on the new Progressive Labour Party administration to take action, Mr Perinchief said: “The common denominator is race and power. It’s not going away, and it is not getting better.”
The Bill, which never got beyond draft, was ultimately dropped under former premier Ewart Brown, who said the legislation had faced “disquiet” from the party’s caucus as well as the Cabinet of the day.
“Sometimes I wish we had gone ahead with it anyway,” added Dr Brown, who expressed hope that the Bermuda Government would take on the island’s uneven playing field.
“Not only must they be receptive; they must be ready to act. We don’t have for ever. We cannot remain a country where we educate our young, but they don’t contribute to the economy. I’m not just talking about jobs or bank loans; it’s about the freedom to develop ideas, and for people to place confidence in Bermudians’ ability to do that.”
While agreeing with the former Minister for Community and Cultural Affairs that some in the international business community had been uncomfortable with the Workforce Equity Bill, Dr Brown said that proposals tended to get pulled when they failed to resonate with Cabinet — unless they were seen as “critical”. Meanwhile, Mr Perinchief offered advice for the PLP, which was returned to power in an overwhelming election victory last month.
Imposing a minimum wage, he said, would ensure Bermudians got better access to lower-level jobs dominated by foreign workers. He also faulted the public education system, saying it should explore offering the International Baccalaureate, as private schools do.
However, Mr Perinchief maintained that the winds of change worked best when they came from outside the Government. “What I would expect, though I can’t be too optimistic, is that the private sector would take the initiative,” he said.
“Why should it always be that a black Government has to twist the arm of corporate Bermuda to do the right thing? That impetus should come from the corporate sector to change the paradigm, not the Bermuda Government. The PLP would be called dictatorial, there would be people marching — that shouldn’t happen.”
Noting the longstanding departure of Bermudians overseas, along with the erosion of the island’s middle class, Mr Perinchief said: “Bermudians aspire to greatness everywhere except at home.”
In 2007, the Workforce Equity Bill raised eyebrows for singling out black Bermudians.
“I was questioned about that by my technical officers, and I said I was not going to bite my words,” Mr Perinchief recalled.
“I said, this is a way to bring parity — ‘black’ stays in the Bill.”
It emerged from a policy to encourage the broad employment of Bermudians, which Mr Perinchief said needed to be toughened as it was clear that black males in particular fell behind.
At the time, the suggestion of steep fines for non-compliant businesses drew consternation.
But Mr Perinchief was adamant that “by the time I put it forward as a Bill, it was not to have any punishment at all”.
“It was all incentives. I was trying to encourage people to get on board, and voluntarily, because it was the right thing to do. I know the word ‘black’ set off some red flags. But I wanted people to get that message.”
As the economic recession loomed in 2009, a committee of business leaders, Bermuda First, was assembled to come up with strategies.
Similarly, Mr Perinchief said that while equity legislation would today seem less contentious, “the incentive to analyse society and put in remedial policies should come from outside the Government, and outside of strictly vested interests”.
“We need a think tank to come up with policies that put the country forward.”
Dr Hodgson earlier this month reiterated her call for “affirmative action policies”, echoing those developed by the United States in the 1960s to redress inequality.
Asked for his view, Dr Brown said: “The difference from Bermuda is that blacks are a minority in America. But the situation we’re talking about is common in both. Should we have an affirmative action programme regardless? I think you call it what you want.
“The fact is, black people need to have jobs and to be a significant part of our economy — whatever that takes.”
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