Commissiong pushes for ‘two-pronged’ affirmative action policies

  • Rolfe Commissiong

    Rolfe Commissiong

The ruling Progressive Labour Party has discussed new policies to tackle the racial wealth gap, a government MP has revealed.

The move came after Government passed procurement legislation to take race, gender and disability into account when allocating contracts.

Rolfe Commissiong, a PLP backbencher, said: “Discussions are ongoing behind the scenes, but we’re not at a point yet where we’re ready to move to the action phase or operationalise that objective as we are with the procurement Bill.”

Mr Commissiong said he hoped for a “two-pronged approach” to break down inequality, with the just passed procurement Act a first step.

He said the second stage would tackle employment inequality and is being discussed at party and House of Assembly level. Mr Commissiong added he hoped legislation to tackle employment inequality will be implemented within a year.

He said the employment equality policy was intended to replace the 2007 Workforce Equity Bill, designed to level the playing field between black people and white people. The Bill, drafted before the 2007 General Election but never brought to Parliament, planned to introduce fines of up to $50,000 for companies which blocked the progress of black Bermudians.

But the Bill faced a backlash from employers, who warned it could harm international business and instead blamed the education system for the failure of black people to rise up the corporate ladder. Mr Commissiong said it was “allowed to die a slow death” because of the backlash.

He added: “The Bill was made to ensure that black professionals were going to get the same opportunities to be hired, and if they were hired that they’re going to get the requisite benefits and pay as their white peers within their respective industry and corporate sectors.”

He added the latest proposals, Bermuda’s first affirmative action-style policies, would be backed by other “non race-specific” proposals.

These will be centred on a living wage, a reduction in the cost of living and tax reform.

Mr Commissiong said the proposals were being discussed by a variety of committees and a final report on a living wage was expected to be discussed by MPs before the House of Assembly summer break.

He added that he hoped that, with the use of the procurement legislation, up to 50 per cent of annual spending will be directed to companies owned by black people or with a majority of black workers within a decade.

Mr Commissiong said companies had to be given “all the tools that they will need to succeed, although ultimately their success or failure will be up to them”.

He added the Government spent about $150 million on goods and services in Bermuda with around 85 per cent going to white-owned companies.

Eva Hodgson, a veteran social activist, who has urged the PLP to enact affirmative action legislation, said recognition of the problem was welcome.

But she added she had only “guarded optimism” due to slow progress in tackling inequality.

Dr Hodgson said: “For somebody like me, I’d like to see all-out unabashed affirmative action all around, not just in procurement but also in workforce equity.”

Renée Webb, a former PLP minister whose research on affirmative action in South Africa helped create Bermuda’s procurement office, added it was important to be quick and direct with equity policies.

She said: “It is clear that the will is there to bridge the economic disparities, but the Government has to be clear about their policies instead of discussing them behind closed doors.”

Mr Commissiong admitted the pace of legislation could be slow but pointed out the PLP administration had only been in power for a year.

But he added: “We shouldn’t allow this to dissuade us from doing the right thing. I think we should demonstrate more clarity because all of the various research and statistics I think help us to make a powerful case on the necessity of these types of initiatives.

“I’ve always been impatient around these issues but I’m confident that we’ll get there.”

He said: “The reality is, as evidenced by the latest census data which is only from 2010 to 2016, we’ve seen the racial disparities widen in terms of income.”

Mr Commissiong added: “If we’re going to create a healthier Bermuda then these policies are going to play a critical role in helping us achieve them.

“Again, the racial disparities are just so profoundly disillusioning and so profoundly disturbing that, unless we begin to be honest about the impact that it’s having, we’re not going to have the type of Bermuda we would like to see.”

This article initially said Rolfe Commissiong had asked for a two-pronged approach to break down inequality, and that Mr Commissiong expected legislation tackling employment inequality would be in place within a year. It has been amended to say Mr Commissiong hoped for the two-pronged approach, and that he hoped the legislation would be in place within a year. The updated version also removed a line saying that Opposition leader Jeanne Atherden supports the proposed policies. The Royal Gazette has not spoken to Ms Atherden about her position on this matter. We apologise for the errors.

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Published Jul 12, 2018 at 8:00 am (Updated Jul 12, 2018 at 11:54 am)

Commissiong pushes for ‘two-pronged’ affirmative action policies

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