MP delighted with living wage progress
The “real work” starts now to deliver a pay structure in Bermuda that aims to lift low-income workers off the breadline.
More than two years after Rolfe Commissiong, a government backbencher, first moved to launch a committee that would consider a living wage, he has told of his relief that its recommendations were approved.
The MP, who chaired the bipartisan group, assured critics that they need not fear the “sky falling” down if a statutory pay regime is introduced.
Instead he pointed to greater spending power for people who are more likely to buy locally, generating the island’s economy.
Mr Commissiong said: “A few weeks ago, I said in The Royal Gazette that relief is on its way and I’m happy to report that for those Bermudians and others who have been making less than decent wages, even poverty- level wages, over the next 2½ years they’re going to see a progressive, transformative agenda that will directly benefit them and Bermuda as a whole.”
The politician moved to start a parliamentary Joint Select Committee on the establishment of a living wage in June 2016. It was set up but reformed after the General Election last year. Its report was accepted in the House of Assembly this month.
Its recommendations include introducing a minimum wage of $12.25 per hour on May 1 next year and setting up a wage commission to determine a living wage — calculations earlier arriving at $18.23 — which would then be implemented in May 2021.
Mr Commissiong said: “I feel somewhat relieved but I’m also of the view that now the real work begins.
“The door’s now open by way of which we can make these proposals real, we can make a tangible and beneficial impact on the lives of the people we’ve been talking about.”
Reflecting on the work of the committee, Mr Commissiong explained: “It got contentious at times and compromises had to be made. For me, some of those compromises were hard to swallow, but it’s important that both parties now go forward on this issue.”
He acknowledged there would be “some differences moving forward” but took comfort that there is “broad consensus”.
The Progressive Labour Party MP also said: “There will be those, as we’ve seen in many other countries around the world, that will try to assert that the sky is falling around these types of initiatives.
“We see it everywhere that there has been either the imposition of statutory wages, such as minimum wages, and now to some degree even living wages over the last four or five years in particular.”
Mr Commissiong cited comparable jurisdictions such as Jersey, Guernsey and the Cayman Islands, as well as larger countries like Germany.
He continued: “In almost every instance you’ve had usually conservative economists, along with those who I characterise as having major self interest here — elements of the business community who have been benefiting from the status quo in these respective countries — coming out and saying that the sky was going to fall, that jobs will be lost, that employment will decline, that unemployment would spike.
“I still make the challenge if someone can show me where those prognostications have ever borne fruit, I wish they would bring it to my attention because during the last couple of years that I’ve spent on this issue, I’ve yet to find one credible example.”
Mr Commissiong said a statutory pay structure would increase the purchasing power of low-income workers, who are more likely to spend money in the “real world economy”, creating a “virtuous economic cycle” for Bermuda.
He also explained: “The $18.23 figure, that was put up as a benchmark figure. The idea was that would send a message to the public that at the very least you’re not going to get a figure below that, it will be calculated by the wage commission.
“That was produced on 2016 data so I fully anticipate that even if they use the same methodology to translate that into an hourly wage, in 2020 for example, it will probably result in something significantly higher.”
When the report was debated in the House, Mr Commissiong said “most people would assume” that figure to be somewhere between $19 and $21 per hour.
The JSC recognised that statutory wages were not the only answer, endorsing tax reform and looking at ways to vastly reduce the cost of living in Bermuda.
An amendment later made to its report, also accepted by MPs, called for a change in the Employment Act to remove a loophole that allows employers to avoid paying overtime if workers agree.
Further, the committee wishes to see the Pensions Act changed to ensure work permit-holders are required to contribute to the National Pension Scheme.
With Parliament now on summer break, Mr Commissiong admitted it could be tricky to have a minimum wage in place by May 1, in what is a bid to provide “immediate relief” to those who need it most, such as hospitality workers earning as little as $5 or $6 an hour.
The next steps include making up a schedule for legislation as well as additional consultation.
He said: “It’s going to be tight but I think it’s still doable.”
Mr Commissiong added: “It’s a tight timescale but in respect of the objective it’s so worthwhile.”
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