The lies we tell each other
“Any business operating with a business model that is predicated on poverty wages should seek to change their business model”
— Jason Hayward 2021 (paraphrasing US president Franklyn Delano Roosevelt)
“Rolfe, I have been making the same $20 per hour for roughly the past 20 years”
— Black middle-aged worker
Can anyone reading the following claim with a straight face that someone would be able to live in Bermuda — a country, as I have said before, with the highest cost of living in the known universe — and do so on an hourly rate of $13.19, $15.71 or even $17.28 for a 40-hour week? And that may be before deductions if we go by what is in the Wage Commission report issued last year?
Yet both Jason Hayward and Lovitta Foggo, the former minister who also echoed that FDR-derived quote in a recent op-ed that I first began to popularise about six years ago, have asserted along with Cordell Riley — who I recommended to head the Wage Commission — that you can do exactly that: live on the poverty level on the wages cited.
Unfortunately, that quote is but empty words coming out of their mouths. These are the lies we tell each other.
With respect to whether those minimum-wage tiers represent gross or net wages, it appears that issue along with just about every other key issue in that report remains unsettled. It may be before deductions or after, who knows. Apparently, it will be decided later, notwithstanding that this was the type of issue that the Wage Commission should have decided. It was conceptualised as being the last step — not another interim step — in the process that, more importantly, would produce a living wage for Bermuda. It was to be the final authority before being placed in the hands of government. The above wage tiers represent on a per annum basis earnings of $27,435.20, $32,676.80 and $35,942.40 respectively.
I just wish to say to all three of them that the above would be textbook examples of poverty-level wages in Bermuda. Yet, to their discredit — when one considers who they represent electorally — they endorsed exactly that by way of the recommendations in the report submitted by the Wage Commission. What planet are they living on? Planet House of Assembly or Planet Rims?
After 5½ years, is this all that the hard-pressed, Black working poor and unemployed can reasonably expect from a government and a leader in the form of David Burt, who bent over backwards during the 2017 election to rhetorically at least sound progressive in the vein of the Reverend Nicholas Tweed and myself while on the big stage as he fronted an election campaign and platform that for large parts read as if written by the aforementioned? Which, in part, it was.
The sleight of hand
Certainly, the Progressive Labour Party support base was disappointed by the performance right after the election, which belied the rhetoric of Burt, who can play the consummate straw man with the ease of a seasoned pro. No further proof of the above needed than the more than 4,000 voters who showed up at the polls in 2017 for the PLP having disappeared only three years later. Unfortunately for the black working poor, the PLP government’s greatest accomplishment, like with a couple of its predecessors, has been its skill in kicking the can down the road on most of the progressive aspects of that platform, including the living wage — not a minimum wage! Maybe we should consider ourselves lucky that the Cost of Living Committee under Derrick Burgess has disappeared off the face of the earth — buried without a public trace or even a report, no matter how flawed this committee’s inception.
The Bermudian workers, particularly those earning wages in hospitality, specifically in the hotel industry and restaurants, have been working in a sector of our economy that for decades has been operating a business model that is predicated precisely on providing poverty-level wages to as many low-cost foreign workers as the immigration department can approve. I repeat, that has been the business model of the minister and his predecessor. The same trend over the past two-plus decades has been taking place increasingly in construction and landscaping as well. But the hospitality sector comprising the hotel and restaurant industry was and remains the worst offender in that regard.
It is not only employers at fault; it has been successive governments, including this one, who have been complicit along with unscrupulous employers in aiding and abetting the exploitation of the poorest and most marginal in Bermuda.
After being inspired by the People’s Campaign movement, I conceived from a legislative standpoint to advance the cause of the living wage; not a minimum wage per se, but a living wage. How else could we put a stop to this two decades or more race to the bottom? It was to impose statutorily mandated living wages to reverse course and start a race to the top as opposed to the bottom on wages, which is the first stop on the policy journey to create a more equitable Bermuda where a livable income is possible. In reality it was a direct assault at a systemic level on a way of doing business that was powerfully disadvantageous to Bermudians in certain key sectors of the workforce.
How did the minimum wage come into the discussion? It did so because of two factors: one, it was clear that the most exploited workers on Planet Bermuda were waiters in our restaurants, and waiters, bellmen and housekeepers in the hotel sector. What was shocking was that in our main hotels with unionised staff, you had workers earning gratuities but their guaranteed, basic wage was only $8 to $9 per hour maximum. It has been at that level for years. And in the restaurant sector, some chains are quite happy to pay waiters as little as $6 or $7 per hour along with some retailers who provide commissions. Again, Hayward and Foggo, who is fooling whom here?
The reason that I proposed to introduce a minimum wage was limited in its scope to providing:
• A means by which the employees in those categories in year one of implementation would have their base pay increase to between $11 and $13 per hour for a 40-hour week with the gratuities (tips) and commissions (retail) structures unchanged
• That minimum wage be reserved solely for employees who also earned gratuities and commissions primarily. But it would require employers in that sector to accept that the era of them being able to pay poverty-level wages of between $6 and $8 per hour to waiters, housekeepers and bellmen was over
• Everyone else would be eligible for the living wage by Year 2 of its implementation, except for persons under 18, and those who are live-in caregivers because the commission has flagged and, as recommended, would be exempt
I was of the opinion if we were going to attract more Bermudians, particularly young Black men to the industry which was a public policy the Government stated as an objective, it was imperative that we reverse the race to the bottom on wages in their favour. There is no way we can largely Bermudianise the industry without doing so. But if it was possible under the existing status quo in the industry, it would have happened long ago.
The drug trade is hiring, Michael
To my erstwhile friend Michael Weeks, let me raise the bar even higher. This measure on my part was also viewed as a public policy measure to address the growth of so-called gang formation and gang violence at the front end, which during that period was literally exploding. How? Remember the so-called Mincy Report that was produced by professor Ronald Mincy out of Columbia University in 2010, which was a comparative study of our young Black males? It confirmed that between 1997-98 and 2008-09, fully half of students attending our public high schools upon entering S1 could not be found by S4. These were students who failed to graduate probably in the hundreds over that decade, although some would have subsequently achieved their GEDs or obtained their degrees after transferring to other senior schools on island or overseas. But the majority would have essentially disappeared from the hallowed halls of academia for ever.
I am sure that more than 98 per cent of them were Black. They would have entered a Bermudian job market, especially in hospitality (hotels and restaurants), construction and landscaping, not to mention other sectors which during that period were indulging in an orgy of hiring for a booming economy. The only problem? They were increasingly hiring low-cost, low to medium-skilled foreign labour in some cases from as far away as Eastern Europe and Asia in preference to largely young Black Bermudian men and women.
These are facts.
In other words, yes, the two issues are connected and remain so. It did not take a lot of critical and analytical skills to see it. In that environment despite the risks of death, long imprisonments, and retributive violence, the illicit drug trade was viewed as a welcome alternative to making a mere 12, 13, 15 or 17 dollars an hour — even with gratuities — and “living with Momma”. This is what economic desperation creates, along with the full panoply of crimes that come with it.
Did my former colleagues in government understand this? Obviously not. Because if they did, this policy would have been implemented in 2017 as one of critical importance to the country. Instead what did we get a Portuguese holiday, a vigil at the National Sports Centre designed to pray away gang violence, fintech and more fintech, masquerading as an example of economic diversity. One thing that none of David Burt, Lovitta Foggo, Michael Weeks or especially Jason Hayward say is that they never heard me express my views on this issue consistently and forcefully in my caucus and at times on the floor of the House of Assembly itself. The five-year wait for a living wage, then, in terms of this context is shameful, to say the least, and borderline unforgivable at best.
The message to the losers
It is the message this sends to the losers here — and there are always losers, especially young men and single mothers. The message is that it’s the drug trade that’s for you. That financial assistance is for you. That the food line, where the numbers are growing by the day, is for you. That if you can afford to migrate out of Bermuda, that too is for you. To someplace such as Britain, while on the return British Airways flights, very affluent British executives and lawyers are flying in to feast on the international business/financial services sector tax-free, with wife and two children in tow. What I call the neocolonisation of Bermuda. The Rims crowd.
Even the blind and the deaf
This is the future that David Burt, Wayne Caines, Jason Hayward, Wayne Furbert and Curtis Dickinson are creating right now for those that Bermuda has always viewed as surplus to requirement, whether or not they or you realise it. Perhaps this explains in large part why we have reached the point where the failure of this conservative government to give the economically marginalised a tangible benefit — to take on the privileged and the mighty on their behalf in a way that will materially improve their lives consistent with the promise inherent in the 2017 platform, notwithstanding Covid-19 — is fuelling a hunger for systemic change. It is the nature of the change to come that is all that remains. One thing is certain: they know that on this and other related issues, the One Bermuda Alliance is not even in the conversation. They also know they would be even worse.
As to the quote at the beginning from the middle-aged friend who stated that he was still making the same $20 per hour that he did 20 years ago, I’m afraid he is mistaken. In real terms, once inflation — the loss of purchasing power — is factored into the equation, a calculated guess has him making no more than $16 per hour; possibly as little as $14. I hate to break it to him, but that is what I do.
The Government’s ideological and moral compass is being called into question here, and rightly so. Is it broken? By the introductory statements, it may be. We are waiting to see whose interests our political leaders will defend. Kicking the can down the road can work for only so long. Eventually, even the blind and the deaf catch on. We are now at that point.
• Rolfe Commissiong was the Progressive Labour Party MP for Pembroke South East (Constituency 21) between December 2012 and August 2020, and the former chairman of the joint select committee considering the establishment of a living wage
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