What’s in it for us?
Bermuda, let us not forget that the Gencom/Westend Properties giveaway is the latest version of the deal that the Progressive Labour Party’s leadership election created. Some four of five days before that vote, which featured challenger and former finance minister Curtis Dickinson, David Burt announced that a final deal had been had — another one, I might add.
Of course, in true gaslighting form, he neglected to tell Bermuda what it looked like. We now know why? My guess is that Chris Maybury and the billionaire principal of Gencom, Karim Alibhai, and his partners actually got the deal they wanted from the beginning. They just had to leave the Premier dangling in the wind for a little more than a year and eventually they knew he would come back to them with political cap in hand.
However, as I predicted privately, the threat by Mr Maybury’s public declaration to take their tarnished Gencom and Westend Properties marbles and go home was not going to go over well with Bermudians. Maybe he has established his dominance over the feckless leadership of the present government, led by good friend David Burt, but I would still like to believe that real Bermudians are made of tougher stuff.
The arrogance here was stunning but predictable. Sir John Swan, David Burt and Chris Furbert have consistently claimed that this medicine is good for us. But, really, is it? The question I have asked consistently is, what’s in it for us? I and many other Black Bermudians have seen this movie over and over, decade after decade. We do know whom this deal will benefit. Not us.
“Where is the equity for Bermudian workers?” is the question we all should be considering.
I believe this deal, albeit one that is significantly scaled back, can be at least made more equitable for the workers — those earning poverty-level wages — and for Black Bermudian businesses in the construction/development sector. I also want to see what was once our jewel in the crown — the former Southampton Princess Hotel — renovated along with a reasonable number of units to support the financing. I get that, as do the vast majority of Bermudians, including the environmentalists. The number of units, though, is the issue and should be scaled back from 261 units under the existing submission down to perhaps 230. A compromise must be made.
Our people have seen over our lifetimes literally scores of British men like Mr Maybury get off the plane and within a decade or more become masters of the Bermuda universe. It’s like they won the lottery by just landing in Bermuda. Although, historically, at the expense of whom?
The same criticism applies to the Bermuda Industrial Union under Chris Furbert as president. Is the union now saying that as long as those exploited foreign workers are paying union dues, everything is hunky-dory? Is this the attitude at work here on Union Square, which ignores the social harm this business model has caused to our communities up and down Bermuda? Waiters today in unionised workplaces in our hotels are earning a little more than $8 an hour in terms of their basic wage — and in some cases in our restaurants less.
Wages have been stagnant for the most part at that level over the past 15 years or more. Housekeepers are doing better, but for both the season keeps getting shorter. That wage should have been raised, as I recommended repeatedly, to between $11 and $12 per hour in 2024 and then between $12 and $13 per hour by 2025 without the gratuities scheme being factored into the calculation of basic pay for employees in the affected categories. This should be implemented immediately.
It also got worse, as labour minister Jason Hayward recently passed legislation that represents one of the greatest sell-outs in the history of employment rights of workers in Bermuda by establishing a so-called “hybrid wage” structure that allows employers of persons earning gratuities to use them to dictate the wage of workers. This scheme lacks equity and allows for the continuation of a business model predicated on the payment of poverty-level wages in certain occupational categories within the hospitality industry.
Gratuities and commissions are a variable and as such should not be used in the determination of basic pay. That employers can top up the wage if it falls below the minimum-wage level offers no comfort when the minimum wage recently passed guarantees only a fraction more than $600 a week.
Mr Hayward, his predecessor, Lovitta Foggo, and Cordell Riley, the head of the Wage Commission, were warned directly against adopting this practice or any variation of it. This model has been now endorsed legislatively by our government and, sadly, the BIU. But the provision needs to be rescinded immediately.
Even layoffs can now occur when occupancy levels fall to 85 per cent, which was raised recently to that level without a peep from those who are supposed to defend the workers — organised labour. Why? Because they agreed to it and endorsed it publicly. This, too, will affect the earnings of workers by potentially further shortening a season that has been significantly abbreviated over the preceding decades. This provision also needs to be rescinded immediately.
Mr Burt even allowed the developers to get away without even paying the redundancy payments due to the former workers at the hotel. Clearly this is not Freddie Wade’s party any longer. Not with a leadership determined, unfortunately, to remake the party into a facsimile of the United Bermuda Party circa 1989 or the One Bermuda Alliance of 2016. Has anyone noticed that none of the above was objected to by the OBA, further strengthening the observation that there is little to choose between the two.
We had a chance to make systemic and structural changes to our labour market as it relates to this employment sector, which would also produce racial equity, but this government has refused to do so.
Can our young Black men and women who disproportionately comprise the working poor in Bermuda, with some having less than a college degree or high school diploma, earn a decent wage in the affected occupational categories? Look no farther than that as the reason that fewer and fewer Bermudians are in that sector because they cannot afford to work for the wages being paid.
A timely reminder. In 2021, Mr Hayward pledged that in 2022 a living wage would be announced and the pathway to its implementation would begin. It is nowhere in sight. I challenge the Trade Union Congress and particularly the Bermuda Public Services Union to call out their former president, as they did in forcing his departure over the same issue not that long ago. The same challenge goes out to the various non-governmental organisations and supporters. The issue of a living wage, especially in light of the massive rise of income inequality in Bermuda, driven in large part by the massive growth of international business over the past quarter-century, compels all of us to stand in solidarity in defence of our common interests. The living wage is needed now more than ever. The Gencom/Westend Properties deal and the alarm bells it has sounded should lead us all to end the complacency around these matters of basic fairness for our people.
• 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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