Hayward: Racial inequality action needed
Bermuda could hear a renewed call for affirmative action measures unless racial disparities are comprehensively tackled, according to union leader Jason Hayward.
Mr Hayward, president of the Bermuda Public Services Union, said longstanding gaps between black and white workers should be addressed through education and training.
He said that, while proposals such as the Workforce Equity Bill have failed to get off the ground in the past, sections of the community may start calling for something similar unless more is done to level the playing field.
Mr Hayward, formerly of the Department of Statistics, pointed to figures showing black unemployment at triple that of whites, while incomes, pensions and management representation lagged.
According to the BPSU head, reports exist that show “some blacks in Bermuda who have college degrees earned less than whites with no degrees” (see sidebar).
“Unfortunately, while many in IB [international business] will not speak up, I’ve received reports of the unequal treatment in that sector of the workforce,” Mr Hayward told The Royal Gazette.
“We must therefore also create an environment where all our citizens feel safe to speak up about these injustices, as without this protection we will not be able to attain viable solutions.”
Expanding on comments made at the Bermuda Industrial Union’s 34th Annual Labour Day Banquet, Mr Hayward affirmed his support for term limits, stronger immigration policies and monitoring of employers to ensure that qualified Bermudians were not disadvantaged.
However, he added: “While immigration policies may be a factor, I don’t think we have an immigration problem.
“The problem is far more complex, as I believe that the disparities that exist are fundamentally structural in nature. There is currently a mismatch between the skills and qualifications that the workplace requires, and the skills and qualifications that our workers possess.”
In 2007, under the Progressive Labour Party Government, a Workforce Equity Act came up for debate, aimed at redressing racial disparities by requiring companies to reflect the racial make-up of the workforce.
It was tabled but never enacted, with Mr Hayward noting “strong opposition from both the IB sector and the local business community”.
“I believe that any attempts to bring back the Workforce Equity Bill will cause the same level of misunderstanding and division that it did when it was originally introduced,” Mr Hayward said.
“However, if we do not collectively commit to implementing practical solutions to address our country’s inequities, we may see pockets of the community calling for something similar.”
He added: “While critics may say that we will never see the composition of the boardrooms and in senior management positions throughout the country representative of the racial make-up of the population, it should certainly be our vision.
“It should be our shared goal to see that both blacks and whites working in an organisation with an equal access to opportunity as we all benefit from a more just and equitable country.”
Cordell Riley, also a statistician as well as an activist for Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda (CURB), said the picture of race-based income inequality in Bermuda was “not rosy”.
Drawing on the 2010 census along with employment briefs for last year, Mr Riley said black workers five years ago had earned just under 70 per cent of what their white counterparts made.
By 2014, that wage level had fallen to 66 per cent, Mr Riley said.
While the historical background such as slavery and its legacy effects had been abundantly documented, the literature was “largely silent on the remedies for it”, Mr Riley said.
“The challenge that we have is how we right the wrongs of the past. In South Africa, they had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That process is not complete because it has not been decided how to deal with the issue of reparations.” During a recent visit to South Africa, Mr Riley said he had heard black residents complain that little social change had come with black majority rule.
Shortly before the 2012 General Election, CURB issued a controversial 15-point plan that included calling for the Workforce Equity Act to be revived.
“The one that garnered the most resistance was the mandatory and anonymous collection of wealth data,” Mr Riley said. “Let me be clear, the objection was to the collection of data that would have given us as a community a clear picture of the extent of the problem that we are dealing with.”
He attributed the lack of political will to resolve inequalities to fears that righting historical wrongs amounted to a “zero sum game”, meaning one side’s gain would come at the other’s loss.
Rolfe Commissiong, the Shadow Minister of Human Affairs, said that he had recently called for a Cabinet-level task force to tackle economic empowerment, and racial equity and workforce development.
Mr Commissiong said fellow Progressive Labour Party MP Jamahl Simmons had also urged an equality impact assessment to track the racial impact of public policy.
“Is there a role for the Government in fostering or facilitating racial and gender diversity? Of course,” Mr Commissiong said. “And we should not shy away from that responsibility which is, at heart, a moral one.
“Will the resurrection of a workforce equity type bill assist us in this regard? Perhaps. But who knows. There may be an even better mouse trap that will allow us to get to the same place.”
He added: “Critically, the call for more racial diversity should not just be about insuring that qualified black Bermudians can climb to the upper echelons of the established private sector firms.
“It should also be a call to action for black Bermudians to become more entrepreneurial and establish more black Bermudian dominated businesses in this country. And I believe that the Government has a role in helping the country meet that objective, too.”
Mr Commissiong said that those who championed the need for corporate gender diversity could become “very hostile when that same call is made on behalf of people of colour”.
“I have never been cowed by them, and neither should right-thinking black and white Bermudians allow them to hijack the necessary debate on this issue.”
Government figures show stubborn inequalities between blacks and whites in the workplace, according to Jason Hayward of the Bermuda Public Services Union.
According to Employment Briefs released earlier this year:
• Black unemployment is 9 per cent while white unemployment is reported to be 3 per cent;
• For professionals, the median income for whites ($87,799) is substantially higher than the median income for blacks ($57,877);
• The annual pension received by whites ($17,441) is higher than that received by blacks ($14,664);
• There are more white senior officers and managers than there are blacks in these positions;
• There are more whites who have attained a four-year degree or higher than blacks.
While the 2010 Census shows blacks overall holding fewer four-year degrees than whites, black Bermudians hold a greater number of such degrees than white Bermudians — which Mr Hayward said made the Island’s race-based disparities “even more unexplainable”.
“How is it possible that we have a working population of approximately 35,000, but less than 5,000 black Bermudians possess a degree from a four-year institution or higher?” Mr Hayward said.
“Many black Bermudians will struggle for upward mobility as qualifications are now essential in the job market.
“However, it is important to note that even when education levels are equal between the races, our statistics reveal that race-based income disparities still exist.
“In fact, there are reports that highlight that some blacks in Bermuda who do have college degrees earned less than whites with no degrees.”
Shadow Minister of Human Affairs Rolfe Commissiong said he “vehemently rejected” the view raised in 2007 that the draft Workforce Equity Bill would be unconstitutional.
The Constitution’s prohibition of discrimination upon the basis of race should not preclude “using race-based remedies in the form of affirmative action and/or black economic empowerment initiatives to ameliorate the multi generational impact of racial discrimination — in this case — on black people in this country”, he said.
“Any other view would, in my estimation, be a perversion of justice and an abrogation of our moral responsibility to each other.
“In effect, it would cement and reinforce a status quo that is the direct result of racial injustice.”