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Island urged to address income inequality

Rolfe Commissiong

The creation of a living wage must be done to prevent a “race-to-the-bottom” reality for Bermuda’s most vulnerable workers, according to the chairman of the committee examining the issue.

Rolfe Commissiong, Progressive Labour Party MP and chairman of the bipartisan committee on the issue, used the example of a woman living in his constituency to highlight the “rapidly growing” income inequality on the island.

The woman, believed to be in her late 20s or early 30s, was earning $7.50 an hour and had recently worked 96 hours over a two-week stretch. She received no overtime pay and — as a part-time worker — had no health insurance, he said.

“The cruel irony is that she was offered a full-time position with another food-service provider, and that would have amounted to her being paid $6 an hour,” the MP said.

The living wage issue will again be discussed at a public meeting taking place tomorrow night, slated to include guest presenter Pernell Grant as well as Bermuda College lecturer Craig Simmons, Bermuda Industrial Union president Chris Furbert, former Attorney-General Phil Perinchief and Lynne Winfield, from Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda.

The event will also examine the “over two decades-long reliance on low-cost foreign labour”, and the “various employment practices facing Bermudians in the workplace”, a press release issued ahead of the event stated.

The examination of the issue of foreign workers should not be on the workers themselves, Mr Commissiong said, but instead on Bermudian and Bermuda-based companies “indulging in these exploitative practices for their own benefit”.

Failure to act on the issue of income inequality could have dire consequences.

“Unless we come to grips with this, I think it’s going to run the real risk of leading to even more social instability,” Mr Commissiong said.

“The threat it poses — not only to our economy, not only to the most vulnerable in our society — to our political stability, is one that we should not ignore.”

Mr Perinchief said that another consideration in the discussion must likewise not be ignored.

“There’s a huge elephant in our midst,” he said of the international business community.

According to Mr Perinchief, a 2 per cent tax on that sector would allow for roughly $1 billion of Bermuda’s budget to be underwritten.

This would in turn allow for the reduction of tariffs, levies, import duties, and the like, lowering the cost of living and spurring spending, he said. Mr Perinchief dismissed the idea that such a tax would push businesses off the island as “nonsense” and “balderdash”.

It’s not a matter of if a living wage will be established, simply a question of when — and by what means.

“It’s going to happen but may happen in a calamitous fashion,” he said.

Mr Simmons cautioned: “Failure to address inequality could lead to unsavoury outcomes — slower economic growth and social unrest.”

The discussion, he said, should not be in terms of a livable wage, but instead a livable income.

This, he said, could take a number of forms, including the creation of a guaranteed income, wage subsidy, or conditional or unconditional cash transfers. A living income could draw more Bermudians into the workforce, “especially prime-aged women with children”, he said.

“Childcare is so expensive as to discourage female labour participation.”

In conjunction with a tariff on unskilled or low-income labour, a living income could decrease the incentive to hire unskilled foreign labour, he said.

“I believe we can be late to the dance sometimes, but once we get going, and once we form a consensus, there’s very little that we as Bermudians historically have not been able to do,” Mr Commissiong said.

“And I feel the same way about this issue.”

The public meeting begins at 8pm at St Paul AME Church located at 59 Court Street.