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Calls for a living wage in Bermuda

Craig Simmons (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Introducing a living wage in Bermuda could be a vital step in addressing economic disparity, according to presentations made to a Parliamentary Joint Select Committee.

At a public meeting at St Paul’s Centennial Church Hall on Thursday, a series of speakers called the establishment of a living wage an ethical move as much as an economic one.

Economist Craig Simmons told attendees: “It’s unfortunate that economics and ethics have been separated for a couple of hundred years.”

He said that economists had sidestepped the concept that economic winners have a duty to help support those who lose out and that not everyone has benefited from globalisation.

“100 years ago we planted all of our own food,” he said. “We gave a lot of that up. We went down a one-way street. There’s no return from globalisation.”

While he said that the majority of Bermudians born in the 1940s made more money then their parents, the same is not true of those born in the 1980s.

Turning his attention to the concept of a living wage, he said there were three options, including establishing a guaranteed income, creating a wage subsidy, or a cash transfer scheme.

Statistician Cordell Riley, reading a presentation prepared by Sheila Cooper of the Family Centre, said the rise in those on financial assistance was “disturbing”. She added that many in Bermuda were earning only $5 to $7 an hour while many businesses continue to turn a profit.

The statement said that there was no real evidence that instituting a living wage would increase unemployment, suggesting that it could actually help create jobs.

“A living wage of $20 per hour would make it impractical to bring in foreign workers for unskilled or semi-skilled work that Bermudians could do,” Mr Riley read.

Mr Riley explained that a minimum wage is set at a level where it is estimated there would be no job losses or cost increases, while a living wage takes into account the actual cost of living.

Due to economic disparity betweens the races, he said that in 2015 a living wage for a black Bermudian was around $18.75, while that of a white Bermudian was around $30 given higher salaries and standard of living.

Lynn Winfield of anti-racism charity CURB noted that three years after a living wage was introduced in San Jose, employment continued to rise, encouraging further economic activity through a multiplier effect.

“A living wage should be mandatory,” she said. “It shouldn’t be done by policy, but legislation, with fines fixed to the gross profits of the company.”

Ms Winfield also called for all job positions to be advertised, for wage ranges to be published in advertisements and that all qualified Bermudians be guaranteed an interview for advertised posts.

Chris Furbert, president of the Bermuda Industrial Union, noted the sharp increase in cost-of-living expenses in the past 40 years, along with the wage freeze instituted for government staff in 2013.

He said that action must be taken. “It’s going to be an uncomfortable conversation. If you open Pandora’s box, you are not going to be able to close it and it is only a matter of time before it has to be opened,” he said.

Both he and Phil Perinchief reiterated that those who have benefited from the island’s economy need to “share some of the winnings” with those who are struggling. “We don’t expect those individuals to give up all their winnings, but we do expect them to give up some,” Mr Perinchief said.

He argued that some have treated international business as a “sacred cow” that must not be touched but the time had come to introduce some level of taxation.

Mr Perinchief added that in other jurisdictions companies face taxes of between 8 and 72 per cent and if Bermuda introduced a tax rate of two per cent, it would garner almost $1 billion in annual revenue.

“We could lower the cost of living in this country and make things less expensive. Double that and we are still charging less than Ireland.”