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Minimum wage ‘is just a Band-Aid’

Stop-gap measure: Leah Scott, deputy chairwoman of the joint parliamentary committee on a living wage

A pay threshold for workers in Bermuda is essentially just a sticking plaster on a wider issue, an Opposition MP claimed last night.

Leah Scott said: “A minimum wage, at its core, is just a Band-Aid to a greater symptom.

“And we have to fix that greater problem.”

Her comments came during a House of Assembly debate on a report into the establishment of a minimum and living wage scheme.

A joint parliamentary select committee looked into the implementation of a pay regime and its findings were put forward by chairman Rolfe Commissiong, a Progressive Labour Party backbencher who first moved for the group to be set up more than two years ago.

The document suggested a statutory $12.25 an hour could be introduced by May 2019.

It proposed a phased approach that would put a living wage in place in 2021 with an amount to be set by a commission of experts, but so far calculated at $18.23 an hour.

Ms Scott, deputy chairwoman of the committee, said the report, which was welcomed by members from both parties, showed who was suffering in Bermuda.

She said that Bermudian families were struggling financially for basic necessities and that she “shuddered” to think how those in need would make ends meet without help from organisations including Family Centre and the Coalition for the Protection of Children.

Ms Scott, deputy leader of the One Bermuda Alliance, said that she wanted people to be able to live with dignity and that advocating for Bermudians in need was about more than pushing for a living wage.

She added: “It’s also ensuring that there is a corresponding uplift in their skill sets to enable them to work beyond a living wage.

“I would venture to say that our people do not want handouts as much as they want the basic security of knowing that if they are working, they are not the working poor and they are not living in poverty.”

Ms Scott said that discussions on minimum and living wages must also include talking about jobs.

She explained: “You can’t get a living wage if you don’t have a job.”

Ms Scott said that the issue of employers currently exploiting their workers by paying them low wages must be addressed, as must the income difference between workers of different races.

She added: “The disparity between blacks and whites is appalling.”

Lawrence Scott, the Government Whip and a report committee member, agreed that the bipartisan group did not see higher wages alone as a “cure-all”.

He told the House that attention should not be focused solely on the numbers.

Mr Scott explained: “This report is about dignity in the workplace; this report is about quality of life; this report is about creation of a better society for our children to grow up in.”

He told MPs that people were working multiple jobs just to be able to live paycheque to paycheque.

Mr Scott said the committee’s ultimate goal was to improve the quality of life for Bermudians by reducing the number of hours, and number of jobs, that residents had to work.

Sylvan Richards, Shadow Minister of Planning and Environment, raised the possibility that employers could choose to reduce staff numbers to help cover higher wage costs.

He added: “There’s a lot of moving parts, there’s a lot of unintended consequences that we are not really talking about in this report.”

Mr Commissiong interjected to say that consequences had not been witnessed in other countries they had looked at.

Mr Richards said that he saw the report as a “good start” — but that lots of work remained.

He added: “The elephant in the room, and it always has been, is how do we, as a jurisdiction, reduce the cost of living in Bermuda?

“And until we tackle that in a real and meaningful way we are just spinning our wheels.”

Walton Brown, the Minister of Home Affairs, painted the picture of a hospitality worker earning $5.25 an hour, who could see a weekly pay packet of only $300 if they do not receive gratuities.

Mr Brown said: “That’s the reality for a lot of people who work in hospitality, it’s a grave injustice to them.”

Tinée Furbert said that with the committee examining a living wage, “we are making our way towards addressing poverty”.

The Government’s Junior Minister of Disability Affairs acknowledged that at $12.25 per hour, many people would continue to struggle and may need to be supplemented or work more than one job.

However, she added: “It’s definitely one step closer for making a difference in somebody’s life.”

Patricia Gordon-Pamplin, the Shadow Minister of Home Affairs, applauded the work that went into the report and said it was important for people to feel valued in their workplaces.

She also said: “I think it’s critical that whatever we do, we recognise and we continue to push this with the urgency that it deserves.”