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Commissiong makes breakthrough on living wage

Parliamentarians have approved the formation of a joint select committee to investigate the issue of establishing a living wage.

Progressive Labour Party MP Rolfe Commissiong opened the debate on his motion at the House of Assembly last night, sparking a discussion among members that lasted more than three hours.

Among Mr Commissiong's points of interest were the widespread use of low-cost foreign labour, the erosion of the middle class and economic migration to Britain.

“As depressed wages and benefits become commonplace, poverty will only increase, and the horizons of our people will continue to diminish,” he said.

“The concept behind a minimum wage is simply to raise those at the lower end of the economic spectrum out of poverty to a level of dignified living.”

Patricia Gordon-Pamplin, Minister of Home Affairs, noted that the Bermuda Government had already agreed to bring together a committee to look into creating a living wage, after protests in March.

“I'm not totally persuaded to say that we need another joint select committee of the House because of the committee that I mentioned,” she said. “I would like for members in the House to send and present their thoughts about how we can improve matters and situations.

“I would like for people to bring their ideas to the committee that has been established for this exact purpose.”

She proposed for the motion to be changed from one calling for a joint select committee to a take-note motion through which the matter could be discussed.

PLP backbencher Kim Wilson responded that MPs should play an active part in collecting information and making recommendations.

“Not to say that this committee that the honourable member was speaking of wouldn't have the same gravitas, but we are the ones that are elected,” she said.

Her comments were echoed by the PLP's Michael Scott, while One Bermuda Alliance backbencher Shawn Crockwell said he would support the call for a joint select committee.

Ms Gordon-Pamplin subsequently withdrew her proposed amendment. PLP MP Derrick Burgess, meanwhile, noted the vast wage disparity between white men and black men, adding that there were some people living on “slave wages”.

He said: “The poor are not making it in Bermuda. They are not making it worldwide.

“In Bermuda we give tax exceptions to the rich. Some of the employers get relief even if they owe the Government money.”

Jamahl Simmons, the Shadow Minister of Economic Development, meanwhile, said he was disturbed to see the falling wages on the island, adding that the country must address the dependency on cheap foreign labour.

“A livable wage can transform Bermuda in so many ways,” he said. “It can help to make things better.

“Bermuda's way forward cannot be the development of a permanent underclass who cannot afford to live here.”

Bob Richards, the Minister of Finance, said the issue of foreign labour was not exclusively Bermudian and that there was an element of competition that needed to be considered given increasing globalisation. He added that if a decision was made that hurt the economy, it would be the poorest Bermudians who would bear the brunt of this.

“The most we can do is try to some extent to ameliorate the impact on us, but we cannot change the force of globalisation,” he said.

“We cannot stand here and make lofty statements without facing the reality of what's on the ground here.”

Mr Richards said a more effective way of addressing the issue was to reform the tax structure so those who made less were taxed less than the wealthy — something the Government is already working on and hoping to introduce next year.

After the motion passed unanimously, Mr Commissiong thanked MPs for their support.

“We're here to serve the interests of our people and to advance the common good,” he said.

“I hope that our committee will meet the expectations of Bermudians up and down this island.”

Living wage: Progressive Labour Party MP Rolfe Commissiong raised the issue of minimum pay (File photograph)

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Published June 18, 2016 at 9:00 am (Updated June 18, 2016 at 3:25 pm)

Commissiong makes breakthrough on living wage

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