A reckoning for social justice is unfolding in Barbados. Unlike the USA earlier this year where it was prompted by police brutality and death, in Barbados the reckoning has been prompted by labour unrest.
Working Class Inclusion in the Social Partnership
In an address on World Day of Social Justice on February 20th 2020, the Minister of Labour Colin Jordan spoke on the topic “Closing the Inequalities Gap to Achieve Social Justice”. In that address he stated, “social justice connotes an environment where there is equity and fairness, no one is marginalized, exploited or discriminated against, there is no poverty, there are equal gender opportunities, and there is no infringement of human rights” and “social justice will be achieved through a variety of means including education, awareness-building and legislation.” Sad to say, the minimum wage was overlooked and not included. A few months later, in June 2020 the Minister brought legislation to discriminate against the already exploited working class of Barbados.
On December 14, 2020 after months of social unrest, the Minister stated that the Government will revisit the changes made to the Severance Pay Act which reduced the length of time persons can apply for severance and revisit employers’ refusal to pay severance. However, also at the heart of this serious matter is the fact that the government and a ‘social’ partnership made a bad decision against one class in society which could have plunged the island into its worst labour relations crisis since the 1930’s Riots. Until it is changed, the BEST Program is an epic failure which will affect the entire labour force not only Tourism workers. The idea that such a decision was accepted by government and the social partnership is a matter of grave concern. It is a clear indication that the social partnership is a limited interest group serving its own interest and that it has the propensity to make its self-interest government policy.
In order for there to be meaningful change in terms of labour legislation going forward, the social partnership must be a broad based interest group which includes representation from the working class. Co-operatives and NGO’s must also be represented.
Historical Origins of the Minimum Wage
To have any discussion on wages in Barbados, one must start with three things which are the distribution of land and capital and the labour force that supplies labour. All three have been determined historically during slavery when the white upper class owned the land and the capital and the black working class were the source of labour. The black working class went from no wages to extremely low wages as the planters had an abundance of labour to choose from. The disparities between the profits of the planter class and wages of the labourers came to a head in 1937 and riots erupted. A low wage of about 30 cents a day was being paid.
Today ownership of the means of production (land and capital) has basically remained unchanged in Barbados. Even with the advent of credit unions little has changed for the working class. Constrained by the lack of Capital and land, the working class has been unable to impact the wages that they earn even with the support of the labour unions.
The minimum wage is a wage at the subsistence level. At present, the minimum wage is $6.25 per hour in Barbados. It is the demarcation of poverty line when compared to the high cost of living. In essence, the minimum wage has kept the working class in poverty.
The Living Wage
A living wage is a wage that is high enough to maintain a normal standard of living. It takes into consideration the cost of food, transportation, rents, mortgages, utilities, clothing, self- maintenance, healthcare, education and the payment of taxes.
According to Oxfam the introduction of living wage is beneficial to a society when:
1. Increases in wages are long overdue.
2. It is used to address long standing issues in class/race inequalities.
3. It is used to reduce poverty.
4. It is used to fuel economic growth.
Government maintains a basket of goods that are under price controls. For decades that basket has remained unchanged even though taste has changed in the population due to a large consumption of imported goods. Control of what the working class eats has shifted from the planters to government if it determines what your wages can buy.
Government New Minimum Wage by Sector
Government has stated that it will introduce a new minimum wage structure by sector as opposed to an across the board minimum wage. For this to make an impact on the livelihoods of the working class, the following must occur:
1. There must be a best practice used to determine the valuable of types of labour. This may also negatively impact labour relations.
2. Government must invest in agriculture to increase locally grown crops to substitute for imports.
3. Government must provide subsidies to agriculture.
4. There must be an across the board price freeze to combat inflation.
5. Rents for the working class must be fixed or subsidized.
6. Food for the working class must be subsidized i.e. there must be 2 different price structures in the supermarket, one for the working class and another for everyone else.
7. There is a special interest rate for the working class.
8. Access to capital for the working class.
9. Subsidized transportation for the working class.
10. Land purchase and building materials are subsidized for the working class.
Getting back to the Minister’s address on February 20th, 2020, he failed to include the minimum wage of $6.25 an hour as part of the social justice environment that he described. Perhaps it was an oversight on the Minister’s part but that minimum wage has been responsible for the exploitation and discrimination of the working class of Barbados.
The government of Barbados has a choice, either subsidize the working class or provide a living wage. The question that government needs to determine is if it really wants to positively impact the lives of the working class in Barbados by taking the measures outlined above when it introduces the new minimum rate structure or if it will not be easier to provide the working class with a living wage which reduces government’s effort and cost. The new minimum rates structures on their own will not work unless they equate to a living wage.
Going forward it is hoped that the government comes to terms with the fact that representation from the working class is included in the social partnership and that there is acknowledgement that a minimum wage has failed largest class of the population and that a living wage must be legislated as it is in the best interest of all Barbadians.