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News Article: "Tripartite vice-chair blasts ‘astounding’ UoB findings"

Written by NEIL HARTNELL, Tribune Business Editor, May 17th, 2021

The National Tripartite Council’s vice-chair yesterday blasted “there’s no way on God’s green earth” that Nassau’s monthly living wage is $2,625 as unions hailed the finding as vindicating their stance.

Peter Goudie, who also heads the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation’s labour division head, told Tribune Business the authors of a University of the Bahamas (UoB) study which found New Providence’s living wage was almost triple the existing minimum wage “have to be out of their minds” and “absolutely dreaming”.

Warning that The Bahamas “cannot afford” such an increase, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as “a whole bunch of businesses” would be forced to close, Mr Goudie also questioned why such “astounding” findings were never discussed with the private sector or other stakeholders before their publication.

Trade union leaders, though, argued that the research backed their long-held position that the $210 weekly minimum wage is nowhere near sufficient to provide a decent standard of living and quality of life for workers in the lower reaches of the Bahamian workforce.

Bernard Evans, the National Congress of Trade Unions of The Bahamas (NCTUB) president, said the findings by a team from UoB’s Government and Public Policy Institute supported his argument that a livable wage - as opposed to a minimum wage - should be the true focus for policymakers and the National Tripartite Council.

However, he conceded that achieving the livable wages set out in the study will “not happen overnight” particularly since the economy is still trying to rebound from the twin blows of COVID-19 and Hurricane Dorian. Likening it to “a rabbit we will continue to be chasing”, Mr Evans said the findings nevertheless gave The Bahamas something to target and aspire to in coming years.

And Obie Ferguson, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) president, told this newspaper that the UoB report’s findings will give employers and the Government “greater appreciation” for why he is proposing a near 43 percent minimum wage hike to $300 per week.

The UoB study, dated September 30, 2020, and authored by Lesvie Archer, Olivia Saunders, Bridget Hogg, Vijaya Permual and Brittney Johnson, concluded that a living wage in New Providence and Grand Bahama is $2,625 and $3,550 per month respectively.

“Our gross living wage estimate for New Providence is 26 percent lower than the Grand Bahama living wage estimate, nearly 200 percent higher than the national minimum wage, 127 percent higher than 2013 poverty line and nearly 75 percent higher than the minimum wage hike proposed by a local union,” they wrote.

“Our living wage estimate for Grand Bahama is nearly 300 percent higher than the living wage, 200 percent higher than the 2013 poverty line and 140 percent higher than the minimum wage hike proposed by a local union.” The Bahamas’ private sector minimum wage, last increased following VAT’s introduction in 2015, is currently $210 a week.

Reacting to the findings, Mr Goudie blasted: “That is ridiculous. That is way ridiculous. I don’t know where they got their information from. I’d love to see it. No way on God’s green earth is that correct. It’s way above the poverty line.

“This country cannot afford that, number one. It’s a simple fact. The minimum wage is $210 a week, and if you translate that into their $600 [weekly livable wage for Nassau] you are talking about tripling the minimum wage. They have to be out of their minds. They’re dreaming, absolutely dreaming.

“I would like to see the information before I give a firm opinion, but there’s no way this country can afford it especially with COVID-19. This makes no sense. You will get a whole bunch of businesses that would close down. You triple the minimum wage and expect no fall-out?”

The minimum wage, though, is defined differently from the “livable wage” measure employed by the UoB study. It based its work on a model employed by Richard Anker, the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) living wage specialist, who defined a livable wage as one that can sustain a person’s “physical, emotional, social and cultural needs and that of their family beyond mere subsistence”.

Food and housing costs, based on a “nutritious diet” and “decent housing”, were factored into the calculations together with other daily living costs, while the research also drew on data from sources such as the 2019 Labour Market Information Newsletter; 2017 Labour Force Report; and 2016 Government of the Bahamas salary book.

Mr Goudie, though, queried why the findings were not discussed with the National Tripartite Council, private sector or trade unions before they were published. He said: “Get serious. Don’t come out and publish something that is so astounding without discussing it with anybody. This is beyond me. These guys must live in another world.”

However, the NCTU’s Mr Evans said of the research: “That’s what I’ve been saying all along. It’s high time somebody got the empirical data and came close to what is the cost of living in this country. Once we know what the living wage is we have a base target to get to.

“We won’t get to it immediately. We can’t jump to it. But I’m glad someone did the research. I always said we should not be looking at the minimum wage, and we should be looking at a livable wage. It gives us something to target by 2030 following the ILO’s Decent Work Country agenda.”

Mr Evans said he and other trade unionists had always been labelled as greedy, and simply seeking more money for their members, when they raised the livable wage issue in the past, but he argued that the UoB study’s findings now showed otherwise and that they were right to raise the issue.

He suggested the model could now be used to develop a living wage for each Bahamian island, pointing out that living costs were far more expensive on the Family Islands. Using Andros as an example, he argued that gasoline costs there are $2 higher than Nassau.

Acknowledging that the UoB findings were open to challenge, Mr Evans added: “We’re not advocating that this happen today. This will be something that we’re constantly chasing for years and years, trying to catch up, and we never get there.“It’s a rabbit we will continually be chasing, but it’s good to have that knowledge and data. And we have something to strive for. The mere fact they have identified a livable wage for each island, we can put in building blocks and processes to get to that point.”

Mr Ferguson, meanwhile, noting that the UoB report pegs the livable wage at more than $600 and $800 per week for New Providence and Grand Bahama respectively, said: “Now the Government and the employers will very much appreciate the proposal we put forward from the labour movement.

“In my proposal with the community of the unified labour movement, we agreed $300 per week [minimum wage]. There are those who felt it excessive, but I was not proposing for that to come into effect at this time.

“I laid it on the table so everybody could get a good understanding and appreciation for it. We recognise the economy cannot at this time absorb the increase. That’s a fact. But we welcome these [UoB] figures that show how legitimate our proposal is.”

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