Thanks largely to the efforts of trade unions, workers now enjoy numerous improved conditions of employment, wages and salaries and social security benefits. The established social platforms have made a world of difference to the conditions of employment of all categories of workers. Those most vulnerable have been offered a level of social protection.
Despite the introduction of these initiatives, there are still large pockets of poverty. The problem remains that most vulnerable workers are usually paid low wages. Those who are paid at the basic or minimum wage are expected to survive a world that does not discriminate when it comes to the existing cost of living and rising inflation.
In a number of developed countries, the middle class is made up of mostly blue and white-collar workers who are generally professional and public sector employees. In the public sector, the analogy lies with the status which categories of workers enjoy. There are those who occupy positions at the lower level of the public sector pay scale. The status they enjoy as general workers, maids, receptionists and the like, does not offer any comfort as it relates to the gap that exists with their colleagues in the sector.
The impact of the global financial and economic crisis has tended to change the status which those in the middle class have tended to enjoy. Imposing taxation measures has meant a constant erosion of their purchasing power. The application of the principle of sharing the burden, in this instance, is embedded in the notion that the middle class can contribute to the shortfalls arising from the loss of revenue as a consequence of tax exemptions given to the most vulnerable workers. With the State having the responsibility for the social services of education, health and the provision of housing, it is understandable why the burden needs to be shared. It would appear that many of those who would have ascended into the middle class, now appear to be virtually living on the edge and facing financial hardship.
Those in the lower strata can rightly say that they are being further depressed, as despite the tax exemptions they receive and the luxury of having access to zero rated items, they, like persons in the middle class, share the common experience of the high cost of living, driven by rising inflation. There can be no refuting the fact that overall, there is a reduction in the purchasing power of workers. Since most middle-income and lower-income workers are said to live from pay day to pay day, this means that there is a growing disparity between the have and the have nots.
Maybe the best solution to this problem is to pay better wages and salaries which are commensurate with the work employees are hired to do. In making the determination of pay, knowledge, competencies, skills and efforts required must be given serious consideration. This would help to remove the burden of liability the less fortunate place on the State and put more of them in a position to make their contribution through the payment of statutory obligations.
The disparity between middle-class and lower-income earners is a problem which confronts governments of small island developing states. The call for pay equity and non-discrimination in employment means that this can serve to empower workers and push them up the social ladder. With the doors to the United States of America and Britain being closed to migrant labour, this has helped to drive the movement of labour in the English Caribbean. The response of the regional Heads of Governments to give licence to spur the free movement of labour under the Treaty of Chaguaramas is one way of giving hope to those who move with the expectation of having new employment opportunities. To what extent this is a working solution to arrest the problem of a collapsing middle class and to spur the upliftment of the most vulnerable in our society, is anyone’s guess.
The challenge for most small island developing states is that of finding sustainable employment for the vast number of young graduates coming out of universities and colleges. It cannot be in the best interest of a nation to have these qualified individuals reduced to pumping petrol at service stations or to working as security guards.
DENNIS DE PEIZA
Labour Management Consultant
Regional Management Services Inc.
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