Can two walk together unless they agree?
This biblical question reverberates now more than ever as the Social Partners knock heads on the imminent introduction of a national minimum wage.
With just 24 hours before $8.50 an hour becomes the law of the land, it appears that divine intervention will be required for the players to walk together on a pay floor for our lower-paid workers.
We have no doubt that the Government, the unions, and the private sector all endorse the doctrine of a minimum wage and the need to have a reasonable rate that will allow the country’s cashiers, gas station attendants, domestic workers and others to earn a decent living – a fair wage for fair work.
But as always the devil is in the details and the sticking point has been the timing.
Minister of Labour and Social Partnership Relations Colin Jordan has made clear the Government has done its homework and is ready to proceed with the minimum wage especially in an environment where some workers can hardly make ends meet.
General Secretary of the Barbados Workers Union (BWU) Toni Moore has already signalled that the minimum wage – higher than the longstanding pay floor that had always existed only for shop assistants and now finally broadened – is not enough. But the union is prepared to use it as starting point to improve the lot of workers.
But the business community is calling for the authorities to put the brakes on until at least January 2022.
Chairman of the Barbados Private Sector Association Edward Clarke argues that given the severe downturn in business occasioned by the COVID -19 pandemic, which triggered two lockdowns here, the timing couldn’t be worse.
He has warned of layoffs and price increases
The issues at stake are complex but all sides should shoulder some blame for the current dilemma.
Waiting decades to raise the national pay floor has placed us in a difficult position that we can no longer run from.
What is undeniable is that vulnerable workers deserve better pay. In a society like Barbados where the cost of living has at every turn risen exponentially, it must make all us of wonder how are they able to cope.
Proponents argue that areas with low wages tend to have fewer employees, so the impact of a raise would not be catastrophic.
Furthermore, they tell us that higher wages would soften the blow to the Barbados economy. When people make more money, they spend more money; this will help businesses.
It might be too that boosting the minimum wage is precisely what we need at this moment for vulnerable families to thrive during the recovery that we hope follows on the heels of a successful vaccination program and a full reopening.
On the other hand, critics warn of unintended consequences, contending that companies won’t have the revenue to sustain higher wages.
Businesses, especially the smaller and family-owned ones, would further struggle to get back on their feet if asked to increase what they pay employees and that could mean job cuts or even closures.
And then there are fears that prices will inevitably rise and Barbadians can least afford to pay more for pretty much anything.
Amid the debate, the Government has served notice there is no turning back but it has to act in the interest of all the players. Now, more than ever, an enabling environment for businesses is needed, where there are initiatives that can provide businesses with some cushion to ride out these tough times.
A minimum wage is well intended to help lift the working poor out of poverty but it is not a lasting plaster over festering inequality.
Government must sit with the Social Partnership as it has always done to map out how we will all emerge from this economic morass so that reasonable sacrifices can be made by all.
What the Social Partners cannot do is draw lines in the sand and leave the most vulnerable workers at risk, when the value of decent work is at stake.
Our leaders in government, business and labour have too often spoken with romanticised fascination about national sacrifice. And too often they have looked the other way while the poorest, weakest and least able have borne the brunt of that sacrifice.
“All hands on deck,” goes a clarion call that neglects the fact that through the torment of storms and lash of waves, it is indeed the hands, not the captains, who find themselves latched to the windswept mainmast, enduring every surge and straining every sinew to keep this nation afloat.