By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A leading trade union body yesterday said it “emphatically” disagreed with the new $210 weekly wage, arguing that it was sticking up for non-unionised Bahamian workers.
Obie Ferguson, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) president, told Tribune Business that it ‘broke ranks’ with its fellow union, private sector and Government representatives on the National Tripartite Council by rejecting the agreed $210 proposal.
He added that between 50-70 per cent of Bahamian workers would disagree with the $210 ‘consensus’ announced in the House of Assembly on Wednesday, and the TUC would be calling a public rally on the issue.
And Mr Ferguson said the TUC’s position was motivated by concern for workers at the minimum wage level, who typically lacked the protection of industrial agreements and bargaining unit protection.
Sticking to its position that the private sector minimum wage needed to be increased by between 100-133 per cent, Mr Ferguson reiterated the TUC’s belief that $210 per week was “not a liveable wage” for a Bahamian family.
The TUC’s call for a $300-$350 minimum wage is based on what Mr Ferguson described as the findings of a poverty study conducted for the Government - a document he and the union body have yet to see.
The TUC president said he had been assured that the document existed, and recommended the $300-$350 minimum wage range, and the Government had not denied its existence.
“The TUC does not support the minimum wage at $210,” Mr Ferguson told Tribune Business. “We’re on the Council, and we made that very clear.”
Arguing that the Government’s own minimum wage was between $220-$225 per week, slightly higher than the new private sector benchmark, Mr Ferguson said he had been “made to believe” that the purported poverty study had recommended a weekly minimum wage between $300-$350.
“Quite frankly, if it didn’t, all that is required is for the Government to say it,” he added. “We’re satisfied that the $210 is not a reasonable amount for a family of two or three.
“When you think in terms of having to pay rent, buy food and clothing for three people, paying for transportation, paying for school fees and paying for medical bills, we say $210 is not a living wage.”
Conceding that the Government, private sector and non-TUC union representatives on the Tripartite Council all agreed to the $210 minimum wage, Mr Ferguson added: “If you go to a food store, $150 or $210 is not going to take you that far.
“When you look at VAT and all the increases accrued as a result of regular business, it’s not reasonable. When you look at VAT at 7.5 per cent, it cannot be said that is reasonable. We do not support it, and made it emphatically clear that we do not support it.
“We speak for a lot of Bahamian workers who do not share the views of the Council. I guarantee you that if you did a survey, 50-70 per cent of the workers would not have agreed with a minimum wage at $210.”
The minimum wage has not been increased for the 13 years since it was implemented at $150 per week in 2002. Gowon Bowe, the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation’s (BCCEC), told Tribune Business on Thursday that the private sector’s own study, which accounted for inflation, showed the minimum wage should be $204 - just $6 shy of the agreed $210.
Private sector executives have told Tribune Business that the minimum wage increase will not impact the economy or employment levels, given that most businesses pay salaries well in excess of both $210 and the previous $150 benchmark.
Mr Ferguson, too, agreed that the minimum wage increase would not impact the 15,000 workers covered by the TUC’s bargaining units and industrial agreements, as they all enjoyed higher salaries.
He explained that the TUC’s opposition to $210, and arguments in favour of $350, were rooted in its desire to safeguard workers who lacked union protection. These persons, he suggested, were not represented on the Council.
“The minimum wage is designed for workers who are not part of trade unions,” Mr Ferguson said. “Those people who are not organised are not around the table. The TUC is speaking for those persons not covered by a bargaining unit.”
He denied, though, that the TUC was pursuing a $300-$350 minimum wage to the exclusion of all other issues, including the viability of Bahamian business and the wider economy.
“No wants to destroy the Bahamas. No one wants to put a company out of business, or a worker out of work. That cannot be the objective,” Mr Ferguson told Tribune Business.
He agreed that worker compensation should be founded on the principle of “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay”, with labour willing to accept “deferred” salary rises if the company was unable to afford it at that particular time.
With productivity the key, Mr Ferguson added: “If you work well, concentrate on productivity, and the company does well, a portion of that humble success should be set aside to reflect the contribution of the worker to that organisation.”