There was a very quick retreat yesterday from Finance Minister Peter Turnquest after the subject of a possible rise in the minimum wage was broached.
It’s not as if the suggestion had been a strong one – the day before, Labour Minister Dion Foulkes had said that the Tripartite Council had started to discuss the matter, but no recommendations had been put forward yet, and there seemed to be no sign they would be soon.
And yet yesterday Mr Turnquest seemed to suggest the matter was very low on the government’s radar, saying it had “not given any detailed consideration to that matter”.
The last time the minimum wage increased was in 2015, during the Christie administration, when it was increased from $150 per week to $210 per week. That sounds a sizeable jump – but the last time it had increased before that was 2002, so it had some catching up to do.
Of course, since 2015, living costs have gone up – not least of all when Mr Turnquest and his fellow FNMs raised VAT from 7.5 percent to 12 percent in July last year.
Mr Turnquest acknowledged that VAT and the inflation rate had led to an increase in living costs, but added “the trend also shows that is evening out, as we expect, and that over time it will start to normalise”.
Normal can mean different things depending how you look at it, and those on the lowest wages in the country don’t have much time to wait.
Here’s an exercise for readers. Imagine being paid $210 per week. Now work out how much of that you would have to spend to have a roof over your head. Now knock off some to pay BPL for the times it’s gracious enough to provide power. Scratch some off for the cost of getting to work, and the clothes to wear when you get there. Now your daily food. How much have you got left? How much would you have left if you have children to provide for too?
“Over time” doesn’t much help the people on the breadline. And it doesn’t help at all when that rise in costs has come about through the FNM’s own VAT rise.
At the same time, however, we would suggest that we also need to set our sights on establishing a national living wage. This is in place in many parts of the world – working out what would be the pay that would allow a worker to meet the basic needs of their families. Then the government can encourage businesses to pay their workers a living wage by writing it into contracts – if you’re an employer dealing with government agencies, the government could even make it a requirement that you pay your staff the living wage or you don’t get the contract.
So while we think the government should absolutely be having discussions about whether it is time to raise the minimum wage, perhaps too it is time to consider whether we can raise our standards of treating workers higher still.
Distance learning can be just the start
The geography of The Bahamas can lend itself to some difficulties – for example, teacher shortages in some Family Island schools.
One solution being proposed is distance learning – students in a Family Island school being able to connect through the internet to a teacher in New Providence, letting children virtually sit in on classes over the internet. It’s a solution used elsewhere – remote schooling is common in Australia, for example, while many adult students take part in distance learning to achieve degrees.
The idea also provides an opportunity – particularly to make the most of the best teachers we have. For the top teachers, why not make this a standard, so that students across the country all learn from the best? For that matter, if the best teacher is in a Family Island, why not have New Providence students be the ones doing distance learning?
And why stop there? What other ways can we use technology to improve our connection between our islands? To mention Australia again, that country is famed for its Flying Doctor service bringing healthcare to remote parts of the nation – can we have a remote clinic service so islanders can check in routinely with doctors to describe their conditions, with follow-ups scheduled in person as needed?
Recently, the rebuilding of Ragged Island cited various building costs - $2m for a school, $2.5m for a clinic, $2.5m for a post office and courtroom and $1m for a police station – could remote access reduce some of the sizes of these buildings and the costs associated?
Perhaps we can turn the difficulties of our geography into an opportunity to think about doing things a better way – and distance learning can be just the start of bringing us together more effectively.