By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A governance reformer yesterday argued it is impossible to live on a $210 weekly minimum wage because “the Bahamian cost of living is too high”.
Robert Myers, the Organisation for Responsible Governance’s (ORG) principal, told Tribune Business that the oft-recurring debates over the minimum wage exposed the “socio-economic challenge” created by high electricity costs and taxes.
“You can’t live on $210 per week,” he said. “When VAT was put up from 7.5 percent to 12 percent, I don’t know how you can live on $210 a week. Based on today’s socio-economic challenges that wage is too low, but one of our problems is that the Bahamian cost of living is too high.
“The higher your costs of living are, the more people are pulling away from our shores who are seeking a higher quality lifestyle at lower costs. I can assure you that during conversations around the dinner table that I’ve been privy to, people have been saying the cost of living is too high - especially for the elderly living off their pensions and savings.”
Suggesting that the only exemptions from the minimum wage should be for summer students and temporary workers employed for a specific period of time, Mr Myers said this issue was separate and apart from his concerns over escalating government costs and bureaucracy. He said he was becoming “worn out” by the failure to seriously discuss productivity and efficiency reforms in the public sector.
“What still baffles my mind is they are not talking about accountability and efficiency in the public sector,” Mr Myers said of policymakers and politicians. “Increasing the minimum wage is one thing, but we’re not hearing anything about productivity.
“We’re still paying the money and getting lousy service. If we’re paying higher taxes and fees to the government and getting incredible service, that’s more palatable. But when you’re paying higher taxes and getting lousy service it’s not tolerable. The discussion with then unions and others should be how to improve efficiency and productivity, which means we do more with less.
“We should have been having that conversation 40 years ago, but at the very least we need to be having it now given the grave fiscal challenges the country faces. I’m worn out by the endless discussion on how to increase costs and taxes without any discussion of increasing productivity and efficiency and lowering costs. It’s tiresome,” he added.
“They always take the easy route and continue to kick the can down the road. That can only happen for so long, and we’re approaching a dangerous fiscal position. There seems to be a lot of conversation about how it’s going to increase costs and taxes and everything else, and very little on how to increase efficiency, quality of services and productivity. That’s what hurts.”
Mr Myers reiterated that ORG was ready to work with the Government and public sector on ways to improve transparency and accountability, and renewed his call for The Bahamas to pass legislation similar to New Zealand’s State Sectors Act.
Calling on permanent secretaries, department heads and leaders of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to take the lead in the absence of any government directive, he said: “Everybody knows the problems; let’s get on with it. Take the initiative. If the government won’t, maybe the public sector will.”