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‘UP WAGE TO $350 - OR RISK STRIKES’: Unions agree to take vote as the call for minimum pay raise

Obie Ferguson, President of the Trade Union Congress.

Obie Ferguson, President of the Trade Union Congress.

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

A labour leader yesterday called for a further minimum wage hike to $350 per week by June 2024 as he revealed that multiple trade unions have agreed to each “take a strike vote”.

Obie Ferguson, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) president, told Tribune Business that the umbrella body’s 30 affiliates resolved just over one week ago to “test the waters and see if members want to do what has to be done” by taking a strike vote as a tactic to pressure the Government and private employers over outstanding industrial issues.

Besides that move, which threatens to raise workplace temperatures, he backed the Prime Minister’s recent assertion that the $260m per week minimum wage “is not yet where we would all like it to be” by advocating for a further rise to $350 by mid-2024.

Mr Ferguson told this newspaper that the $90, or 34.6 percent, increase for the workforce’s lowest earners was justified by the growing struggles that many Bahamians are facing in making ends meet due to the fall-out from rising prices that have fuelled the cost of living crisis.

And, even though the Government has repeatedly touted that The Bahamas is on pace to attract a record eight million tourists this year, he argued that “the workers are not benefiting” from an economy predicted to grow by between 3-4 percent during 2023. 

The TUC chief also renewed calls for law reforms that would allow gratuities, or tips, to be included in the calculation for vacation pay. This, and any new minimum wage rise, especially coming so soon after the one that took effect on New Year’s Day 2023, is likely to be heavily resisted by employers given the impact it will have on labour expenses and their overall cost base.

However, Mr Ferguson said he is being “bombarded” by calls from workers and labour activists for the trade union movement to exploit the present West End and Bimini by-election - and the political parties’ need for votes - by taking a tougher stance in pushing for outstanding industrial agreements and workplace grievances to be settled.

Responding after Philip Davis KC recently promised that the $260 minimum wage “will be revisited at an appropriate time”, Mr Ferguson said his view was that further increases cannot come soon enough. “I support the initiative put forward by the Prime Minister,” he told Tribune Business.

“I’m already on record as saying it should be more in the region of $350 a week or thereabouts. When you look at the cost of living today, it’s very, very difficult for the average Bahamian to live reasonably in light of the increases to bread basket items. We are on record supporting it, and the sooner the better.”

Asked when he would like the next minimum wage increase to take effect, Mr Ferguson replied: “Certainly, Christmas is coming up. It would be good if we could get it done by Christmas but, in view of the fact we we only have a couple of weeks left, I would like to see it take effect in June in time for Labour Day 2024. 

“I’d like to see $350. It would be a good move, and a gigantic step in trying to deal with some of these issues. It’s really, really difficult for the little man and the economy seems to be doing extremely well... By June of 2024 would be a good time to do it, and I would suggest $350.”

Both the Prime Minister and Chester Cooper, deputy prime minister and minister of tourism, investments and aviation, have recently agreed that living costs in The Bahamas are too high although the Government has yet to articulate a comprehensive plan on how to address this other than speak to renewable energy investments.

Employers, especially those in industries such as hotels, gas stations and food stores that typically hire a large number of minimum wage staff, will likely vehemently oppose any further rise - especially in the timeline proposed by Mr Ferguson, given that the last $50, or 24 percent, weekly rise to $260 would have been implemented just 18 months prior.

Companies would likely also argue that such an increase in their labour costs, with the minimum wage rising from $1,040 to $1,400 for a four-week pay period, would force them to either cut staff working hours or instigate lay-offs to remain commercially viable. Robert Farquharson, the Government’s labour director, previously estimated around 20-25 percent of the workforce is earning minimum wage. 

Mr Ferguson, meanwhile, said the pressure was increasing on trade unions to take more decisive action to resolve outstanding issues. “A lot of workers are complaining that their industrial agreements are not being honoured,” he added, citing the Union of Public Officers, which represents National Insurance Board (NIB) line staff, and the doctors as two groups that have taken strike votes.

“A few of the unions out there have strike votes because we are not getting the response from the people charged with the responsibility for making these industrial agreements function,” the TUC president said. “People are coming to the table to negotiate with no power, no authority to negotiate these industrial agreements.

“The corporations and the companies are not honouring them, and the only thing left is to use what trade unions often do, and take a strike vote to test the waters to see if the members are interested in doing what has to be done to bring resolution. If you keep on talking and keep on making promises with no delivery, it creates a problem.

“The doctors, the nurses, the Bahamas Hotel Managerial Association (BHMA) in Grand Bahama [the Grand Lucayan], those are things that should be done without an issue. Either you’re going to do it or not going to do it. The workers need to know. It creates a lot of unnecessary excitement,” he added.

“Strike votes are in place. The numbers are overwhelming in terms of people who have voted. They have great numbers, and the other unions are taking strike votes because they are not getting the response they ought to be getting. The TUC has agreed that all unions affiliated with the TUC will take a strike vote. That was about a little over a week ago.”

The Bahamas Power & Light (BPL) line staff union is another that has taken a strike vote, although it has held off on moving to industrial action for the moment. Mr Ferguson said there are “about 30 unions” under the TUC umbrella, including the two unions at both NIB and BPL; the General Workers Union at BAIC; and others representing the likes of Straw Market vendors and Arawak Cay stevedores. 

Mr Ferguson said union leaderships were being urged to exploit the imminent West End and Bimini by-election by taking a hard line on such issues. “There’s an element going on now,” he explained. “People are taking advantage. We’ve had calls coming in, being bombarded with it, which is to use it as leverage, obviously, but something that can be resolved without strike action.....

“I hope they can see the wisdom of doing the proper thing, government and employers. The workers have got to be a part of it. They’re entitled to it and can’t discriminate.” Mr Ferguson also argued that Bahamian workers are not benefiting as much as needed from record-breaking tourism arrivals numbers because more than 80 percent, or over one of every four, are lower-spending cruise passengers.

“They come in the morning and leave the country at 6m-7pm that night,” he said of the cruise industry. “I remember when they were never allowed to operate their shops and bars, but now they open them in port.... We have to find a way that, when the tourists come here, there is something they can do that is more than having a Goombay Punch or Bahama Mama or something of that nature.

“We need economic activity to cause tourists to spend more than what they’re spending. By and large, the economy is doing well and the workers are not benefiting from it, in my humble opinion, in the manner they ought to be benefiting from it.”

Mr Ferguson called for the Industrial Relations Act and Employment Act to be reformed so that gratuities/tips are included in the calculation of vacation pay, rather than just a worker’s minimum wage basic pay. “We have to find a way to revisit that,” he added.

“They’re putting in some long hours, putting in more manpower at work, but when the time comes for vacation they’re not benefiting from that. We have some work to do to straighten things up. The workers are suffering and not benefiting from it. They say we have visitors in the millions coming in, which is fine, but the benefits are not what they ought to be.” 

Comments

sheeprunner12 8 months, 2 weeks ago

If the Govt agrees to $350 per week minimum wage, at least 40% of the civil service will have get a pay raise .............. Can the Govt afford that, given the dire straits of the national debt, NIB impending collapse, P&P issues, and $2 billion unfunded public pension??????

The private sector will definitely balk at the idea and there will be serious repercussions.

Sickened 8 months, 2 weeks ago

I say strike!!! It's not like the general public will notice the difference in service. Especially the BPL workers - I actually thought they've been on strike for the last few years. One good thing that would come out of a country wide strike is that traffic will ease up a lot, as there won't be a bunch of raggedy looking fella's driving their girlfriend to work in the girlfriend's car and then joy riding and looking for crimes of opportunity.

bahamianson 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Wow, that is it in a nutshell.

Dawes 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Strike, as sickened said we won't notice any difference. I think Ministry of works has been on strike for last few years, based on the roads. And whoever is in charge of maintenance has been on strike since their first day.

bahamianson 8 months, 2 weeks ago

They don't work. Why is the ministry of works open when everything is contracted to private family, friends and lovers? Why are we employing the ministry of works?

themessenger 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Looking to make up for all those unpaid union dues since that gravy train dried up during Covid.

John 8 months, 2 weeks ago

These unions, run by antiquated trolls, who can barely put two and two together much less understand economics, need to hurry up and strike. Go ahead and send your sheep into treacherous waters to be slaughtered whilst you sit home and eat lobster, steak and rack of lamb leg (sic) burning air conditioning whilst your following has no electricity. Economics is a two-sided equation in the least, and what happens on one side effects action on the other side. And if you seduce or entice government to implement another wage increase at even half the amount you are proposing, it will be better you strike because it will send such a bitter-shock through the economy, causing mass layoffs and business closures, it will be cheaper people be on strike and receive strike benefits because so many will be unemployed. Two things: First the run away inflation that is hitting this country is imported, for the most part and there’s little that can be done to stem it. So it is up to the consumers to manage their spending, cut back on nonessential items and seek cheaper substitutes. Cutting back will eventually cause prices to come down ( usually) but remember there are two wars going on. Two: the outrageous prices now being paid for electricity in this country is a result of politics and ignorance and pride that resulted in bad and costly decision making. And the people are enraged and outraged. Never in the history of politics have Bahamians expressed some much dissatisfaction and anger towards a government, this early in their term. This new day PLP basically stands less of a chance of winning the West Grand Bahama seat than the third party candidate. Despite ALL its resources, public treasury and civil servants included. Not saying they won’t, but many who may vote for them will not be doing so with a kind heart or clean spirit. . . The effects of economic policies are not always i immediate. The minimum wage that took place in January was clouded by runaway inflation and government fumbling badly in the fuel hedging for BPL ( Brave Davis probably didn’t even understand the importance of it or how it worked at that time, or maybe he was opening the back door for his multi/millionaire friend Frankie, the fact is the Bahamian people are paying dearly for it.

bahamianson 8 months, 2 weeks ago

They all need to open up their own company and see what pitfalls await them

John 8 months, 2 weeks ago

I think it is just political rhetoric to influence voters in the by election one way or the other, but imagine if they did raise minimum wage to $350? The illegal immigration problem would boil over and businesses would be more willing to take a chance hiring them.

The_Oracle 8 months, 2 weeks ago

California is getting ready to up the minimum wage again, get this, so people can cope with the price increases from the last pay rise! Stupid îs as stupid does.

bcitizen 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Doing anything right now that would be inflationary is really bad for everyone and all businesses. A 90 dollar increase in min wage would only cause more inflation and prices to rise and probably layoffs and business closures for those just hanging on.

TalRussell 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Family hunger crisis! --- Price meals force thousands of working families to reduce the daily number plates of food. More so, applies those on $260 per week minimum wage, --- As well as those on the $520 per week minimum wage.--- Yes?

DEDDIE 8 months, 2 weeks ago

The problem is not wages but expenses. The Bahamas has one of the highest wages in the world but also has one of the highest cost of living. Reduce the cost of living and the need for higher wages wouldn't be a factor. One way to reduce expenses is to buy directly from Mexico rather than the middleman in Florida. A mango in Mexico costs ten cent. That same mango in the Bahamas costs three dollars. Problem solve.

TalRussell 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Buy a single mango in Mexico set you back 98 cents to US1.10 and that's 98 cents per pound. --- Yes

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