Unions hold off on liveable wage push


TRADE Union Congress president Obie Ferguson.


Tribune Business Editor


Trade unions are not pushing to “immediately implement” a livable wage despite The Bahamas’ deepening cost of living crisis, a labour leader affirmed yesterday, saying: “No one wants to kill the hen that lays the golden egg.”

Obie Ferguson, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) president, told Tribune Business he and the wider labour movement are adamant that they will “do nothing that damages The Bahamas” and its fragile post-COVID economy despite agreeing that the $2,625-$3,550 monthly livable wage recommended by researchers represents a starting point for talks on the issue.

But while the high cost of living, driven by widespread inflationary pressures that have sent food, gas and other prices soaring, is “a daily topic” of discussion among workers, he said trade unions will let this to translate into demands for salary and benefit increases that the Bahamian economy is unable to bear.

The commitment to introducing a livable wage is part of the then-opposition Progressive Liberal Party’s (PLP ) accord with the TUC and National Congress of Trade Unions of The Bahamas (NCTUB), which was struck prior to the September 2021 general election, and Mr Ferguson pledged his umbrella body - while prepared to moderate its ambitions on the implementation timeline - remains wedded to the concept.

“The Government has bought into the concept of a living wage, which we in the TUC and the labour movement have already signed off on,” the TUC chief told this newspaper. “But certainly we have to take into consideration all of the economic factors.”

Private sector representatives, including Peter Goudie, the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation’s (BCCEC) labour committee head, have argued that a “livable wage” first needs to be properly defined before any discussions are held on the issue. He also asserted that the sums recommended by the University of The Bahamas (UoB) study would be impossible for many businesses to afford, especially with the inflation-racked economy so vulnerable.

Mr Ferguson, though, defended the UoB research as providing a platform for future talks on the matter. “It was done by UoB. Certainly that is a guide which, in our view, we can now follow,” the TUC leader said. “It was done by academics, it was done by economists, and it was done by persons in the business of calculating numbers.

“They came up with a figure for Nassau and Freeport and, certainly, we in the labour movement intend to use it as a guide for coming up with a living wage, not a minimum wage. It’s predicated on family of four and seeing what it takes for them to make a living wage. We will certainly be very active in having meaningful discussions about these issues.”

The UoB study, dated September 30, 2020, and authored by Lesvie Archer, Olivia Saunders, Bridget Hogg, Vijaya Permual and Brittney Johnson, concluded that a living wage in New Providence and Grand Bahama is $2,625 and $3,550 per month respectively.

“Our gross living wage estimate for New Providence is 26 percent lower than the Grand Bahama living wage estimate, nearly 200 percent higher than the national minimum wage, 127 percent higher than 2013 poverty line and nearly 75 percent higher than the minimum wage hike proposed by a local union,” they wrote.

“Our living wage estimate for Grand Bahama is nearly 300 percent higher than the living wage, 200 percent higher than the 2013 poverty line and 140 percent higher than the minimum wage hike proposed by a local union.” The Bahamas’ private sector minimum wage, last increased following VAT’s introduction in 2015, is currently $210 a week, although the Davis administration is planning to now increase it again - likely to $250 per week at least.

Mr Ferguson, though, indicated himself and the TUC are prepared to grant some slack on the timing of any livable wage implementation given the Bahamian economy’s post-COVID struggles and inflation’s impact on both businesses and consumers.

“We’re not suggesting immediate implementation of a living wage because we have not yet determined what we consider to be reasonable having regard to employers,” he told Tribune Business. “We are going in with an open mind, and hope the three parties involved will be part of the discussion. We want to be sure of what we come up with, and that’s why it’s critically important for the employers to have a meaningful say in that process.”

The Government would be the third party involved in such talks, but Mr Ferguson said organised labour will not unduly press for a livable wage - or any increase in salaries or benefits despite rampant inflation - given the Bahamian economy’s continued weakness.

“I don’t think there is a trade union leader that is unaware of the state of the economy,” he told Tribune Business. “That doesn’t mean they should not negotiate for better terms. The fundamental issue is to have regard for the state of the economy and, whatever you do, take into consideration the worker and overall society.

“No one wants to kill the hen that lays the golden eggs. We want to keep the hen alive and in condition so that it lays eggs and other persons can benefit. We will not do anything that will be detrimental to The Bahamas. We’ll have some frank discussions but nothing that damages The Bahamas.

“Obviously the workers are concerned. They express their concerns regularly to is about the state of the economy in terms of inflation. It’s a daily topic. It’s really and truly a daily topic. Gasoline is up at $7 per gallon, which is very high, and there’s been no increase in wages to offset that. Food prices are high, and there has been no increase to offset that.”

Mr Ferguson, though, said Bahamian trade union leaders must ensure their members’ demands are met only when the economy is growing and can bear it. “We are not going to put The Bahamas in a state where it is detrimental to growth in our country. We are not going to do that,” he reiterated.

“We are saying that where there are gains in the economy, we want workers to experience some of the gains. We want the economy to grow, the businesses to expand and the workers to benefit as a result of their contribution towards that. A productive worker is good for the economy, good for the company and good for the country.”