On Thursday, October 19, 2017 the Taiwanese ambassador His Excellency Douglas Cheng-Tsung Shen handed over US$5,303,993.04 for the Community Development Programme on behalf of his government. In attendance were the Senior Communications Officer in the OPM, Nicole McDonald, representatives of the various media organisations, a handful of technocrats and ministerial seat fillers.
The cheque was received by Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Allen Chastanet who, for the most part, took the opportunity to do the good old perfunctory diplomatic two-step. He thanked the ambassador, confirmed the health of the bilateral relationship between their two countries, vowed greater cooperation in the future, spoke generally of his plans for the funds, and criticized his predecessor’s handling of earlier donations by the generous people of Taiwan. At the heart of his discontent was that the rules governing the management of the fund had been contravened, with consequences still adversely affecting the nation.
Later the local news media were abuzz with coverage of the event. It led many newscasts and was a main story for all print and digital news sources. “Labour accused of breaching CDP’s rules,” read one headline. Breaking news? Hardly! The PM first levelled his accusations last September; the minister of economic development, Guy Joseph, repeated them in April this year.
“Taiwan provides multi-million dollar grant to St. Lucia!” went another headline. A clearly not so imaginative publication echoed word for word the government’s press release: “Government announces plans to broaden constituency projects as Taiwan presents grant to CDP!”
All the aforementioned stories satisfied one of the core responsibilities of the press: reporting on events of national import. However, a key issue which was discussed at the cited ceremony – granted, not at length – apparently went unnoticed; or was deliberately ignored. It came during the question and answer period. A reporter wanted to know whether the PM, in light of his expressed desire to help create jobs (with the CDP and beyond), should not focus on the establishment of a minimum wage. Yes, believe it or not, Saint Lucia still does not have a minimum wage.
The question appeared to catch the PM off guard. He paused briefly, jokingly commented on the reporter’s success at injecting a labour issue into a cheque presentation ceremony, before responding. He did not directly address the need for a minimum wage; instead he opined on the form it should take. In his view, one single minimum wage would be disadvantageous to the medium and upper income earners. A better idea would be a multi-tier system with different minimum wages for the different levels of employment.
To those who think the concept ridiculous: though the convention is an all-purpose single minimum wage, there are precedents for a multi-tier system. Albania has different minimum wages for the private and public sectors. In Finland minimum wages are collectively bargained between individual employers and their respective employees. Our Barbadian neighbours only have a minimum mandatory for household domestics and shop attendants. In Indonesia the minimum wage varies by province, district, and sector. So what the PM suggested is not as outlandish as some have suggested; however, as with most things involving competing interests and managed by politicians, the devil will undoubtedly be in the details.
A national debate, inclusive of all stakeholders, needs to be held to determine what form the minimum wage should take. However, while the form may be in question, the need should not be. A minimum wage is necessary for the protection of workers; the lower end, unskilled workers in particular.
For business the bottom line is profit. Profit is revenue less cost. To maximize profit, revenue needs to increase while decreasing cost. Wages are costs; hence decreasing wages helps increase profits. That’s not cruel, neither cold. It’s maths. A minimum wage (or minimum wages) helps keep them honest.
Beyond the minimum wage, the entire Labour Code needs to be revamped. It has been acknowledged both as insufficient and antiquated. Nevertheless, employers tend to make necessary changes only when the labour force agitates. Our labour force seldom agitates because it is relatively docile; and the arbiter (government) is indifferent. Thus, nothing happens. Every time the labouring masses grow restless, discussions are held, press conferences convened, empty promises made.
But, legislation, though important, is not the most important consideration for the betterment of individual Saint Lucians or the economic wellbeing of the country. The employability of our people is closely followed by their work ethic. Too many Saint Lucians are content indefinitely to reside on the lowest step of the employment ladder. And too many politicians are happy to keep them forever dependent on their largesse.
Please do not misconstrue my criticisms of the system as an indictment in any way of menial labourers. There is nothing inherently wrong with cutting grass or caring for geriatrics. After all, these are honest endeavours and everyone deserves to earn an honest living. However, the sustained maintenance of such social welfare programmes in an economy such as ours is economically illogical and counterintuitive.
Our economy receives input from small-scale manufacturing and agriculture; but the mainstay of the economy is overwhelmingly foreign direct investment (FDI), particularly in tourism. We have no natural resources to speak of to help bolster our economy. Large scale FDI exposes traditionally Third World countries such as ours to the necessity of globally valued skills. And no, the ability to cut grass is not a globally valued skill.
What’s needed is targeted training focussing on serviceable skills to take full advantage of the opportunities provided by FDI. We need to teach our people how to fish for the fish now handed to them whenever convenient. There’s charity and it’s not nearly the same as a man placed to take proper care of himself and his dependents. Is it necessary to temporarily bolster our society’s indigent? Absolutely! That is one of the key responsibilities of a government. On the other hand, the primary responsibility of government is to maintain a favourable economic climate. Perennially siphoning significant amounts that could otherwise be used for the maintenance and growth of the country’s economic mainstay, tourism (and other revenue generating sectors), ultimately belies our professed interest in the wellbeing of the indigent; detracts from any efforts at economic stability.
While it’s not difficult to see how decreasing funds to tourism will affect the sector, some may have a difficult time acknowledging that providing funds for the STEP programme makes it more difficult to continue doing so. The Doubting Thomases need to be reminded that non-profit generating social programmes are not self-supporting. The poorer the economy, the less money for programmes not self-sustaining.