There was no ‘sleight of hand’ involved in the fixing of the national minimum wage

Dear Editor,

Your editorial ‘Poverty and the minimum wage’ (SN, June 19) falls short of the usually high standard that makes a Stabroek News editorial such a pleasure to read and a work of considerable authority. It is incorrect to apply the estimated unemployment rate to the total number of every woman, man and child to arrive at the number of unemployed persons in the country. In fact, in unemployment statistics only the active workforce is considered.

A huge problem I have with the editorial is your unsupported description of the fixing of a national minimum wage for workers in every sector of the economy as a “sleight of hand.” The only suggestion you offer is that the government is seeking to divest itself of any responsibility to offer welfare/public assistance to some 31,000 who will move out of the abject poverty group. Where is the evidence of the percentage of persons in the abject poverty group who now receive such assistance, or is this mere speculation? And second, of any strict means test being applied in the decision on the payment of public assistance? In fact, in the case of old age pensions, the government does not apply the means test required by the Old Age Pensions Act which I have argued it should, since it causes pensions to be paid to those not legally entitled, at the expense of those really in need.

The editorial also appears to contain some inconsistency, in one breath making the case that monthly food and utility bills for a single person exceed the minimum wage and in another identifying with the case being made by some employers that the minimum wage will lead to down-sizing. It is sad that the private sector that enjoys decreasing tax rates, a permissive tax regime and concessions of all varieties wants to maintain a low-wage workforce and economy even as it laments poor work ethics.

Allow me to go on to state that I support the decision to set the work week at 40 hours as recommended by the International Labour Organisation since 1935 – that is seventy-eight years ago. This country has a history of workers being exploited and treated as no more than the property of the employers. More recently they have been let down by their own labour leaders and so the reduction in the work week must be seen as a rare plus for workers and a socially progressive move. My only concern is that there may have been procedural if not fatal flaws in how objectives are to be effected.    Those who complain about the minimum wage are admitting that they pay below the subsistence wage while the editorial ignores the fact that the government as revenue collector meets part of the cost since any increase is tax deductible. This in my view contradicts the whole notion of some mischievous sleight of hand at work. Finally I have had the benefit of participating in a number of meetings on the Order setting the minimum wage and hours of work and of reading statements emanating from the private sector on the matter. Those statements suggest that the Private Sector Commission ignored repeated announcements by the government of the appointment of a committee to make recommendations on a national minimum wage and only woke up a couple of weeks before the Order takes effect. That is not leadership ‒ it is sleepwalking.

Yours faithfully,
Christopher Ram

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