One of this nation’s most enduring shames is the fact that a significant number of hardworking Guyanese do not earn a living wage and feel as though they are holding on to life by a thread. It seems as though many of our decision-makers regard this shame solely as an economic issue, inextricably linked to the state of the economy.
We had the Public Service Minister some time ago expressing that public servants should be happy with a five percent increase, citing that this is one of the few countries in the world that has been offering any salary increases to its public servants, and doing so on an annual basis. It was emphasised that in several Caribbean territories and further afield, workers are being laid off and some have had to take pay cuts in order to remain employed.
The Minister then attempted to provide a strong dose of reality by asserting that the cupboard is bare. “We can’t give what we don’t have,” was the blunt assertion. She concluded by urging workers to be more understanding of the prevailing economy not just in Guyana, but worldwide.
By now, those in the ruling administration with a modicum of understanding would have recognised that this is much more than an economic issue; it is a matter of ensuring basic human rights. Every working Guyanese has a basic right to a fair living wage.
Low wage earners account for a substantial part of the country’s workforce. Some minimum wage workers are young adults just out of school who are cushioned by family earnings, but many are women with children who are the sole source of income in their households. Unfortunately, the earnings of lowest paid workers in Guyana put them well below the international poverty line of US$1.25 (G$250) a day.
By most accounts, the average monthly earnings by low-income workers in Guyana are barely in this range, and many earn even less. Their ranks include some of the most important workers in Guyana, like teachers, nurses and members of the disciplined forces. These workers simply cannot meet their basic needs without subsidies of some kind, mainly from overseas-based relatives.
Meanwhile, the cost of the fundamental amenities of life has increased much faster than wages and salaries. Food, clothing, and particularly the cost of housing and rent are rising steadily.
Even with the government’s housing drive in full flow, it is still increasingly difficult for low-income families to afford even modest accommodation. Guyana continues to endure the disastrous social consequences of endemic poverty. Unfortunately, many of the lowest incomes are earned by public sector workers.
What government needs to do is to once and for all set a standard, giving precisely the minimum amount of money full-time workers need to meet all basic needs in Guyana’s economy without government subsidies. It should then set goals attached to realistic time-frames that would move the minimum wage upwards to meet that standard, which would be updated at appropriate intervals.
The administration might also find it useful to mandate that businesses under contract with the government, and businesses receiving grants, subsidies, tax breaks or any other concessions from government must pay their employees a living wage. Leaving it up to the laws of supply and demand has not worked in the interest of Guyanese workers. Workers have had to accept whatever wages they could get or simply remain unemployed, and the most desperate workers accept absurdly low wages and salaries.
Setting a standard living wage and seeking to move the legal minimum wage towards it in a specific time-frame is the way to go. Workers want to see purposeful, distinctly positive steps towards giving low wage earners a fair living wage. Otherwise, workers will feel they are clinging to life by a thread and the labour market in Guyana as well as labour relations would be plagued with turmoil.
The ongoing protests might just be the tip of the iceberg.
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