Editorial: An economic powerhouse built by underpaid workers

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The Antigua & Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) held a ceremony at the National Housing project at Dredge Bay to hand over keys to about 12 of the 48 houses on the site.  It was part of the third anniversary celebrations which are designed to showcase the progress being made by the administration as it attempts to fulfill its promises to the people.  Promises which included “500 homes in 500 days”.
There is no need to belabour the point that only a fraction of the homes has been finished in over 1000 days, because Prime Minister Browne has already provided the reasons for the delay and laid the blame squarely at the feet of the United Progress Party (UPP).  The PM blamed the UPP’s poor management of the country’s debt as a key factor in the delay.  Essentially, cash flow became a problem and the project became delayed.
We would like to put the politics aside and focus on policy, and what appears to be part of the ABLP strategy to create an “economic powerhouse”.  So that we are not accused of putting words in anyone’s mouth, we will turn it over to the PM.  During the handover ceremony, the PM stated, “You may not recognise this but the workers at National Housing, they are literally underpaid.  A labourer actually makes about eighty dollars, when ordinarily, he should be making about one hundred and twenty dollars.  A skilled person makes about, maybe, one hundred and thirty dollars when he should be making about two hundred. And that is how we have been able to keep the price down.  So they, too, through their labour would have made a significant contribution in subsidising the value of these homes.”
This is a startling admission.   Not because it is news but more for its content and the matter-of-fact way that it was presented.  Labour organisations around the word strive for a “fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work”.  The ABLP, which was born out of of Antigua’s labour strife has apparently turned its back on this fundamental tenent of the labour movement.
Our history will tell us that it is not right for a small group of persons to benefit from the value of labour that has been procured at well below the market value.  This is not any attempt to equate this situation to slavery because to do so would be an insult.  Rather, we find it odd that a “labour” administration that seeks to build and economic powerhouse would build it on the backs of underpaid labour.
Throw the politics out the door because this ‘means to an end’ type policy transcends politics and gets to the fundamentals of life and the established goal of any labour oriented organisation.   Can we as a nation accept that 48 persons have benefited from the two and a half years of hard work of many underpaid workers?  What chance do those underpaid workers ever have of achieving the homeownership dream?
We loosely use the term “underpaid” but in reality, this is exploitation.  A term we do not use lightly.  The fact is, the workers are paid $80 per day but their market value is $15 per hour.  That means that they are paid for just over five hours per day and the rest is done for nothing.   We take that back.  Their free labour is for the benefit of the homeowners and the politicians that hope to reap the rewards that come with providing housing.
The PM did his best spin when he said, “We have had the cooperation of the workers who are working for less than what they would get in the private sector but they have the added job security which they would not have had in the private sector.  Whereas, for example, a labourer could probably get a hundred and twenty dollars in the private sector, he or she may only work for a few months. There are many individuals working at National Housing for the last two and a half years consistently. But, by virtue of them working for less than what they could get in the private sector, it helps to drive down the costs, the labour costs, associated with the construction of these properties.”
With all due respect, that is a weak justification for a gross wrong.  Using underpaid workers or unpaid labour (depending on how you look at it) to keep prices down has been used by many over time and none pass the morality test.  Could any private business underpay their staff by over 30 per cent utilising the same justification?   Taking advantage of the unemployed worker, who is desperate for a job to put food on the table, cannot be justified and cannot be considered “cooperation”.  And it certainly is not the way that an economic powerhouse is built.  But maybe we have a different definition of what an economic powerhouse is.
Before the kool-aid drinkers get all worked up, let’s clear one thing up – we are supporters of low-income housing.  That said, we still cannot reconcile this situation.  We heard all the rhetoric about the housing scheme being non-profit and the massive subsidy that each lucky homeowner will get, but in the end, is it fair to the underpaid worker who contributed their hard work for someone else to benefit?  This is not to paint the new homeowners in any bad light, since they are simply taking advantage of the opportunity and reaching for their dream, but what about the dream of the $80 per day labourer who will not qualify at the bank?  The PM said it himself when he was questioned about a means test for these “affordable homes”.  He answered, “ultimately, it is based on the ability to pay. They go to the bank, they get their loan – if they qualify, they get their loan. If they don’t qualify, they don’t get their loan and then in that case they are not eligible.”
The PM has committed to completing the 500 homes before the end of this term in office and has boasted that the government is “literally putting a hundred and fifty thousand dollars in value in the pockets of each homeowner” but all of that comes from the pockets of the underpaid workers and the taxpayers.  We know that empires have been built on manipulated and exploited labour but is this how economic powerhouses are made?

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