Union head endorses multiple minimum wage rates

President of the Antigua and Barbuda Free Trade Union (ABFTU) Samuel James
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By Kadeem Joseph

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As discussions over what a possible minimum wage increase in Antigua and Barbuda could be set at, with an advisory committee already convened on the matter, a trade unionist is supporting calls for multiple rates to be explored.

President of the Antigua and Barbuda Free Trade Union (ABFTU) Samuel James, whilst speaking on Sunday’s Big Issues programme, explained that there were initially multiple categories and different rates applied to each industry when living wages were first introduced to the country.

He argued that the country’s Labour Code does not make provision for the establishment of a single minimum rate, based on what is outlined in Section C21 AND C22, but instead points to multiple rates and contends that a standard rate across the board could ultimately be to the detriment of employees.

“Would it be fair to have a minimum wage of, let’s say what we have now, $8.20, which is normally reflective of the wage rate paid to store clerks and security officers, would that rate be a fair rate in let’s say, for example, the construction industry?” he queried. “It could not be a fair minimum wage. In fact, I don’t think you would find a labourer in construction making anywhere in the region of $8.20 per hour.”

James believes that the general practice of society dictates that the minimum rate an employee is paid should differ based on the industry in which they are employed.

He suggested the recently reconstituted Minimum Wage Advisory Committee should look at each industry and conduct “full investigations” looking at the extent and nature of the job and the business, as well as the income earning position of the business in question.

“We have to look at a wide range of things and simply finding a rate would not and could not address the wide cross section of industry and occupations that fall within the state,” he added.

The union president said while having one rate across the board may be easier, failing to consider the nuances in different industries may ultimately be unjust to employees.

Last week, industrial relations consultant Anderson Carty suggested that there be a stratified approach to talks of a minimum wage increase considering the inequitable impact the Covid-19 pandemic is having on sectors.

He posited that while some sectors may have thrived in the past few years, others have suffered and therefore may not be able to cope with a minimum wage increase at this time.

Speaking during the same programme as James, Barbados based economist and financial consultant Jeremy Stephen disagreed with an approach to the issue that would see varying rates for different industries.

He pointed to several drawbacks to such an approach, to include greater expenses to private firms due to the possible overall reclassification of workers, and opportunities for abuse of such classification by employers.  

“It should be just a national minimum wage and adjustments will be made upwards, as far as I am concerned, to higher salary levels,” he said. “It is easier to keep track of productivity if you are linking wage increases to productivity increases.”

Stephen said it is also easier to do tax policy adjustments in line with a national minimum wage than a tiered method of approaching these rates.

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