By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” Jan. 12, 2024)
The debate over the government’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to at least EC$1,000 per month or a minimum of EC$50 per day is revealing in several respects. It shows who has the power and who is being played. The debate demonstrates in unmistakable terms where workers’ consciousness needs to get if they are to stake claim to a bigger slice of the national cake.
Additionally, the conversation is proof positive that little or no regard is given to the actual living conditions of workers. Many mindlessly argue that raising the minimum wage will negatively impact business people’s bottom line — profit maximisation. They forget that without the labour of workers, which is grossly exploited, business people will not make a single cent on their investment.
The debate reminds me of one about two decades ago under the catchy banner, Tripartite Partnership.
Supposedly, the partnership was to become a working alliance between government, private enterprise and trade union leaders. We were told each side was to make sacrifices in the national interest. It was a neo-liberal ploy in which the government cut back on social spending, workers were to abandon trade union militancy, and business and entrepreneurship were to be entrenched as the sole and decisive engine for growth.
As it stands now, union leaders are allied with governing parties and the captains of the business sector. Workers are the big losers. Unionism is all but dead. Workers, whose consciousness has been dumbed down, rally around their party, thus sabotaging union activism that is in their interest.
The debate is not around the horrible working conditions faced by workers, the sexploitation of female employees and the starvation wages most workers receive but rather about rising wages will retard economic growth. The politicians get into the act for bragging rights, arguing which party raised the minimum wage most while in power. Many miss the cynicism and exploitation of the sensibilities of workers in that talk about raising minimum wages occurs mostly as elections loom and the political temperatures rise.
Lost in the debate is that SVG is a cesspool where workers spend their entire lives preparing to live. The demand should be for a living wage for all workers. Instead, some citizens, including opposition politicians, opposed the minimum wage increase by pointing to the failure of primarily local businesses. They erroneously put too much blame on bad economic conditions for these failures rather than recognise the rapacious, cannibalistic, competitive nature of capitalism as the true culprit.
As we have seen in our lifetime, the Syrians and Lebanese initially wiggled their way in and carved out a place in the economy. They pushed many local businesses to the brink of extinction. Now entrenched, they are experiencing stiff competition from Chinese business people muscling their way into dominance. Commercial rent is going through the roof; property owners are making a killing, while workers, because of depressingly low wages, spend their entire lives preparing to live.
It is the economic system that is the problem. The sooner workers recognise this fact, the better. Sadly, only a few voices remain that speak truth to power. Workers are fodder. More effort has to be made to empower workers, to build up their consciousness so that they may become not just a class in themselves but a class for themselves. Until then, unsavoury politicians, exploitative business executives, and sell-out trade union leaders will continue to hold sway.
Assault on democracy
There is something deeply troubling about PM Gonsalves’ method and style of work. The nasty trait manifested itself again on Wednesday during the debate on the 2024 budget. At his prompting, House Speaker Rochelle Forde called on Finance Minister Camillo Gonsalves to wrap up the debate, thus bringing to a premature end the thrust and throe that many have come to expect when annual budgets are debated.
All sides take some blame. Once the speaker asked for further debate, an opposition parliamentarian should have addressed the assembly. But, PM Gonsalves has a bad habit of assaulting the democratic traditions entrenched in our parliamentary culture.
We see it each year when parliament procedure allows for a member’s motion from the opposition. He sponsors a countermotion each year that limits the opposition’s chance to place its stamp on parliamentary debate.
We saw it in 2018 during the debate on the opposition-sponsored motion of no confidence. Then, Gonsalves, confident that he had eight of the 15 elected parliamentarians in the assembly, tried to have the speaker call a vote on whether the debate on the motion should be allowed. After the speaker ruled that the discussion of the opposition motion, Gonsalves improperly moved a government’s motion of confidence. House speaker Jomo Thomas misinterpreting the Constitution, and the house standing orders erroneously overruled himself and allowed debate Gonsalves’ undemocratic motion. It was a dark day for parliamentary democracy in SVG.
Gonsalves’ goading of Speaker Forde to invite the finance minister to wrap up the debate follows this undemocratic trend. As he admitted in the Assembly last Wednesday, there is a tradition in the house where debate alternates between government and opposition lawmakers. Daniel Cummings indicated that he intended to debate the budget. PM Gonsalves intimated that he, too, intended to join the debate on Friday. So, there was no urgency in prematurely ending the debate.
Parliamentarian Cummings movingly begged Speaker Forde to revisit the decision to halt the debate, “in the interest of the people of this country, and the very important exercise of the budget debate to revisit the decision, insisted upon, erroneously, by the Honourable Prime Minister … I urge you again, Madam Speaker, with the power in your hand for the time being and in the interests of the just government of this land, to allow for the proper debate of this important budget we have before us.”
The speaker remained unmoved. None of this is good for our democracy. We have some rebuilding to do. Evidently, the nation has to get past Gonsalves, the architect of our democratic erosion.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former senator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The opinions presented in this content belong to the author and may not necessarily reflect the perspectives or editorial stance of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].