CONSIDERATION by Government of increasing the minimum wage of income-earners in this category is warranted, but must be implemented at a level that would not cause inflation or further unemployment, says the president of the San Fernando Greater Chamber Kiran Singh.
The Prime Minister, during a post-Cabinet media conference on Thursday, said his government was considering an increase in the minimum wage to ease the burden of lower-income earners.
Speaking to Newsday by phone on Friday, Singh said wage increases were warranted across the board – in the public and private sector – owing to the state of the economy.
Recently, most public-sector workers settled for a four per cent increase over two collective bargaining periods between 2014 and 2019.
Singh said an increase would help those on the lower end of the income scale to provide sufficiently for their families, given the high cost of living.
“The Chamber is heartened by the Prime Minister’s cautious response about the increase causing inflation, because we want to see the economy thrive.
“We have to be careful by what quantum the increase is applied to ensure those at the lower end would not be the first to go.
“We don’t want the employment levels to decrease or unemployment levels to increase if there is a significant increase. We have to be very wary (of) how that is dealt with.”
In his Labour Day address, president general of the Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU) Ancil Roget proposed a $30 increase from the current rate of $17.50 per hour.
Singh said that figure was a bit unrealistic.
“While we share the opinion that salary increases are warranted across the board, not only minimum wage, but those in the government service and in the private sector, what we want to see is a shared sacrifice we continue to face as an entire country.
“The economy is not what it once was, so we have to be able to survive with the limited resources we have.
“The SME continues to be the main generator of employment after the government, and we have a responsibility to ensure that workers continue to be employed.
“We believe Government is sharing that opinion and is being cautious in its approach to increase minimum wage.”
Agreeing with Dr Rowley that the main driver of inflation was the food import bill, Singh said the chamber had aggressively promoted a "grow local, buy local and eat local" mantra.
While agreeing with Government’s thrust towards food security and agricultural production, Singh pointed to the import of key products into local food production, which drives up the prices.
He said it was a very delicate balancing act, given the forex challenge, “which also ties back in with the increase in minimum wage, adding to an increase in production for the basic food items we are trying to preserve to reduce the food import bill.”
Given that over the years, locals have shied away from agriculture, Singh suggested the engagement in this ventureof Venezuelan nationals who have been given temporary residential status.
He suggested the implementation of a mechanism similar to the Canada farm programme initiative, using foreign labour to generate products that can in turn generate foreign exchange.
“We have the perfect weather for agriculture, especially short-term crops. Tobago used to be the food basket of the region a few decades ago. Why can’t we return to that?
"We were the cocoa and coffee giants of the Caribbean, and we still maintain the best cocoa in the world. On a recent visit to a Belgian chocolate museum, I was pleasantly surprised to see TT featured, and as one of the most sought-after locations for the high-grade cocoa we grow.
“Even the scorpion pepper is highly sought after. We should monetise these agricultural products to an extent where every single level of arable land space is utilised to grow and export and really generate some next foreign exchange.”