Minimum-wage workers struggle to survive

Customer Glenda George selects her essential grocery items at FHS Supermarket on Independence Square, Port of Spain. - Ayanna Kinsale
Customer Glenda George selects her essential grocery items at FHS Supermarket on Independence Square, Port of Spain. - Ayanna Kinsale

SURVIVING on a minimum wage was always difficult. Workers who are paid daily, weekly or fortnightly have always struggled to maintain a lifestyle in which they could, at minimum, properly feed themselves, raise their families and have the means to get to and from work.

However, with the covid19 pandemic, the Russian/Ukrainian war and several other global shocks taking the world and TT by storm, the cost of living has risen drastically. Even though the Government has put several initiatives in place, raising the minimum wage multiple times and broadening tax brackets, these moves do not seem to match the growing rates at which food, services and important items have increased in price.

Bring down food prices, raise the minimum wage

Business Day spoke with minimum-wage workers in Port of Spain, who said their wages are barely enough to maintain themselves and their families. They said despite the increases in the minimum wage, high prices have made it too hard to carry on the business of living.

They called for a reduction in food prices, easier and cheaper transport, and an increase in the minimum wage, which now stands at $17.50.

“Living on minimum wage is tough,” said Bahati Garnes, a store clerk from Laventille Road. “You really live from paycheque to paycheque.

"If the government could find a way to drop the food prices by just a little, that would be beneficial to minimum-wage workers. I would also like to see the gas prices go down as well, because that has a lot to do with transport.”

Garnes said he makes less than $1,800 a fortnight, of which most is spent on food.

Commuters at the Maxi Taxi terminal at City Gate, Port of Spain.
File Photo - ROGER JACOB

“It varies,” he said, when asked how his salary is spent. “I have to eat breakfast and lunch, I have to travel, which, if I add it up over the fortnight, would be about $120.”

Garnes, the father of a seven-year-old girl, said he also has to think of schoolbooks and items for his daughter, although he gets assistance from relatives. He added that he also has to contribute to the home, which will run him about $500.

Aida Plowden, a home-owner who lives in Barataria, said food is also among her biggest bills, but she also has to pay utility bills. She also complained of having to live from paycheque to paycheque.

“Almost half my money goes into getting food. Utilities such as light bill and water rate also add up.

“These days everything is going up with food. I try to take only what I need from the grocery and make sure that it lasts for as long as it can.

"With me doing everything by myself, it is hard for me to save for a rainy day.”

Mikel Tappin, a Morvant resident, said while the burden of home bills is shared by herself and her relatives, the day-to-day challenge of commuting and feeding herself takes up the largest share of her salary.

“When I calculate it, I have to work two hours to buy a box of food. That just doesn’t make sense to me.”

“To come into town is $8 and to go back home is $9,” she said. “Sometimes my aunt may lend me her car, but gas is very expensive. Driving the car, sitting in traffic and sometimes looking for parking, I may end up spending $300 in one day. So I decided to just travel instead.”

She said the fare to and from Morvant has increased by a dollar over the past few months, but taxi drivers sometimes raise the fare on their own, without consultation.

She also called for an increase in the minimum wage, but worried about the effect it would have on inflation and other effects.

“Thinking about it, I am not even sure it makes sense, because once you increase wages, then businesses would say they have to raise their prices and the cost of living will continue to go up.”

She also pointed out that food prices are going up all over the world, so that may also be an unavoidable cost.

“My grandmother, who lives in the US, told me that things like eggs and milk are going up over there as well.

"I hope there is something that the government can do about it, but it may not be something that we could really fight. It may just be something to which we have to adapt.”

Borrowing to live

Ermine De Bique Meade, Contractors and General Workers Trade Union president, and Assistant General Secretary Akeba Wilson, both of whom represent daily-paid workers at the San Fernando Regional Corporation, said their members have to borrow money from financial institutions to survive, since they are working on salaries from 2013 and have been offered "a pittance" as an increase in wages.

Central Government Workers Trade Union president Ermaine De Bique Meade - Ryan Hamilton-Davis

The corporation currently pays wages that range from $235-$300 a day.

“Basically most of the San Fernando daily-paid workers go for loans with Island Finance or different financial institutions. They are borrowing to live.”

She said while the loans keep them afloat, they have a negative effect on their finances in the long run.

“The loans put them in greater debt, but they do it in order to survive,” Wilson said. “So when push comes to shove and they have to pay back the loans, they go home with next to nothing from their salary.

"Then they take a loan from here, there and everywhere to see how best they could survive.”

De Bique Meade said as president of the union, she is bombarded with pleas, demands and cries from daily-paid workers who are struggling to survive while negotiations with the government continue to crawl.

Central Government Workers Trade Union representative Akeba Wilson - Ryan Hamilton-Davis

“We met with the CPO on many occasions and we signed off on a memorandum of understanding in 2017 as it relates to non-cost items."

She said daily-paid workers were offered a two per cent increase for the 2014-2016 bargaining period and another two per cent for 2017-2019.

“We indicated to the CPO that we are not prepared to accept that proposal, but the CPO informed us that there is nothing else they could put on the table as it relates to monetary items,” De Bique Meade said. “We said we were willing to accept other financial instruments, but the CPO never got back in contact with the union.”

She said the CPO eventually informed the Ministry of Labour the negotiations had stalled.

RPI: 4% change in prices year-on-year

While there have been incremental decreases in the price of food from July-August, in August this year there had been an overall four per cent increase as compared to last year.

The year-on-year indices on the Central Statistical Office (CSO) website showed food and non-alcoholic beverages had increased by five per cent between August last year and this year; alcoholic beverages and tobacco rose by 3.5 per cent, and rent went up by 1.5 per cent.

However, clothing and footwear decreased by 0.4 per cent, and home ownership went down by 0.1 per cent. Water, electricity, gas and other fuels remained level.

On a month-to-month perspective from July-August the CSO said there was a 0.3 per cent decrease in food and non-alcoholic beverages. Contributing to the decrease was the general reduction in prices of tomatoes, white flour, rice, melongene ochres, soya bean oil, chilled or frozen chicken, celery, cheddar cheese and eddoes.

But frozen beef, fresh beef and chicken, chilled pork, whole frozen chicken, Irish potatoes, plantains, green pigeon peas, fresh steaks and garlic all went up, resulting in a 0.1 per cent decrease in the all items index.

Government providing relief but…

Even the Prime Minister had to admit that some of the measures the government put in place to provide relief for citizens did not have the desired effect.

Speaking at a post-Cabinet media briefing earlier in September, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley said initiatives such as lowering the cost of VAT from 15 per cent to 12.5 per cent were intended to ease the burden on consumers, but the benefit did not reach the people who needed it most.

“I am convinced, by the examination I have done, and by keeping my eyes and ears on the ground, that (it) made no contribution in the broad sense, to the people who were looking for relief,” he said. “The bulk of that two per cent that we took off VAT was kept by those engaged in selling things.”

In the 2022-2023 budget read last year, several fiscal measures aimed at easing the cost of living were proposed. One of these measures was that the personal income tax exemption limit was extended from $84,000 to $90,000 a year, meaning that people earning $7,500 and less were exempt from paying income tax from January 1.

Finance Minister Colm Imbert said it was the third time the Government had raised the exemption limits, and the change would put additional disposable income of $1,500 a year into the pockets of working-class citizens.

On the other hand, fuel prices were set to go up after Imbert announced Government had decided to reduce fuel subsidies from more than $2 billion a year to $1.45 billion. The resulting change in prices of fuel put premium gasoline at $7.75 per gallon, super gasoline at 6.97 per gallon, diesel at $4.41 per gallon and kerosene at $4.50 per gallon.

The cost of LPG remained at $21 for a 20 lb cylinder of cooking gas, which would mean the subsidy for cooking gas would be $300 million.


"Minimum-wage workers struggle to survive"

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