IT HAS been exactly a month since the $20.50 per hour minimum wage took effect.
While it is too soon to gauge the impact of this $3 increase on livelihoods, employment and inflation, recent reports suggest a worrying gap when it comes to enforcement.
There have been multiple claims, some of which have been made on social media pages run by the Ministry of Labour, alleging some workers are yet to receive the new wage.
The ministry’s response has been simple. It has asked both workers and employers to contact it for more information.
Business groups have also urged workers to report their employers.
But if a worker is not being paid properly, the matter is not as simple as calling a hotline.
In the first place, the Minimum Wages Act, which dates to the 1970s, sets out a somewhat convoluted process by which an employee is to report non-compliance. This involves two written complaints, first to the employer and then, after two weeks, to the minister.
In theory, the law protects anyone who acts as a whistleblower. Employers are not supposed to punish them by altering their position to their detriment. That is the theory.
In practice, it may be difficult for a worker to speak out. This is particularly so for vulnerable groups, such as migrants. Many may not even be aware of the process required to make a formal report, or even the fact that they are entitled to an increased wage without a change in their working conditions.
For these reasons, even if there are no formal complaints yet in relation to how the minimum wage is being rolled out, the matter is likely to be significantly under-reported. Such instances will potentially fall into a blind spot unless and until they are picked up through filings or inspections, if such inspections occur at all.
Meanwhile, the $15,000 fine for non-compliance is of little use if it is never enforced. And which worker on minimum wage is going to hire a labour lawyer to recoup lost wages?
This is a significant issue given the sheer number of people on minimum wage. According to the ministry, this totals 190,000 workers. That is one-third of the entire labour force.
But an informal survey involving members of the TT Coalition of Services Industries (TTCSI), done by this newspaper, suggests the proportion could be even higher.
Six out of ten business associations – each representing industries with a workforce larger than 100 people – reported having a significant number of employees currently earning the minimum wage.
While the new wage is not supposed to result in changes to working conditions that could be interpreted as detrimental, such as putting workers on longer shifts, the reality is some employers may be forced to adjust operations in the long run.
This points to the fact that, when it comes to adhering to the new standard, it is up to employers, primarily, to do what is right.