An estimated 30 percent of workers, at most, would be affected by any minimum wage the government might put in place, the chairman of the Minimum Wage Advisory Committee told a small group this week at a public meeting in Bodden Town.
Lemuel Hurlston, the committee chairman, identified five categories of workers most likely to be affected: gardeners, security guards, domestic workers, some restaurant workers “and, surprisingly, some administrative workers.”
Mr. Hurlston started his conversation Wednesday night with three committee members and four district residents by explaining the committee’s role. “Once you tender your advice, you’ve done your job. Then it’s up to government whether to accept it.”
On that basis, he declined to specify what the committee’s recommendation for a minimum wage will be. Asked whether there would be a separate minimum wage for different industries, Mr. Hurlston said he didn’t think so.
That led committee member Ian Pairaudeau and businessman Arnold Berry to discuss specifics. They agreed that an average wage in the construction industry is $8 or $9 an hour, but, Mr. Pairaudeau added, that refers to legitimate companies trying to reward their workers. “Do you know how many construction workers are making $4 an hour?” he asked.
This was the third in a series of public meetings held by the committee. Each meeting has drawn only a handful of people. Notwithstanding the small turnout at the meetings, Mr. Hurlston said the committee had received a large amount of input from the community, having met with focus groups and received surveys from individuals and businesses, as well as written comments from numerous sources, including some churches. In total, he estimated, input had been received from 2,500 people so far.
During Wednesday’s meeting, the impact of a minimum wage on various industries was discussed. Mr. Berry asked, for example, how the committee was dealing with gratuities in the hospitality industry.
The base pay there is low, sometimes $2.50 per hour, a committee member said, but tips could raise that to $6.
Mr. Hurlston shared comments from a consultant, engaged by the Chamber of Commerce, who had told the committee that when governments set a minimum wage, they fail to identify the problem the minimum wage is supposed to solve. She also pointed out that if the minimum wage is too low, people will ignore it. If it is too high, it is unaffordable and will throw the economy into a tailspin.
“If we get it wrong, we would like to think we’ll get it wrong on the conservative side because if it’s conservative, it can be easily be adjusted upward, but if [the minimum wage] is too high, it will be hard to bring it down in the future,” Mr. Hurlston said. “You don’t want to overheat your economy or shut it down.”
One of the committee’s first projects was to consider Cayman’s gross national product and break it into economic sectors, then break this down to the value of every hour worked. “We compared that figure to what is called the poverty line – the line at which people would be starving to death, literally,” Mr. Hurlston said. The line above that is referred to as the vulnerability line, which is about 25 percent higher than the poverty line. ”The minimum wage, in theory, would need to be at or near that vulnerability line.”
Mr. Pairaudeau said the Department of Family and Children Services uses $3,000 per month as a base line when assessing households to determine if there is a level of need for assistance. “It would scare you to know the number of Caymanians and non-Caymanians below that line,” he said. Mr. Hurlston said Cayman’s current situation came about because cheap labor was needed to rebuild the country after Hurricane Ivan in September 2004. “Now we are in a different environment – we don’t need the cheap labor any more, but it is still available. People are willing to travel here to work for almost nothing.”
The committee believes that the Immigration Department will have to play a significant role in enforcing a minimum wage, Mr. Hurlston said.
Jonathan Edie suggested the need for a national culture of workers rights, including the right to complain. “If you’re at a minimum wage, you’re afraid of your employer,” he said. Mr. Hurlston said the committee had looked at the issue of exploitation of the lowest paid. The worst abuse the committee had heard of was employers who enjoy the benefit of the employee’s labor and then withhold wages.
He said the committee expects to submit its report by the end of February.
The final public meeting is on Monday, 7-8:30 p.m., in West Bay at Sir John A Cumber Primary School.