Revisiting the issue of the minimum wage

By Mata'afa Keni Lesa 27 January 2017, 12:00AM

Time sure flies. This time last year, the nation was well in truly into the General Election mode. It was an exciting time, a nerve racking time for all involved – including the chosen members who today occupy the halls of power in our Parliament.

As part of the campaign trail, countless issues affecting you and me were raised. Most of them were constructive and necessary for nation building; others were simply a waste of time.

It must be said though that one of the most promising issues raised involved a plan to raise the minimum wage. At the time, the idea would have been music to the ears of voters and candidates alike. But then if you were paid the minimum wage of $2.30 an hour, would you say no to such a plan? 

Of course not. It’s what the poorest people in Samoa want. 

You hear them on radio talk back shows, you see their plight in the Village Voice everyday and we can understand why. The fact is $2.30 an hour is not a lot. And if you are a father of five, life would be pretty difficult.

Now think about the predicament of many parents whose children are set to return to school next week. How on earth are parents paid the minimum wage going to afford stationery, fees, uniforms on top of having to provide food, water and electricity for their families on a daily basis? 

It really boggles the mind.

Which is why the idea of raising the minimum wage, when it was raised as part of the Election campaign, was immediately welcomed, embraced and loved by all.

When the issue was discussed last year, the Coordinator of the Samoa First Union, Jerome Mika, put up an excellent case for an increase of the minimum wage to $3. Samoa First Union by the way was very vocal on the issue. 

 “Lifting the minimum wage is about fairness and equal relationships,” Mr. Mika argued in a column he wrote for this newspaper. 

 “While profits are rising for many businesses, wages aren’t. A handful of wealthy overseas-based companies are creaming it while Samoans see their hard work, ingenuity and perseverance not rewarded in the way it should.

 “Samoa has so much good work to be done, roads to be paved, kids to be taught, tourists to be hosted,” he said. But when people are not paid enough to sustain their families and villages, or told to work more for less, then the workplace and the country isn’t running fairly. 

“We can’t forget the principle of equal relationships. We cannot allow anyone to be paid less than they need to live a good life and provide for their families. People’s hard work should be recognised and rewarded.”

We couldn’t have agreed more with Mr. Mika at the time and we maintain that position today. High-ranking officials in the public and private sector with their conscious intact will know that some of these people are being robbed when it comes to their wages. For years, they have had to put up with this daylight robbery. 

We are talking about hard working fathers, mothers and young people of this country who have had to endure such an injustice for so long. 

Imagine how demoralising it must be to open that brown envelope at the end of the week only to find a few talas after all that trouble at work? Some of them are out in the sun all day, having to put with some of most trying working conditions.

Regardless of the circumstances, you would agree that when we look at the minimum wage of $2.30 an hour compared to the cost of living, this is immoral. It is wrong on every level. 

Of course there is a very strong case against it. And over the years, every time the case for an increase is made, the government is forever blaming the private sector’s ability to absorb the costs involved. 

Fair enough. It has to be said that we cannot ignore this critical factor. 

The private sector after all is supposed to be the engine of growth for the economy, which means that any proposal that could hamper its ability to do that must be thought out properly before it is implemented. 

The key issue here is the ability of the private sector to find the money to fund and absorb an increase without the need to downsize and close shop.

We’ve said this before. From our standpoint, the government can do a lot to help the private sector accommodate the plan. One of the first things it must do is revisit those taxes that are crippling the business sector. 

In this country today, our businesses are being taxed to the bone. This is on top of the countless compliance costs and other administration costs these poor businesses have to comply with simply to keep going. And as if they’re not paying enough taxes already, they are then hit again – along with everyone else – by that menace called the V.A.G.S.T. 

Ladies and gentlemen, every time this government talks about the private sector, it is forever harping on about creating an enabling environment for the private sector to flourish. Is that happening? 

We doubt it. We say this because if the private sector were flourishing, we wouldn’t be left with such sorry unemployment figures. 

But then it’s not hard to see why. Has anybody stopped to ask the local business community about how much suffering they have had to endure because of electricity costs? We talk about creating an enabling environment for businesses to flourish and yet the cost of some of the basic utilities are outrageous. How can they grow under such circumstances? 

Think of the tourism industry and the many hardworking members of the hotel industry pouring their hard-earned money to develop their properties based on the promise of tourism becoming the mainstay of the economy. Isn’t it sad that so many of them cannot sleep at night because they cannot pay their loans given the decline in tourists visiting Samoa?

The point is that it’s all very well for the government to blame the private sector for holding back an increase in the minimum wage. But maybe if the government does its job in creating an enabling environment for the private sector to flourish, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today.

After all, think of the millions wasted through mismanagement, abuse of power and corrupt practices within the government that could help the private sector absorb an increase in the minimum wage. 

This is not a new issue. We’ve discussed this issue over and over again and it seems that nothing is being done about it. The minimum wage as it stands today cannot continue as it is. The time has come for the government and all the relevant stakeholders to come together to really revisit this issue with the idea of increasing it to cushion some of the poorest people in this country from the cruel blows they are being dealt with every day, no thanks to this menace called the rising cost of living. What do you think?

Have an enjoyable Friday Samoa, God bless!

By Mata'afa Keni Lesa 27 January 2017, 12:00AM

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