The National

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (February 3, 2009) – The 2008 Minimum Wages determination handed down last Friday will not get labourers over the poverty line but it is double the amount they have been living on.

For that, they should be grateful.

But as with everything, there are two sides to this wages issue.

Let us examine first the real life situation of a labourer.

Up until three weeks ago, Paul worked for a major supermarket in Port Moresby. He worked from 7am to 7pm six days a week and took Mondays off.

There was no job description.

He was an all-purpose man – cleaner, security guard and repair man. Being a friendly, outgoing person, he liked the job. It brought him into contact with all manner of people. He didn’t even mind the long hours. He doesn’t have a family to return to.

His one bellyache was his pay. It was lousy. He took home K90 [US$34.00] a fortnight. Even then, he constantly complained of deductions for minor infringements.

Paul was sure he was being unfairly overworked and grossly underpaid. "Yupla raitim pas na mi go lukim ol leiba, (Write me a letter to take to the Labour office)" he would constantly say to his educated wantoks.

All of them were busy. He could find nobody to support him. He was not a member of a trade union. After two years, he protested in the only way he knew and made the one decision he had full control. He quit.

Paul’s story is the story of so many thousands of Papua New Guineans. Uneducated and untrained, they have been able to offer only their manual labour for a pittance.

It is a story of frustration, of ignorance, and in many instances such as in the case of Paul above, it is a story of terrible infringements of workers’ rights.

The struggle to get a fair wage for labour has been going on for years. This is the first time since 1992 when the minimum wages board was abandoned over irreconcilable differences.

Over the years, a tripartite consultative committee comprising Government, unions and employer representatives have met periodically but never found common ground on minimum wages.

Friday’s landmark decision will be cause for celebration for workers throughout the country. That is, if they get to know about it firstly and, secondly, know that the decision affects them.

In many instances, where there are no unions to push a determination such as this, companies will continue to pay any old rate they have been applying and threaten workers with the sack if they dare raise the issue.

This is the workers’ side of the story. A fine ending after years of struggle but, of course, the determination just made is still far below the poverty line when pitted against the rising prices of basic goods and services.

On the other side is the equally pitiful condition facing some sectors that are genuinely going to be adversely affected by this new wages determination.

The plantation sector of PNG, where the bulk of the minimum wage earners come from, will take the biggest hit.

This sector has passed a tumultuous full decade in the 1990s. Poor prices and withdrawal by big players split plantations into smallholder units which quickly led to neglect and big drops in production. The few big players who remained had to borrow to keep their operations going, hoping for better prices.

Big debts continue to plague the sector even after the slide of the kina against the US dollar brought some reprieve in good kina returns for exports in the last few years.

Just when some plantations might have been on the verge of breaking even, the global recession has hit. Demand around the world is dropping and the biggest hit in PNG will be the export sector. That will include the cash crop industries.

Now a bigger wage bill is being proposed which will impact the sector greatly.

The one way for the sector to survive is by contracting, and that will mean job losses. So on the one side, the minimum wages determination will mean more but it might mean more for fewer. Job losses are inevitable.

Recognising this, the board has decided to implement the new determination in two stages and to give industries in real dire need such as the plantation sector exemption. But just how long is the exemption going to go for? And can the Government also exempt or subsidise prices to the affected workers?

The Government must encourage those sectors which are exempted to reintroduce the rations system of pre-Independence days for workers so that workers are at least given assistance with basic household goods.

A question in parting: Who is going to police the minimum wages determination?

The National:

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