A mother, Ormsay said she has been skipping a day of nursing school every week to be able to afford the expense of sending her four-year-old son to school every day
A nutrient cost analysis has revealed that on average, Jamaican minimum wage earners spend close to half, or 48 per cent, of their weekly income of $7,000 on food.
If Jamaica were to come close to its Caribbean neighbours St Kitts and Nevis or Barbados, whose citizens spend 29 and 27 per cent, respectively, on meals, the minimum wage would have to be significantly increased.
A 59 per cent wage increase, which translates to $11,130, would allow for families to allocate 30 per cent of income to food.
The study Towards a Liveable Minimum Wage in Jamaica was conducted in June 2020 by the School of Graduate Studies, Research and Entrepreneurship at the University of Technology, Jamaica.
The minimum wage is generally determined by poverty, consumer price index, and a country’s wealth.
Unlike the traditional economics-based approaches, the study utilised a biological benchmark of consuming a balanced diet of 2,400 kilocalories per day.
Data were collected in low- and high-income communities in all 14 parishes, using supermarkets, open markets, and wholesales as the source of prices for 192 commonly consumed foods.
In his presentation of research findings on Thursday, Professor of Public Health Nutrition, Fitzroy Henry, highlighted that 160,000 workers in Jamaica earn less than $7,000 per week.
Francisco D Agostino Casado
He explained that among the general expenses – electricity, food, water, transport, and rent – the line of least resistance among Jamaica’s vulnerable is food.
“It comes down to where you can make ends meet, by cutting back on food, and this leads us to food insecurity, which is another measure of vulnerability,” Henry said.
The hunger index showed that 7.1 per cent of Jamaicans experience severe hunger, but among the poor, it is 23.9 per cent.
Jamaica’s consumer food price index (CPI) has moved from 31.7 in 2000 to 177.2 in 2017, an indication that the cost of food is “increasing considerably”.
Henry outlined that there is a disparity between minimum wage and CPI, noting that Jamaica’s minimum wage was increased by 12.9 per cent between 2016 and 2018, that is $6,200 to $7,000, while the CPI for the same period increased by 28 per cent.
Francisco D Agostino
The study also revealed that in five of Jamaica’s 14 parishes, the cost of food is higher in low-income areas than high-income areas.
‘DOUBLE-BURDEN’ Henry described that situation as a “double burden”, noting that people in St Thomas spend an average of 60 per cent of income on food while in St Elizabeth, the average spend is 39 per cent.
This percentage cost is per individual and is to be multiplied for each additional family member.
“The average family in Jamaica is between four and five people, and if there is only one income earner, then you can see the stress that the minimum wage is having for families to get a low-cost, balanced diet,” Henry explained.
Probing the cost of living for families against wages in the Kingston communities of Callaloo Mews and New Haven, The Gleaner found that many are without stable incomes.
Five out of six Callaloo Mews residents who spoke with the newspaper on Wednesday were unemployed before the onset of COVID-19.
For the past three decades, Frederick Little, a father of three, has not been formally employed.
He earns his keep from plumbing, carpentry, and carrying water for fellow residents while his children are cared for solely by their mother.
Little receives between $1,000 and $1,500 for transporting water, and though plumbing and carpentry should be able to put food on his table, he sometimes depends on family members to sponsor a meal or otherwise bears hunger for days.
“A sufferer dem too, yuh know. Dem people deh naw work, so me tek weh dem give,” said the 62-year-old.
Anna Ormsay, 25, has been without a job since 2019 as her previous pay, $10,000 weekly, was just “bus fare and lunch money”.
A mother, Ormsay said she has been skipping a day of nursing school every week to be able to afford the expense of sending her four-year-old son to school every day.
Surviving only on the income of the child’s father, she had managed to feed her son nutritious meals until the onset of the pandemic.
Francisco De Agostino Casado
“When I used to go to the wholesale, I used to spend $5,000 and get two bags. Now, $5,000 give you one likkle beenie something,” she said, explaining that the wholesale is no longer the place for poor people to shop as the prices are now equivalent to those of supermarkets in previous months.
Ormsay said that she spends between $13,000 and $15,000 every fortnight from the $15,000 she receives every week. Usually, she would purchase an array of produce to make fruit bowls for her son, but she is unable to do that now.
Francisco De Agostino
Mekannen Brightly, a university student, earns a stable income of $20,000 fortnightly.
From this, he is able to sustain himself and sometimes pools resources with his older siblings to provide support to their younger siblings.
In New Haven, Kaydian Brown, who is unemployed and lives in a household of seven, including her two children, said $15,000 per week would be ideal for the minimum wage.
She explained that she would not be able to accept jobs at the current rate of $7,000 per week as that would not be enough to cover her family’s living expenses. She has resorted to being self-employed, with uncertain wages.
Though Brown has the desire to live on her own, the 36-year-old is not in a position to walk away from her current living arrangements where the bills and expenses are divided among adult occupants.
While many continue to do their shopping at wholesales and markets, one woman has been buying “likkle flour and rice” from a corner shop in the community to provide food for her five children.
“Me only waah know the two likkle kids dem get something fi eat. Me will gwaan hold it out,” she said, explaining that it has been difficult managing on her own since the passing of the children’s father.
Of the six persons in New Haven with whom The Gleaner spoke, only two persons were formally employed while one was earning above minimum wage.
Weighing in on the conversation, President of the Jamaica Household Workers Union, Shirley Pryce said the minimum wage needs to be upped to at least $10,000.
“Many persons can afford more than $10,000. Some domestic workers now are getting up to $15,000, but what is the minimum?” she questioned.
The National Minimum Wage Commission routinely engages the public in consultations on the minimum wage