Monday, Nov. 14, 2022
It is almost two weeks now since Hurricane Lisa, a Category one hurricane, blew her way through Belize City and environs, and exposed the reality of living conditions for some residents that the rest of our society hadn’t really grasped before. Like dusty glass windows that blur our vision, through all the economic hard times unleashed upon our citizens along with the advent of Covid-19, and again more recently with the inflation fallout from the Russia-Ukraine war, those of us who have been fortunate to earn a living wage and maintain a secure and comfortable home situation, had become complacent and somewhat numb to the repeated reports of violent crime, including murders, and complaints about the terrible living conditions that many of our citizens have had to endure. “It is an ill wind that blows no good,” and this Lisa has left exposed in her wake the bare truth of the real impoverished situation being experienced on a daily basis by many Belizeans. Hopefully, this stark revelation will spark, not just some quick-fix hands-out and emergency food assistance, but a deeper and more fundamental reassessment of how our social economy is structured, and then hopefully we can see some sincere and radical changes to the “system”.
In its pre-election campaign back in early 2020, one of the manifesto promises of the current PUP government was to institute a minimum wage of $5.00 per hour. Already in 2020, some voices were raised suggesting that the figure was too low; but even after a couple years of Covid-19 and almost a year of economic shocks from the Russia-Ukraine war, which saw commodity prices surging upward, now in 2022 some members of the business community are still contending that $5.00 an hour is too high a minimum wage, and that it will have the negative effect of forcing businesses to cut staff in order to remain viable. There really is a problem in Belize if a hardworking head of family is being expected to provide food on the table, have access to water and electricity, and sustain rent or mortgage payments for a secure home structure, while clothing even one child and sending him/her to school, all on a weekly salary of $225.00, which is what $5.00 an hour amounts to. The only way that is possible is if our “system” provides major support for basic needs such as health care and housing.
In facing the massive destruction of low-cost, poorly-constructed homes that Hurricane Lisa laid to waste, Prime Minister Briceño was moved to lament that, “… I don’t think anybody should be living under those conditions in 2022 anywhere in the world, especially in Belize.” But if our P.M. is serious about providing decent and securely constructed homes for low-income Belizeans, then our government may have to assume the financial burden of this undertaking in order to fulfil its mantra of “social justice.” There is no other way, except with a much higher wage earned, for a citizen to realistically go about securing adequate, safe housing. And currently the government is stalling, even doing a consultancy, before moving to implement the meagre $5.00-per-hour minimum wage, which will still not put any such wage earner in a position to rent or build his own secure home.
There is no doubt that the capitalist system has its merits, respecting private property and providing incentives and rewards to inspire and motivate citizens to apply great effort, creativity, bold risk-taking entrepreneurship, and energetic drive towards high productivity. Now, while a few exceptional individuals did manage to “lift themselves up from their bootstrap,” it is undeniable that across the globe certain sectors of modern society received a head-start in the competitive capitalist world through generational wealth inherited as a legacy from the days of slavery and colonialism. So, some individuals have become multi-millionaires, and even billionaires. But it is also undeniable that every aspect of material wealth inevitably comes out of the earth that none of us made. The sun shines its energy, and plants grow, with help from farmers to realize big harvests. And all the basic elements and minerals come out of the earth, “God’s goodness,” to be “worked” and refined by human hands. Everything we build and make, from the cars to the skyscrapers, to all the chemicals and drugs and groceries in the supermarket, it all comes originally from the earth, to be “manufactured” and “modified” by the genius of human minds and the labor of human hands. And the “market forces” then have sway in determining the prices we will pay for the various “goods and services”, from food to entertainment, to transportation, to communication, to education, to health care, to utilities (water, electricity, internet), etc. The capitalist system works, and the hardest working, most industrious, the smartest, and even the luckiest – as in lottery and Lotto, will make it big; and that’s good.
But there is a problem. How big is too big? And doesn’t the garbage still have to be disposed of? And the sewage? And the grass cut, and the streets swept clean; etc. etc.? Okay, fine; so just let the “system” continue working, and the rich keep getting richer. Fine. So, Mr. Big Man goes from millionaire to billionaire; and keeps getting bigger, and bigger. No problem? Well, there happens to be a large caravan at your border, sir. And what if those garbage collectors, and sewage plant workers, and grass cutters and street cleaners, what if these small people would reach a point where they “kyahn tek it no mo,” and go on a massive unified strike? Your toilet can’t flush; your garbage piles up; no water; no light. What then? And why? Because as hard as they work, they can’t earn a week’s pay that allows them to feed their families and secure their homes against a hurricane like Lisa.
In considering such a situation, the question must be asked: Where does the rich man’s billions come from? Elon Musk (or Michael Ashcroft) did not sit in a chair, snap his fingers, and money just rolled down like a mighty stream. The wealth comes out of the earth; the genius of human minds and the labor of human hands turned the raw materials into things of value, and the entrepreneurship and wits of the rich man utilized the help of others to harness and multiply that value, and now he reaps the big reward. But he didn’t do it alone. He couldn’t. So, there is a problem.
Respecting the private property of the rich is one thing. But the rich must also respect the human rights of the poor. And that’s the challenge of the ages, and the challenge for Belize. An aspiring third-party Belizean politician once stated categorically that the first priority if he achieved political power would be to drastically revamp the taxation system in Belize, so that the gush of wealth in the direction of the few at the top would slow down some, in order that the trickle—the meagerness of which has stifled the life of the masses at the bottom, could be increased to a liveable flow. Perhaps that’s why he was considered “unelectable.”
The United Nations acknowledges this problem in its “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” (See The Reporter, page 19, of Sunday, November 13, 2022.) Below are a couple extracts.
Former U.N. Human Rights Chief, Navi Pillay in The Tunis Imperative: “For the UN, health care, education, housing, and the fair administration of justice are not commodities for sale to the few, but rather rights to which all are entitled without discrimination.”
And in reference to a “Social Protection Floor Initiative,” which the UN agreed to in 2009, UN Human Rights Chief, Michelle Bachelet said: “We all want to see a world where all children and all adults have their basic needs met; where unemployment, injury, ill-health, old age or disability do not signal misery and hardship; where people are not left unprotected in times of crisis and disaster.”
The wealthy and the “big fish” can take care of themselves. In the aftermath of Lisa, after the emergency recovery and reconstruction, the task and the challenge of government is to look after “the least of these,” so that one illness does not condemn a family to dispossession of their land or home because of astronomical health-care costs. Our economic system is urgently in need of re-booting, where the new structure begins at the foundation with an adequate “Social Protection Floor”; and then, let the chips fall where they may for the big winners in our mixed economy. It is the only way for “everybody to win,” Honourable P.M.