Alagi Yorro Jallow

Presidents go, and presidents come; government stays, and government is all about conserving and preserving continuity. All living systems have this tension between conservative and progressive.

Each new administration has wanted to remake the entire bureaucracy in their image and start all over again. But Mr. President, continuity is important. Continue with those things that are working, regardless of ideology, and speed them up.

Mr. President, governance includes both preserving continuity and making progress. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The current political economy of our times does not want moral contemplation. It wants efficiency in labor, in service of a new economic paradigm to fulfill the innate human desire for happiness. The minimum wage or low salaries of private and public-sector Gambian workers must be viewed in the context of the moral outrage ordinary workers feel when the top echelons of the corporate world or greedy politician’s salaries, bonuses and other benefits that of great magnitude.

It is business as usual when agenda number one for the coalition government of President Adam Barrow and the National Assembly should have reviewed and approved the published salary scales from the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC) recommendations. This commission was headed by retired and well-respected doyen of the Gambia civil service, late Alhagie Abdoulaye. A. Faal, Chief Accountant of the then Public Works Department and the first Gambian General Manager of the Central Bank of the Gambia, and Chairman of many State Boards and companies.

To hear one public representative claim that Alhagie Abdoulaye A. Faal’s SRC proposal and recommendations are not sustainable for the government to raise salaries while the executive and the legislature are benefiting from hefty emoluments and other benefits compared to an ordinary employee’s monthly income, where average Gambians in both private and in public sector are living like a ‘pauper,’ is a preposterous insult to the thousands of poor citizens who rose at 5 a.m. to vote our National Assembly members into office.

There is nothing honorable about their behavior and such titles should be earned and not merely bestowed because you get the nod of approval from your party leader.

Only intense pressure can either bring reform or radical change. This rarely comes from the so-called august houses; houses haunted by greed and corruption rather than blessed with commitment to service and social justice. This situation makes you realize how representative democracy has failed miserably. We continuously elect politicians who are more committed to their own interests, rather than those of the public. We tolerate mediocrity as we want to resume our normal lives and move on.

There is hardly a good reason why CEOs and politicians should earn several hundred multiples more than the ordinary worker in a private sector or in the public service. The minimum wage can be treated simply as a technocratic thing: it brings effects on economic growth, inflation, profits and employment creation. These are important, but this is an issue that deserves a moral consideration in a world with growing inequality. It raises fundamental questions about the purpose of the economy as it seems that some people’s happiness matters more than others.

CEO exceptionalism has its logical limits. They cannot be at the same time performers of miracles or seers of the future, their singular individual abilities determining the fortunes of a company or the public service sector. What about the rest of the people in the firm or public service sector?

All such notions are bound to be in the same league as esoteric powers. But management consultants and remuneration committees want to convince us that we must not look to reason but to the mysticism of the CEOs and greedy politicians.

The truth is that the minimum wage debate in The Gambia, like it is in the United States or anywhere else, is a recognition that labor’s power is asymmetric and that nothing changes if the system’s operators do not want to change the system itself.

This process of attrition – between labor, business and government over fair income share – will continue to involve little battles as grinding inequality will churn social-foment. In the Gambian context, minimum wage marks an important life or death situation and a shift in the labor relations, but it will always be insufficient if two other issues are also not addressed.

The minimum wage must be complemented with the delivery of social welfare (a form of subsidy from society). It matters that public services are such that good healthcare systems, credible and quality education, cheap transport, affordable energy and proper disposition over the grant system enhances wages.

The second issue is that due to persistently high unemployment, dependency levels in poorer households are high. Therefore, to assume that the minimum wage does the trick is to not appreciate the structural construct of poverty in The Gambia at the household level and which affects predominantly certain members of our society.

Structural shifts in the Gambian economy preceded 1994 and have continued beyond that era. These shifts have thrown out much of the unskilled and semi-skilled workforce as labor intensity in mining and agriculture was increasingly on the decline, and will continue to be so, as Gambia’s economy has become more service orientated, financialized and mechanized.

Whether the minimum wage will further blunt job prospects for this marginalized labor force is still to be seen. They have long been out of the system anyway. To deal with this intractable problem we may need more radical and innovative solutions.