“Good evening everyone… I’m urgently seeking a 2 bedroom house to rent for a family of 5. Two adults & 3 children. Within the price range of $25,000 – $35,000. Preferably in Georgetown.”
I saw the post on Facebook while flat hunting. For my own place. For double that price.
From 2017, the private sector minimum wage in Guyana will be Gy$44,200 a month (an increase of 25% on the current £35,000). That’s about US$213, or £171. Every day I wonder how people manage. Those costs quickly add up: Gy$60 for a short bus ride; Gy$2,000 for about 50Kwh of electricity; Gy$280 for a loaf of bread…
Yesterday I went into town to run a few errands. I topped up my GPL meter, which has been eating money like it’s Pringles. Bought locally produced honey, dried sorrel and spices at Guyana Stores. Pine, tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, cabbage, sugar, eggs at Bourda Market. Then went to my landlord’s office to pay my rent.
By the time I left, I was laden with heavy bags and my purse was light. I looked inside. Gy$80 in notes and about Gy$30 in change. Shit. I calculated quickly. If I took a bus from where I was, at the top of Regent Street, I could reach the bank in a few minutes. But what if the ATM wasn’t working? I’d be stuck. A cab? I wasn’t 100% sure I had enough cash at home to pay the driver. So I set about the long walk down Regent Street, bags biting into my fingers, sweat running down my back.
How many decisions like this must those minimum-wage earners make everyday? People perhaps without the comfort of a bank to fall back on. The constant questions. Shall I walk so I can buy some lunch? Shall I buy credit or hope this person will call me back? Can I justify getting a bottle of water or should I just wait till I get home? What can I buy that will feed all the family? Should I get school shoes that fit properly or ones they will (eventually) grow into?
It’s a world away from the ‘other’ Guyana. The Guyana where Gy$2,000 for lunch and Gy$4,000 for dinner was touted as a bargain in the recent Restaurant Week. Where US$390.7million in gold was exported in the first half of this year (according to Bank of Guyana figures). Where people (like me) jet back and forth from overseas. Where houses like this apparently exist:
With Christmas fast approaching, the whole of Georgetown is becoming Festival City. The shops are bursting with imported Chinese decorations, trees, gifts, garlands and ingredients for Guyanese Christmas favourites like pepperpot, garlic pork and black cake. But amid the excitement, I feel a sense of dread. Imagining the desperation of people spending beyond their means. The pressures of meeting impossible standards. The Boxing Day anxiety of paying January bills.
Be careful, warns a friend, robberies are more common at this time of year. People are being forced to take desperate measures, says another. Facebook followers debate the new budget, wondering what impact it will have, how tight their purse strings will have to become. While visiting the Red Cross office the other day, a woman came in asking if they had any Christmas gifts she could give her children. The next day, two children turn up at my gate, “Auntie, can we have two mangos?”, gesturing to the fruitful tree in my yard. A man carrying a beer crate peers beside the rubbish bin looking for empties, and is happy when I offload some Banks bottles that have been gathering dust.
Money struggles are not limited to Christmas. But the twinkling fairy lights seem to illuminate dark corners and make certain issues harder to ignore.
In the UK, it’s even bleaker because of the biting winter weather and reduced daylight hours. When I used to work at The Pavement, a magazine for homeless people, this was the time of year when we would share information about Emergency Cold Weather Shelters, which open when the temperature drops below zero for three nights in a row. We’d warn readers about the dangers of sleeping in bins, and tell them about charities putting on Christmas lunches and parties for homeless service users.
The thought of people freezing on the streets terrified the public and charities into action.
In Guyana, there’s no sudden cold snap. Just the first showers of the new rainy season. But people still feel that festive pull to help someone in need. This week, countless Christmas lunches and parties have been held, presents distributed, money raised. It’s heartwarming but it’s not enough. And it will never be enough until we act ethically and with compassion in every aspect of our lives, 365 days of the year – from how much we pay our staff, to how much we extract from the earth. Until no one has to go without those fundamental basics: shelter, food, water, education and good sanitation. Until we put charities out of work, because people can afford to buy presents for their own children, cook their own Christmas lunch and hold their own party. We can’t just pat ourselves on the back and ignore the issue for another year.
In 2013, British MP Helen Goodman challenged herself to live on the minimum wage – as many of her constituents do. It wasn’t easy. “I had a headache for five days … and I was completely lethargic and exhausted by 4pm,” she wrote afterwards in the New Statesman. It didn’t change the system but it meant that someone in government really understood what people at the bottom of the heap are dealing with and could potentially advocate on their behalf. Could we do the same in Guyana? Challenge private-sector CEOs, MPs, even the president, to live on £44,200. Or at least have someone who is on the minimum wage record their experiences and the daily struggles they go through.
The gap is getting wider. We need to mind it.