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Culture Clash: Super Value President on Staff’s Sexual Behavior

Last week, Super Value President Rupert Roberts said the company will no longer cover maternity costs. The company practices a form of self-insurance, setting money aside to cover medical costs rather than engaging an insurance company which could cost more money. It has decided to discontinue maternity coverage in order to have more money available for catastrophic illness and life-saving treatment. Roberts claimed this decision came as a result of the increase in pregnancy over the past 24 months. He added that covering the expenses is “no problem,” but the company wants to keep its reserve big. He then said he hoped this change in policy would impact employees’ sexual behavior, noting that some had been caught having sex at work. He suggested that young women — whom he referred to as “girls” — specifically want to work at Super Value to benefit from the maternity coverage. This is a preposterous assertion as maternity coverage does not come close to the cost of having a child, but if it is a strategy for reducing the initial cost, some might call it family planning.

The public debate sparked by Roberts’ comments zeroed in on a number of concerns, but there are others that did not get the same attention. His comments leave quite a bit to be unpacked.

Compensation is not a gift

Far too much of the conversation about Super Value discontinuing coverage of maternity expenses frames it as a gift or a kindness. Health care is essential and, aside from public health services, insurance is that only way it is possible for many people. Health insurance is also expensive, especially for women. When asked why health insurance for women costs more, insurance agents say it is because women give birth. It is assumed that women will, at some point, become pregnant and give birth. Not only is that assumption made, but it is built into health insurance plans to ensure those expenses can be covered, at least in part. This is considered essential, from prenatal to postnatal.

Most of us do not work for fun. Some of us are fortunate and innovate enough to enjoy what we do for a living, but compensation is a part of the deal. Employers offer compensation packages. These packages can include money, vacation time, flexible schedule, incentives, a company vehicle, and yes, you have probably guessed it — health insurance. Employers are not always able to offer a salary that adequately compensates for employee output, so there are other components in the package. In some cases, employees can even take study leave, bring their children to work, or access special offers and discounts. Most employers, however, include health insurance in their compensation packages. Sometimes employees contribute to the group plan, and sometimes the employer covers the cost. This is not extraordinary, and it is not an act of benevolence. It is earned. Super Value has not been doing its employees a favor; health coverage is a part of the package because the salaries alone are not sufficient compensation.

Right to have sex as adults

It has been said that sex is a national past time, right up there with drinking alcohol. This is not exclusive to Bahamians. It is not a special fact about young people. It is not limited to a particular gender. People have sex because it feels good. Consenting adults have the right to enjoy sexual activity. At times, people choose to have sex in inappropriate places for a range of reasons, from not having access to a private space to looking for an extra thrill. It happens.

It is understandable for an employer to be upset about employees having sex on property. It is, however, ridiculous for an employer to bring that issue to the public. If it is true that employees are having sex — and we must keep in mind that this is hearsay — there are better, more effective ways to deal with it. There should be a conversation with the staff which may be accompanied by new policies and consequences. These policies and consequences, however, do not need to include public lambasting and shaming or the loss of compensation owed to all employees.

Again, it is important to note that we do not know that what Roberts said is true. If it is, he has a strange way of dealing with the issue. I find it difficult to believe the offense would be repeated to the extend he suggested if it had been appropriately addressed internally. Even if employees have been behaving this way, it is unacceptable to punish them or try to change their behavior by altering their compensation packages and publicly sharing the details of the situation. It is also paternalistic of him to suggest that the loss of maternity coverage might stop them from having sex. People have sex. It does not mean they want to have children, or want to benefit from “free” maternity health care. It means they want to have sex. All Roberts needs to concern himself with is ensuring sexual activity does not happen at work.

Creating an unsafe work environment

It is clear from the conversations about these comments that Roberts has created an unsafe environment for the women working at Super Value. In particular, cashiers are very visible as they are on the frontline and have the most interaction with customers. Men have shared their plans to go and “get a Super Value woman.” In a misogynistic society where sexual education is lacking, rape culture is seen as normal, and sexual harassment is a common occurrence, it is irresponsible to publicly share a narrative about the women working in the stores. At the very least, Super Value needs to make a public apology to its employees — specifically the women — as well as reverse its change to the compensation package and increase security at its stores for the protection of the women it has made particularly vulnerable.

Sexual education opportunity

It is no secret that sexual education is either nonexistent or woefully lacking in most schools. This has always been the case, so there are thousands of adults who do not have critical information. Now is a good time to do some research, visit a medical professional, or get other resources to learn about sexual and reproductive health and rights. It is an excellent time for Super Value to bring in professionals to talk to staff, conduct HIV testing, give information on STD testing, and offer male and female condoms. With its large reserve and the amount of money it stands to save since it has cut maternity coverage, the company can certainly afford to pay nonprofit organizations for a few hours of work. Make it a community event. Invite the general public to visit booths, get free condoms, learn the correct way to store, open, and put on condoms, and engage with sex educators. The company made a big mistake, but should not ignore the opportunity that now exists. There is a lesson for everyone to learn.

Published in The Tribune on July 25, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Minnis’ Cabinet Shuffle

No matter how low we set our expectations, there seems to be surprise, embarrassment, and frustration at every turn. There has not been much to celebrate in recent weeks, the increase in Value Added Tax bringing a muddy tinge to our reality. It puts everything in a different perspective. We do not think about anything without considering the twelve percent VAT added onto it, or the twelve percent VAT that should cover it. This is about more than grocery. It is about management of funds, yes, but also about government operations and the way resources — especially human resources — are used.

We are more watchful, critical, and vocal when it feels like the money is coming directly out of our pockets, and it is. From the decision not to appoint new parliamentary secretaries with a reason — that the positions are unnecessary — pointing to a waste of $90,000 to reneging on the commitment to host the IAAF World Relays and, at the same time, claiming the Bahamian people “accepted” the VAT increase, the Prime Minister is obviously determined to do as he likes whenever he likes and create false narratives while refusing to acknowledge criticism.

Cabinet shuffle on our dime

The cabinet shuffle came at an unexpected time. This administration has not even been in for eighteen months and we have already ministers and permanent secretaries moved from one ministry to another. How is this beneficial to the Bahamian people? Is is cost-effective? Does it increase productivity? Is it a morale boost? There is no reason anyone can find to support this move.

When asked to explain the reason for the shuffle, Minnis said, “It gives individuals exposure and experience in all the different ministries. That’s why I don’t have any ministry. I have no ministry so I can look at all and learn about all.”

This raises even more questions. Why is the Government of The Bahamas in the business of offering work-study placements? We all know cabinet appointments are rewards to the faithful and the spineless. Prime Ministers treat those who have supported and spoken no ill of them with favor in the form of an additional salary. They would have us believe it is too much to ask for some consideration to the qualifications and experience suitable for each post.

It is clear that the intention is not to put people where they will perform best, or give ministries the benefit of experienced ministers. Minnis said, “Individuals are moved and they become knowledgeable in certain things. There is no so-called pre-training before you engage in a post. You learn and you become very good.”

Well, thank goodness for that. As long as the Ministers are benefitting from these educational experiences, right?

Of course most appointments depend on the limited range of education, skills, and experience of members of parliament elected, but due consideration to the optimal mix should be a part of the nomination process. There is no excuse for using government ministries — responsible for areas critical to our economic, social, and physical wellbeing such as health, education, youth, sports, culture, and tourism — as training grounds for people paid tens of thousands of dollars from the public purse. This is an insult and an outrage.

Minnis: Looking and learning or primary duties only?

As for the statement that Minnis has no ministry so that he can “look at all and learn about all,” similar concerns arise. Minnis is not the Prime Minister so he can get paid work experience in numerous fields. It is doubly troubling when we bring to mind his 2017 explanation for having no ministerial portfolio which is quite the opposite of this new line of reasoning.

“I made this decision in order to perform my primary constitutional duty as prime minister. This primary constitutional duty is the coordination and oversight of the Cabinet of the Bahamas,” Minnis said.

There is a difference between looking at and learning about all ministries and performing the primary duty of the Prime Minister. He should be able to entrust ministers with the task of overseeing their ministries and the departments therein and communicate regularly with the permanent secretaries, department heads, and cabinet. There is no reason for the Prime Minister to be intimately involved in every ministry, and no explanation for the waste of resources in reassignments and loss of productivity due to unnecessary, often disruptive changes.

Minnis said it himself. “You go in, you read, you understand, and many instances you become better than who was there, sometimes you’re not.”

A more believable version

Maybe we choose to buy the “exposure” story because it is easier to accept that the Prime Minister really thinks governance is a game of musical chairs, or appointments are collectible items and his people need to get as many as possible. What if there is another version of the story? Recall the appointment of Lanisha Rolle as Minister of Social Services and Community Development. People were not happy about it; least of all the people who celebrated the upgrade of The Bureau of Women’s Affairs to the Department of Gender and Family Affairs in 2016. The establishment of the Department felt like a step into the twenty-first century, but Rolle’s appointment was disappointing at best, terrifying at worst. She had already made it clear that she did not stand with the women’s rights advocates in The Bahamas.

It was, as expected, a disaster. The RISE (conditional cash transfer) program was discontinued in less than two months, never to be discussed again. Little, if any, information was provided to the press on this or any other issue. Regular meetings with women’s organizations suddenly stopped. It became more difficult members of civil society to get information. The then Minister of Social Services and Community Development outright refused to meet with many stakeholders. It seemed every single thing needed her approval, and this resulted in very little being done, and last minute announcements of events like National Women’s Week and International Women’s Day.

We learned from observation that her brand of empowerment, for women and those living in poverty, was the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps variety. There have been reports of her blatant disrespect of others and intentionally impeding progress on new and existing projects. She was certainly ill-suited to this ministerial portfolio, and it took far too long for her to be moved. Now, the question. Was this the real reason for the cabinet shuffle? Did Minnis finally get the memo — that Rolle needed to be moved from the Ministry — and choose other people to move at the same time in hopes that it would be less obvious?

If this is not the case, it is quite strange that the Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Culture lost Michael Pintard. It is odd that only four ministers are being shuffled. The others must be just as deserving of the “exposure” Minnis is giving out at our expense.

There is more than enough happening — and not happening — to upset us. One of the most frustrating is certainly the lack of honesty and integrity that would prompt leaders and representatives to plainly state the reasons for their action. Lay out the logic behind decisions. It is not good enough to give a quick response to move on to the next question or end the engagement. Bahamian citizens must demand to be treated with respect. After all, we are the employers. We pay twelve percent VAT. That has to count for something.

Published in The Tribune on July 11, 2018.

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Culture Clash: The Lessons We Can Learn from the Budget

The world of partisan politics is never dull. The Budget Communication certainly makes for a lively few weeks, full of debate, pontification, and a range of emotions. It is probably the time we are most attentive to the government and political maneuverings aside from election season. It gives insight into the real agenda of administrations and reveals values like nothing else. In their contributions, our representatives show us, in practice, what is important to them. They speak to specific parts of the budget as we listen for signs that they are just another cog in the wheel, or thinking representative giving due consideration to the everyday realities of our lives before taking a position.

More information please

The 2018-2019 budget could keep us talking for days on end. The controversy and confusion that arise from the budget debate often lead to conversations, arguments, research, and critical thinking, increasing our knowledge and understanding of governance and government. Other events — like the vote of no confidence by the rebel seven in 2016 — become practical teaching tools and open our eyes to what was previously unknown. Many of us only recently learned that the official Leader of the Opposition in Parliament is not necessarily the opposition party leader. We are learning as we go.

How is that working for us?

Sure, there is always more to learn. Yes, it is great that we are able to start and sustain conversations in the aftermath of political events that lead to an expansion of individual and national knowledge, but are we figuring it all out too late, and too piecemeal?

We are in desperate need of a national civics lesson. Yes, some schools have civics class, but not all of them. It should be a requirement at every school in The Bahamas. If we can give five-year-olds projects on the governor generals of The Bahamas, we can offer civic education to school-age children. There should be educational programming on television and radio, supplements in newspapers, open online courses, and resources in public libraries. If political parties and candidates can go door-to-door with their paraphernalia, they can make information about the Westminster system, political history, and governance easily accessible to every Bahamian resident.

Voting against party position

Over the past few days, we have been talking about the four FNM Members of Parliament who voted no on the bill to increase Value Added Tax to twelve percent. Golden Isles MP Vaughn Miller, Pineridge MP Frederick McAlpine, Bain and Grants Town MP Travis Robinson and Centreville MP Reece Chipman did not support the VAT increase, and seven other FNM Members of Parliament did not show up to vote. This came after Attorney General Carl Bethel said “the whip is on” and suggested to anyone voting no, “you may as well tender your resignation at the same time that you vote with the opposition.”

Many people of varied political allegiances expressed disdain, shock, and disappointment at the Prime Ministers actions yesterday. Robinson and Miller were terminated from their parliamentary secretary positions at Ministry of Tourism and Aviation and Ministry of Social Services respectively, and McAlpine was terminated from his position as chairman of the Hotel Corporation. Their termination letters referred to Part III, Section 21 of the Manual of Cabinet and Ministry Procedure.

Following their budget contributions, it was made clear to these Members of Parliament that they had a decision to make. They could support the budget in its entirety, including relevant bills, and keep their appointments or they could represent their constituents by not supporting every aspect of the budget and be terminated. They chose to stand for the people, knowing the consequences stipulated by the Westminster system.

The Minnis mistake

Minnis is obviously trying to look strong. He is opposed to compromise. He is not interested in engaging the press, or communicating with the Bahamian people. He wants to eat lunch. He disappears and goes quiet, pushing other people to the fore. Maybe he thinks we will not see him as the bad guy. Maybe he thinks if he is not the one to deliver the bad news, we will not know where it came from. One thing is certain — he does not take kindly to being opposed, questioned, or criticized. That is too bad, especially since opposition, questions, and criticism could be instructive, especially for someone so clearly out of touch.

Minnis does not seem to understand the implications of the budget. He has not grasped the fact that the Bahamian people are not interested in any of the spins being offered. We are especially not going to accept the idea that we have to suffer now to benefit later.

Minnis said, ”My budget is not necessarily about VAT. My budget is more about a better tomorrow for the young people of this country, the future.”

In two sentences, he took ownership of the budget, demonstrated his lack of awareness of the general understanding of the budget and the most dominant component, and suggested that there is a focus on youth and the future. There is too much in that statement to refute here and now, but young people are not buying it; especially not after Robinson’s termination yesterday.

The Robinson effect

Many people are confused by what has taken place. Some are likening Minnis to dictators and fascists. There have been numerous questions about the validity of this move, whether or not it was necessary, and possible loopholes. More than anyone else, Travis Robinson has the attention of the Bahamian people — especially young people. For many, his termination feels like a punch to the gut. We have to remember, however, that he remains the representative for Bain and Grants Towns, that was what he wanted at the beginning, and his current situation is the outcome of fulfilling his duty to the people of that constituency. He has done what many others have failed to do. He consulted with his constituents and spoke on their behalf, even when it was to his own detriment. He has proven that a young person who is new to politics and has been courted by a major political party can truly represent the people.

What will this do for Bahamian politics? Maybe we will see a wave of more inspired leaders and leadership emerge. There could be new boldness. Perhaps we can expect present and future Members of Parliament to give careful consideration to everything put before them, consult with constituents, and truly work for them rather than the party. We may get representatives who care more about our communities than their own titles and salaries. Didn’t this seem unrealistic a short time ago?

Whether or not we see change, incremental or substantial, in the practice of politics depends on more than one person. Travis Robinson, at the very least, took a risk. What about us? What is our response going to be? Beyond the initial social media posts and paraphrasing of what others have said, what are we going to do?

At this point, our action is just as important as his. If we want to see more representatives truly representing us, we have to show it with our support. That means resisting the urge to make jokes about his lost income, and going beyond the lazy explain-it-away method of posting a screenshot of the relevant Westminster rule or section of the cabinet manual. Okay, the system brought us here. What now? What of that system? Is it serving us?

We talk about democracy in very general terms, and most of us have done very little to learn more about it. We go through the motions of a specific part of democracy. We vote every five years, and spend all the time in between making threats about what we will do with our one vote when the time comes again. Democracy is and must be more than that. We have to be able to talk about what it has and has not been for us, and co-create a better functioning democracy that goes beyond a vote. We can have our say on any day at any time, if only we learn to tap into the power of the collective. When we do, as Progressive Liberal Party Deputy Leader Chester Cooper put it, “The day of reckoning is going to come. And that is the beauty of democracy.”

Published in The Tribune on June 20, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Marriage Isn’t a Good Idea for Women in The Bahamas

It is rare for a news items to bring concerned pause. Our positions are usually clear; we care or we don’t care, and then we choose a side. On issues of social or political concern, we generally have an opinion on what is and is not right. Something was different about the way we saw and responded to last week’s news story on the Bahamas Christian Council’s proposed Sanctity of Marriage bill. I saw scores of people share the article, but none of them added a caption. Some of them used emoticons, but no one made a clear statement about the Bahamas Christian Council’s drafting and submission of a Sanctity of Marriage bill.

The draft is meant to serve three purposes. It is to provide for the reinforcement of the sanctity of marriage, a marital duty of care, and strengthen the institution of marriage by ensuring “informed participation.” It also focuses on tax reduction for married people to enhance the value and serve as incentive for the maintenance of marriage.

It seems the Bahamas Christian Council and the loud voices we have come to know as “the church” are obsessed with marriage. They simultaneously promote it as a necessity for everyone and an exclusive good reserved for its community. We are clear on the church’s position on who should and should not have access to marriage. It was amplified by the 2016 referendum and its statements on the fourth proposed constitutional amendment bill which sought to add “sex” to the prohibited grounds of discrimination. Its opposition was rooted in homophobia which was framed as a “protection” of marriage, as though the legalization of same-sex marriage would be the destruction of marriage.

For the sake of brevity and simplicity, I will say only that the fourth bill was not about same-sex marriage, its passage would not have automatically led to the legalization of same-sex marriage, and this issue is far for the top of the list of concerns of the LGBT+ community.

It was made clear that the church believes — or wishes to make the public believe — it has a monopoly on marriage, and it is only a religious institution. This is not the case. It falls to citizens to remind the state of this fact, and respond strongly to the church’s attempts to control public goods and services and the private lives of citizens on the basis of its doctrine which we are free, constitutionally, to recognize or not.

The Sanctity of Marriage Bill as drafted by the Bahamas Christian Council raises many questions. There is very little we can point to and identify as right or wrong, but none of it is necessary, and most of it seems to be linked to a larger plan we cannot see. The group of religious leaders has submitted its own recommendations for amendments to the Sexual Offenses Act. Has the admission that rape is rape, regardless of the relationship between people, led the Bahamas Christian Council to worry about the state of marriage? Is the Sanctity of Marriage draft bill a strategy to influence engaged and married couples on issues including sexual assault? How does it intend to lead the proposed Marriage and Family Advisory Council in educating the public on marriage, and what do they know that we have yet to learn? If this is another strategy to control the legal contract of marriage, it is beyond time for us to pay attention.

The marital rape conversation has not been much different than the one about the referendum. Religious leaders came forward to quickly and loudly express their displeasure at the very existence of the conversation. Victim-blaming has been normalized in many ways and, sadly, it is what we have come to expect from many men of the cloth.

Why would a woman choose not to have sex with her husband? What’s a man to do?

These religious leaders reframe the conversation, taking our attention away from abuse and power. They distract us with the concept of submission as the primary duty and characteristic of a good, Christian wife. They erase married women who do not identify as Christian, some of whom did not even marry in the church. A broad brush is used, and the attitude seems to be if we choose to marry, we commit ourselves to the standards and obligations meted out by the church. Is this what the Sanctity of Marriage draft bill would enforce?

Marriage, in The Bahamas, does not seem to be a good idea for women. Sure, it can bring financial security, confidence in commitments made, and a reduction in judgment, especially for couples choosing to live together and have children. Unfortunately, it can result in a loss of physical security and legal protection. It is a challenge to get police to respond to domestic disturbances. I know because I have made the calls and driven to police stations to make reports. I’ve heard, “Them two again?” I’ve been told, “Miss, we don’t have time for that.” It is, as we have seen in recent weeks, difficult to convince people that married women are still human beings and have human rights. Why should women get married? Perhaps the Sanctity of Marriage draft is the Bahamas Christian Council’s way of preempting the inevitable — the refusal of Bahamian women to get married, giving in to the the societal and religious norms that continue to be reinforced by the law of the land. Maybe it sees the need to incentivize marriage while locking us in additional obligations through its guide.

I had the unfortunate experience of listening to men talk about marital rape in a barber shop a few days ago. I chose not to argue, but to listen to everything they said, and observe the responses of other people in the room. Someone in the room, well aware of my work, expressed surprise at my silence. I continued to hold it. They talked about how ridiculous it would be to make marital rape illegal. They shared strategies for “taking it” from their wives. These ranged from waiting for her to sleep to slipping something into her favorite drink. They argued about whether or not it would be fun without her participation. They laughed about how confused she would be when she woke up aching, or realized he hadn’t “asked for some” in a while.

These men commented on the views of the religious leaders who have been outspoken about the issue, and talked openly about raping their wives, completely without fear or the slightest reservation. It didn’t matter that there were people in the room whose positions they could not know. It didn’t matter that there was a woman in the room. It wasn’t until a religious leader entered that they ceased to share their marital rape strategies. Before, all that mattered was their hypermasculinity and the need to express it and assure one another that they would get what they wanted, whatever the cost. After all, raping their wives is not illegal, and some of the most revered and respect men in the country are fighting to keep it that way. Just not the one who last entered, and his position was respected.

This is the danger of the reckless influencer. They have the power and the platform to present, repeat, and sometimes enforce their points of view, frequently without challenge. I sometimes think about the churches full of women who practically empty their purses into collection plates, but led by men who do not regard women — especially married women — as human beings. How do women sit in those churches, listen to those sermons, fund those activities, and not think about the ways they and so many others are affected by the dangerous rhetoric spewed week after week in what they perceive to be a holy place? I have to remind myself that they have been conditioned for years to believe that they are less than men, and that religious leaders are a trustworthy authority. I saw for myself that religious power silences, scares, and controls people of all genders. It’s up to us to prevent it from disempowering us — not as citizens, nor as a nation.

Published by The Tribune on March 14, 2018. Picked up by AFROPUNK on Facebook.