Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Arrest ‘bun-wuk’ before it spreads

 “Bun-wuk” or “Fiyah-d-wuk” are two names for a troubling phenomenon that has recently emerged in certain Caricom  countries. Unless it is nipped in the bud by practical measures to address the growing difficulties associated with youth, it is bound to spread like wildfire with troubling consequences throughout the region, given the predilection for copy-cat behaviour particularly among young people.

The term “bun-wuk” was explained to me recently by Dr Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines. His country was about to get its first taste of it. “Bun-wuk” translates into “burn work” and it is an event, created by young people, to stop work at 1 p.m. on Fridays and to revel thereafter throughout the week-end. Subsequently, I learned that the happening had already reached the shores of Barbados under the rubric “Fiyah-d-wuk”—literally “fire work”. 

As if the timing of 1 p.m. on Fridays, when the period for productive work is not yet over, is not bad enough, the promoters of “bun-wuk” on St Vincent were scheduling their event for 1 p.m. on Wednesday. Should that occur, it would clearly result in many of the employed participants being unfit for work on the following Thursday after an afternoon and evening of partying. Dr Gonsalves was rightly troubled at the cost to his country’s already besieged economy. His concern should be shared by all leaders of Caricom countries to which this infection will undoubtedly spread and whose economies can ill-afford the wastage that will ensue.

The question with which every Caribbean society has to be anxious is: what motivates this phenomenon, particularly when it occurs among youth who are not only unemployed but also those that are employed? I do not pretend to know the answer. In that regard, the call on July 1 by the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, for Caricom to establish a Commission on Youth Unemployment is both welcome and timely, particularly if such a commission can provide answers and solutions. 

In making the call in his inaugural statement as Prime Minister and as Chair of the Heads of Government Conference, Browne said: “we have a population—mostly young people below the age of 30—that want to see change; to widen the scope of opportunity and to broaden the space for their aspirations. In many of our countries, unemployment is high— and highest among our young people; bright able-bodied men and women.

Just as the young people of my country are eager to end the old ways; to tear down the barriers to their growth; and to march forward, so I suspect are the youth of most of our countries. If nothing else, their restlessness should make us realise that the sensible option for creating such space and widening such scope resides in our interdependence on each other. The alternative is their frustration. That frustration will result in their rebellion within our borders or their exodus to shores outside our region taking their talents that we urgently need”.

At the time of writing, the conference is not yet over, but it is to be hoped that all heads of government responded positively to Prime Minister Browne’s proposal and agreed to the establishment of the Commission on Youth.  Funding the work of such a commission will add to the burden of already cash-strapped governments—a problem to which the Prime Minister alluded. Nonetheless, he has identified a major dilemma for all Caribbean countries—one that is amplified by the “bun-wuk” phenomenon in which even employed youth opt not to work.    

Delaying action on it might prove to be very costly to the fabric of all Caribbean societies. In this connection, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank should be encouraged to provide grants and technical assistance to facilitate the Commission’s work, which, once done should be made public with action taken by governments and others, including trade unions and the private sector.

The phenomenon of “bun wuk” with all the indiscipline and disregard it entails should also form part of the commission’s work on how the region addresses the problems associated with youth. No Caricom country can bear the decline in productivity that the phenomenon presents any more than it can allow unemployment of its young people to persist. “Bun wuk” must be arrested but the space and scope for youth employment must also be created in the region as a whole.