State-funded ad hoc work programmes are an important part of supporting the unemployed and those on the lowest income rung of the economic ladder. They cushion people through hard times, help develop skills and make productive use of human energy that might otherwise be turned against society. But they are viable only if their participants graduate out of such programmes and into self-sustaining employment.
This country’s track record in make-work programmes, from Special Works in the 1960s to today’s CEPEP programmes, has been dismal. Instead of being a platform to launch people into the orbit of financial independence, they have made people increasingly dependent on the State. It is for this reason that we share the concern expressed by Catherine Kumar, chief executive of the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Commerce, about CEPEP’s impact on the labour supply.
Ms Kumar is not the first person to point out the deleterious effect of CEPEP on the economy. People in agriculture, especially in rural communities, were among the first to raise their voices about losing labour to CEPEP. What this suggests is that not enough thought had gone into an impact analysis of the programme. For people at the minimum-wage end of the employment spectrum, CEPEP offers the softer work option with its half-day structure. They can make a few dollars off the State and spend the rest of the day on other matters.
While we are willing to give our governments the benefit of the doubt and accept that none has knowingly created a shortage of labour in productive sectors of the economy or kept people in a state of dependence, each must contend with this reality. The government therefore needs to move swiftly to review CEPEP with a view to adjusting it to ensure greater productivity from the State’s investment in it. CEPEP cannot be allowed to exist as a disincentive to production or sustainable employment.
We need to remind ourselves of why such programmes exist and evaluate their performance against the objectives. If we keep throwing money at the problem of unemployment without prioritising the creation of sustainable jobs, we will eventually find ourselves in the nightmare scenario of large-scale dependency on the State without the windfall incomes to sustain it.
None of us should be in any doubt about the fact that the very extensive social safety net that is available to our citizens is underwritten by revenue from oil and gas taxes. Given the finite nature of these resources, we would be living in a fool’s paradise if we allowed ourselves to believe that the high levels of expenditure on make-work programmes and social services is sustainable into the future. Nobody with a concern for the future of the country and future generations can allow this to continue.
When he delivers the budget on Monday, Finance Minister Larry Howai will have the chance to demonstrate that he understands the imperative of guiding this country onto a more sustainable path. We can only hope he has the courage to not surrender to the temptations of an election year.