The Ministry of Labour’s acknowledgment of a labour shortage has finally brought out into the open a stark reality with which a productive Trinidad and Tobago must contend.
While low unemployment is the aspiration of countries around the world, the related statistics often mask deeper problems related to lack of planning.
Given Trinidad and Tobago’s massive investment in education, jobs at the low-pay, low-skill end of the market were bound to feel the impact of a workforce with greater ambitions for upward mobility. When one adds to this the impact of CEPEP and other earning opportunities at the lower end of the job market, it is no surprise that labour intensive jobs in the fast food, security and manufacturing sectors cannot attract enough eager applicants. The agricultural sector has also been reeling under the impact of a policy regime that, over time, has led to a massive drift away from agriculture towards the less arduous make-work programmes sponsored by the State.
What is clear is that successive administrations have not implemented a labour policy that is fully aligned to the country’s national development objectives. This is not to suggest that governments have not addressed the need for a labour policy they have. Invariably, however, such policies have fallen victim to global economic shocks and other developments, especially in oil and gas, that have negated the orderly implementation of policy. Political expediency has also had a hand in derailing policy.
In acknowledging the labour shortage, the Ministry of Labour clearly recognises the problem and, therefore, the need for solutions. A labour shortage presents a challenge of multiple dimensions, including education, investment, physical planning and immigration.
One visible impact of the current labour shortage is the presence of Caricom citizens who are employed in a range of jobs in T&T. During the recent tit-for-tat between T&T and Jamaica over the deportation of Jamaican citizens, a great deal of negative comment, much of it uninformed, was exchanged, including at very senior levels in both countries. This is where clarity of policy could make a significant difference. Instead of playing on our fears, a clear statement that demonstrates how Trinidad and Tobago’s best interest could be served by encouraging certain categories of Caricom nationals could lead to a more harmonious, less xenophobic public discourse.
Firms affiliated to the Trinidad and Tobago Manufacturing Association, which are hurt by labour shortages, are sure to support the lobbying of Caricom to allow freer and faster movement of workers under the terms of the CSME. It seems to make common sense that, within the single market and economy, surplus labour should fill vacancies in a T&T where full employment and underemployment apply, to painful effect of industrial and other production.
Development planning, which has been too often cast aside, must find a place of pride on the national agenda. Our future well-being depends on it.