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Solving the labour puzzle

Days after residents stopped traffic with flaming barricades on the Beetham highway to press their demand for jobs, Finance Minister Larry Howai has cited evidence that the supply of jobs far outstrips demand. In doing so, the minister reinforced complaints regularly heard from manufacturers and operators of food outlets who have complained, for years, about "labour market'' troubles in finding and keeping workers in positions paying better than minimum wage rates.

Clearly there is an imbalance in the system somewhere if people could be protesting about a shortage of jobs while employers complain about a shortage of labour.

In deciphering the source of this labour conundrum, the Government may have to look no further than its policies. This condition is, after all, not unique. Several sectors, most notably agriculture, have been languishing for lack of labour even as successive administrations tackle the problem of creating jobs for the unemployed.

Unfortunately, none has been able to devise a productive solution for aligning supply and demand in the labour market, trapped as they remain in the quick-fix culture of unproductive make-work programmes.

While there is no guarantee that better understanding of the situation will create any greater room for change, it is still worth quantifying the relative value of such programmes as the Community-Based Environmental Protection and Enhancement Programme (CEPEP) when compared to those in the sectors that claim to be starved for labour.

For example, while CEPEP employees may work shorter hours for less money, they may not have such opportunity costs as transport, clothes, meals and other incidentals that come with taking a full-time eight-hour job. Unlike the full-time worker, the CEPEP employee on a four-hour work day also has the time to devote to other sources of income. Added to this, they do not have to work a shift system which is a major disincentive, especially for women with children, and people living in crime-prone areas.

We need empirical clarity on this job market issue if we are to avoid falling into the trap of blaming the victims and dismissing them as people who simply do not wish to work. Data-led research is indispensable in designing government policies and programmes in ways that will not exacerbate the situation and create more problems than they can solve.

Unfortunately, despite promises of new politics and economic transformation, our governments have proven to be addicted to the quick-fix. This is an attitude which can last only as long as the Treasury remains flush enough with money to pacify social discontent.

Before we get to a day of reckoning, responsible government is required to act by bringing social and market intelligence to the challenge of redressing this imbalance of supply and demand in the labour market.

More than any other agency or institution, the government has the resources to get this done by pooling expertise from the ministries of Planning, Labour and Finance, topped off with a healthy dose of political will.

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