IN a country officially classed as enjoying near full employment, the demand for jobs in east Port of Spain, backed by fiery protests, always reflected an element of improbability and even mystery. Protests exploded again last week when the Government provided, through its hastily-organised "People and Projects for Progress" scheme, Unemployment Relief Programme (URP) jobs on URP terms and conditions.
Understandably, this turn of events strikes business people as odd, since their own experience has been of a labour shortage with ill-effects on their operations as vacancies abound in the private sector, many for jobs paying rates even higher than the URP.
"If I could find 200 people to work for me today, I'll hire them," a restaurant chain owner told the Business Express.
While the supply of labour continues to fall short of the demand, business people charge, with good reason, that "make-work" plans such as the one newly provided in east Port of Spain are "corroding the work ethic", in that they demand little effort over short hours for assured pay.
While that system keeps some people politically beholden to the Government, it operates, on a national basis, as a disservice to the economy.
It has basically destroyed agriculture, both in Trinidad and Tobago, along with the ethos of "an honest day's pay for an honest day's work".
"I think a Government job is easier rather than more sustainable because I don't think the Government puts as much emphasis on productivity," Dominic Hadeed, president of the Trinidad and Tobago Manufacturers Association, told the Business Express.
Gregory Aboud of the Downtown Owners and Merchants Association said: "We are damaging an entire generation or even two by giving them the idea that this is sustainable… When programmes like these persist and repeat in each political cycle it will create a sense of entitlement that will forever damage those who can and should be looking for work in a system where they are rewarded for productivity."
And despite these dire warnings, successive governments insist on sustaining them. But, hopefully, there is some light at the end of the tunnel which may not be an oncoming train but rather a genuine effort to revitalise the near comatose agricultural sector.
In collaboration with the Ministry of Food Production, the URP is calling on already-registered workers who are interested in farming to sign up for an agricultural initiative.
"I am of the view that the URP has to be restructured towards agriculture and I sent a proposal to the Prime Minister three months ago and I'm awaiting feedback," said Food Production Minister Devant Maharaj.
We trust that PM Kamla Persad-Bissessar has studied this proposal and is all set to approve it, with the first plan being to revive the cocoa and citrus fields which could help the country earn some foreign exchange.
While the effort in east Port of Spain has been placed on the front burner, with Minister of National Security Jack Warner literally leading the troops into the area, the investment in agriculture would be of much more benefit to all involved and T&T as a whole.
It should be given top priority.