IN ANY ECONOMY, labour, or the increase in labour, whether through a growth in number or hours worked, is one of the main contributing factors to growth.
But, with TT’s population standing at an average of 1.3 million and the unemployment rate at 5.4 per cent, there have been deficits in labour markets in TT which our own numbers have not been able to fill.
Even with the labour deficits, the recent influx of Venezuelans has brought to the fore concerns of the possible burden which immigrants may have on the country and the economy. However, several people, including financial gurus and economists have spoken on the possibilities of what these new settlers could bring as they come to TT to work and build a new life.
While many locals worry about the possibility that these immigrants may serve as a weight on the nation, taking jobs and draining much needed resources for their welfare, several people, including TTMA CEO Ramesh Ramdeen, have taken the position that, if managed properly, the new flood of Venezuelans and immigrants on the whole could serve to fill several gaps in TT’s labour market.
“If you are asking if the influx of immigrants could be a possible solution to the labour issues, the answer is yes,” Ramdeen said in a recent interview with Business Day, at the TTMA's office in Barataria.
Ramdeen said the influx of immigrants, which has added greatly to the unemployment rate of 5.9 people per 1,000, could be a blessing in disguise, as each party would be able to meet the other’s needs.
He pointed out that with the unemployment rate as low as it is (which could even be considered full employment) and TT’s population being so small, there would be no growth if TT citizens were to take on all labour issues themselves. Immigrants would serve to assist in growing the economy in TT, as they have all over the world.
“If you put all the gas stations, the fast food outlets and all these other operations together, you would see these people working there are non-nationals.
"That is not necessarily a bad thing. TT is too small of a country with too small a population to grow where we need to be self sufficient,” Ramdeen said. “There is no country which has grown their GDP significantly and become sustainable and moved from developing to emerging with 1.2 million people.”
Ramdeen used Singapore, which is a third of TT's size, as an example. Despite being so small, Singapore has a population of 5.612 million, and about 40 per cent of the population are immigrants.
The same could be said of Dubai, where 20 per cent of its 3.317 million people are immigrants, Canada, where 21.9 per cent of its 37.06 million people are immigrants, and of the US, which has a larger immigrant population than any other country, with 47 million, about 19.1 per cent of the world's immigrants and 14 per cent of the country’s population.
“The people who grow and build Dubai, literally, are immigrants. The people who build Singapore are immigrants. The people who grew and built the US were and still are immigrants. The people who are building Canada right now are immigrants. Canada (still) wants a million people a year.
"So people who look at this immigration situation as a bad thing – it is not.”
Ramdeen said if the number of immigrants coming into TT could be filtered into areas where they are needed, it would only serve to benefit both parties. These immigrants, regardless of their number and original countries, could then filter into areas of the labour market that TT citizens shy away from.
“A lot of people are not prepared to work for minimum wage and just above it. In TT, most legitimate businesses don’t pay minimum wage. They pay $20-$25 an hour, while the minimum wage is $15.”
Ramdeen said at the moment Venezuelans, who have been coming to TT to escape the financial and political crisis in their homeland, could still be subject to exploitation even after being registered and living in the country legally. He also noted registered Venezuelans were also given carte blanche as far as living and working conditions were concerned, which could lead to locals losing out on job opportunities.
But, immigrants may be able to flourish in areas like farming, which TT citizens tend to move away from, because it has been stigmatised as degrading and close to indentureship, according to Ramdeen. He said this strategy could even lessen the import bill, as TT spends close to $6 billion a year importing food.
“They (immigrants) would be working in a factory for the same $15 an hour and they could grow food and send back to their families if they want,” he said. “There are many synergistic methods if we do it well. Then we can let it spill over to construction and so on.
"That way we don’t have people going all about and crowding out people who are looking for a job to make a pencil. We have locals who could make that – but we don’t have anyone planting peas.”