Kiran Mathur Mohammed
We have a potential goldmine on our doorsteps. If harnessed, the influx of Venezuelan migrants can be turned from crisis to opportunity.
How can thousands of people fleeing a country, where in 2017 the average person lost 24 pounds in body weight (according to Reuters), be anything other than a burden for our stagnant economy that has known little but recession and hardship in recent years?
We have seen one of the largest influxes of Venezuelans per capita of any country. Government reports 16,523 were registered. Another 8,000 live between here and Venezuela. Many more are lost in the cracks, too afraid to make themselves known to the authorities.
Government opened up that registration to allow Venezuelans to work for a year. The Prime Minister mentioned his commitment to this in his maiden speech to the UN General Assembly. That is laudable.
But three months in, most still have not had their registration ratified. They cannot work, and they cannot pay taxes. These people want to contribute, and we are preventing them from contributing to our depleted coffers.
More disturbingly, no Venezuelan child is allowed to go to any state school.
This uncertainty is bad for businesses. Outside temporary employment, maybe picking cocoa or sweeping floors: no employer will take the chance on an employee whom the government may well deport in nine months. Hiring and training new staff is expensive as it is, even for industries that need people. Large-scale farmer Kent Vieira described an 18-month wait for a work permit in one case.
Uncertainty opens these migrants to exploitation by unscrupulous businessmen. Even if we don’t care about that, we should care about the lost taxes from unpaid PAYE payments.
And few migrants will invest or open businesses if they might be kicked out in a matter of months. We lose taxes and growth.
What can we do?
It is straightforward. We can extend the work permits for Venezuelans for three years, and allow their children to go to school.
We are so focused on the potential challenges of absorbing Venezuelans that we are missing a potential opportunity.
Twenty-six thousand (recorded) new customers just walked in. We should be open for business. They need somewhere to live – driving demand for the glut of houses built during the boom. They need furniture, they need food. They want to have a good time, just as much as we do. Roti shops should be peddling arepas, cosmetics and clothes shops can cater to Latin American tastes, and furniture manufacturers could start plumping the mattresses.
Then there are our schools. For years we have branded ourselves “the gateway to the Americas.” Well, finally we can be. With an influx of Venezuelan children we may finally see the dream of a whole generation of bilingual people, ready to do business and export to the huge neglected markets on our doorstep.
Politically it may seem that there are no votes in immigration. But our situation is different.
For every job that an immigrant takes, they create one, as economist Benjamin Powell’s research has shown.
Meanwhile we are one of the largest exporters of university graduates in the world – the one exception to the resource curse. Our society also continues to age, with the Central Bank and the NIB warning that we are perilously close to having to raid the principals of our pension plans.
Then there is productivity. This was underscored by the economists and business leaders at a panel I moderated with the TT Economics Association and the UNHCR last Saturday.
I heard real-life stories about businesses whose revenue was directly boosted by taking on immigrant staff. TTMA CEO Ramesh Ramdeen pointed out gaps: most factory equipment is designed for 24-hour operations – that is a rare sight in TT. Immigrants are often more productive: and can fill these gaps.
And as former government minister Mariano Browne put it, we should start collecting as much data as possible, so we can better understand which social services will be most in demand, what skills are available, and which businesses need those skills. Right now there are judges working as security guards and lawyers as waiters.
We also don’t need to do things on their own. Dr Vaalmikki Arjoon made it clear that we should not be ashamed of asking for international aid. This is a problem that has hit the whole region.
The BBC’s documentary painted us as xenophobic and wary. If we take advantage of this opportunity, we may well have the last laugh.
* Kiran Mathur Mohammed is a social entrepreneur, economist and businessman. He is a former banker, and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh.