Economy being hit by second wave of retrenchments

Aboutique Mall, Rituals cafe and Anton's jewellery store on Frederick Street, Port of Spain are among hundreds of businesses that remain closed under covid19 restrictions which has left hundreds out of work.  - Photo by Marvin Hamilton
Aboutique Mall, Rituals cafe and Anton's jewellery store on Frederick Street, Port of Spain are among hundreds of businesses that remain closed under covid19 restrictions which has left hundreds out of work. - Photo by Marvin Hamilton

This is a difficult time to abide by precedent in industrial relations, especially when the closure of business activities, partially or completely, has led to the termination of the employment of hundreds of workers.

They are being terminated not because of indiscipline or shoddy performance or because of attitudinal malfeasance, but simply because of a government edict, related to the possibility that they might have, in their bloodstreams, a strain of the covid19 virus.

So to prevent the possible overcrowding of hospitals, any business not regarded as “essential” has been mandated to close, on and off for a year and a half.

There is a sad and touching hope in the hearts of many people who have to provide for children, parents and unemployed siblings that when everybody gets two doses of one of the available strains of vaccine that everything will go back to “normal” – which we all know will never be what pre-lockdown business, commerce and employment was.

Although their own manufacturers claim that their vaccines are only effective for maybe a year, maybe two, that viral epidemics will inevitably be part of our lives for the foreseeable future (giving the vaccine-manufacturing industries a bright market future) and that even the double doses are no guarantee against reinfection, there are lingering hopes.

Thankfully what the vaccine drive can do, we hope, is to change the pace at which government understands people's needs, and that more studies will give evidence that even without 70 per cent "herd" coverage, they will enable people to travel again, Caribbean Airlines to keep a few of its pilots, and – hope against hope – allow schools to open for children whose essential developmental brain stages have been bypassed. For some reason schooling was not regarded as essential when decisions were made.

There is a “second wave” of retrenchments taking place now, even as government is allowing construction workers to resume work.

Those failing businesses that have managed to remain open up till now, scraping by as “mostly essential,” are beginning to close down as they are no longer being asked to provide goods and services even to long-time customers who were classified among the non-essentials.

Queries are coming in from desperate employers who first put employees on vacation leave earned, then on a layoff at half-pay for the first three months of the pandemic shutdowns, in accordance with standard Ministry of Labour layoff guidelines, in good faith, although no work was being done and no money being earned.

Then for the next six months the wages of non-working employees shrank to a quarter pay, with still no money coming in to pay them, until there simply was no more money to pay out, and the questions now are not whether to retrench or not to retrench but:

1) How do we calculate severance pay? On the quarter wages they are now earning, or the full original wages they used to get, and what they now are claiming we must pay?

2) Will banks lend us money to pay severance pay when there are few prospects of our opening in the months ahead, and no indication from the Prime Minister that businesses that he still insists are non-essential, like restaurants (who needs to eat anyway? Make your own sandwiches), will ever open?

A construction crew resumes work on Home Solutions's apartment complex The View in St James. While government reopened the construction sector many others remain closed leading to the permanent closure of some businesses and more people on the breadline. - Photo by Sureash Cholai

3) When small businesses that actually employ the majority of workers in most economies have been forced to close and have not been able to pay rent, electricity, security, water rates, internet, etc since last March, where will the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) get the startup capital to pay for reconnections, (debt-ridden government services are themselves unforgiving) or refurnish shelves, buy goods, rehire employees?

4) Will other retrenched employees living on severance and savings and the government grants that some of the applicants have actually received (don’t steups. I have heard of three or four that have actually received them) go back to buying consumer goods, patronising KFC and paying others to provide the personal services they have been forced to provide for themselves for 15 months?

The pandemic has had its valuable lessons. Have we not all learned that we can live on less, that the simple economies of yesteryear have value, or – as Mr Young announces an increase in fuel for automobiles and the press drool over the close to $2 million his new car would have cost on the open market if he were not excused half a million dollars in purchase tax – have we learned never to trust politicians who tell you they understand your pain and they will correct the economic and health problems that we face?

Office buildings are empty all over the urban areas, as people have found working from home a comfortable option. As a recruitment firm, we have found over the past five pre-covid19 years that the question applicants for professional and administrative jobs ask first is, “Where is it?” They turn down otherwise lucrative positions that require hours of travelling. Twenty-five years ago, urban planners warned traffic congestion on this scale would happen – too many foreign-used vehicles being brought in, too few roads being built: but politicians didn’t listen to them.

And 20 years ago, when ever-renewable solar and electrical energy began to be developed for vehicles and other daily consumption needs, and our leading, non-politically biased economists were calling for national investment in non-petroleum-based industries, no one listened either.

It wasn’t the world economy that brought us down to the recession we see around us and the very real rise in poverty levels that, as ECLAC points out, is affecting the poorest and weakest, the single parents with young children, the elderly and small agricultural landholders prey to praedial larceny by jobless youth.

It is the policy decisions made on our behalf by people who didn’t listen. Not much wonder the Dr Farrells of the country are not anxious to accept public office any more.


"Economy being hit by second wave of retrenchments"

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