Maziki Thame | Profit or people? Reclaiming the State through COVID-19
The logic of neoliberalism tells us that the role of the State is to facilitate the private sector, and shares of profit (growth) will trickle down to the people. What happened to the profits accumulated since KFC has been operating in Jamaica when KFC decided to lay off workers in April? The logic also tells us that people who know how to make money know how to run countries. As such, the Jamaican Government has constituted a Recovery Task Force filled with businessmen to plan the nation’s (post) COVID-19 future. Why not economists, cultural specialists, political scientists and sociologists? And outside of so-called experts, where is the voice of the people?
As Jamaicans currently face the prospect of increasing poverty, we must question the decisions being made by the State and whether nationals are benefiting equally in the responses to the multiple crises produced by the spread of the coronavirus.
The Jamaican Government has agreed to pay hotels US$100 per night per person for quarantine purposes to counter the spread of COVID-19. According to Gleaner analysis, this will amount to a bill of at least J$822 million for taxpayers in order to house around 5,000 returning Jamaicans. The Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA) head has been demanding that the Government set a date for reopening the tourism sector, claiming the workers’ jobs are at stake. At least one worker told The Gleaner that they were “treated like trash” by hoteliers. The JHTA head believes that it is the Government’s responsibility to care for those workers. He argues that tourism workers earning over J$1.5 million should be included among those to be compensated by the State for loss of income during this time.
The Jamaican people have been subsidising tourism profits through paying the cost of marketing Jamaica, accepting low wages in the sector, providing friendliness and sometimes sex to tourists, ceding their beaches, and subsidies on imports and tax holidays directed at the sector. And now during COVID-19, hotels have a new market for people in need of quarantine. With regard to what that will cost the general public, the minister of foreign affairs tells us, “you cannot put a dollar figure on the importance of our nationals”. Are we meant to believe that US$100 or J$14,300 per night is a good rate in a poor nation where the minimum wage is J$7,000 per week?
COVID-19 has laid bare the tragedy of an approach that prioritises the owners of capital over people. Our very capacity to eat is at stake. Food security is now a glaring issue throughout the Caribbean and the world because food supplies are thought about in terms of connections to the global food supply chain – we, the poor people of the world, are importing food, when we could grow our own, and paying the added costs of all the middlemen on the chain because of the notion that the market is the best at meeting demand. What happens when there is no more cash to pay?
Without the cash and the ‘stability of the market’, we have the prospect of the starving domestic worker. She would have recently lost her livelihood to COVID-19 and her employer’s decision that she was disposable. The market does not value her labour. It pays her a non-living minimum wage, which means she was not in a good place before coronavirus.
We have pre-COVID-19 conditions in Jamaica that put the whole nation at risk when coronavirus hit. We have the hustler in downtown Kingston who cannot stay home and social distance because hustling haffi gwaan fi living fi gwaan. We have the BPO workers, now stigmatised for spreading coronavirus when it was their conditions of work that put them at risk. Global conglomerates have moved their capital across the globe looking for the cheapest worker in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, and not caring at all for their well-being. And our governments have agreed that that model should be our future.
The domestic worker, the BPO worker, tourism worker, the hustler are among those who exist along a spectrum of exploited and informal workers with the least amount of protections in the workforce. They might live in overcrowded places that do not necessarily have running water or indoor bathrooms for handwashing to fight the virus. And that is in a wider context where given climate change, drought and little prioritisation of water, there may be limited access to water all over.
These working poor might shop at Coronation Market where social distancing is impossible. They may eat lots of rice and flour and little protein and vegetables because the latter are too expensive. Their children may be among the 31,000 in Jamaica who do not have the technology to allow them to be part of the online learning environment and whose future was already in the balance in the education system. They may receive additional money from relatives abroad who exist as part of the globally exploited workforce doing care work for less than it is worth and who will have less money to send in a global economic downturn. They most definitely are undereducated or started their lives at the bottom.
It is from the lives of such groups that I would hope that we imagine a future after COVID-19 and a future in which we reclaim the State. The State is the people. Now more than ever, we should demand that the State serve the people. Planning the way forward should be democratised.
If the hustler, the domestic worker or the non-profit-seeking public were part of the crisis response, they might point the nation towards community-based quarantining – consider the high-priced hotel versus the low-cost Airbnb. They might demand that public works be oriented towards provision of water over roads. They might suggest making resources available for community gardens for food security and agriculture for the local market where profits may not be as big, but at least the nation would be fed. They might suggest steering the economy to living wages and protected workers. They might suggest that the education system focus on a climate-friendly future or preparing people to have self-dignity instead of being scammers.
The Government, as the representative of the people, should devise means to hear what the people have to say and must respond and be accountable to their demands. Our futures cannot be left to the holders of profit and their will to continue to exploit the people so that they can live in luxury while the people starve.
Dr Maziki Thame is associate professor of political science at Clark Atlanta University, Georgia, USA.