Put a big bite in unemployment

Published: Sunday | December 9, 2012 Comments 0

Orville Taylor, Contributor

FOR 50 years, the expectations and frustrations of the Jamaican people were pinned on the People's National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).

As Jamaica crept into Independence, poverty and its bedfellow, unemployment, stood like sentinels, keeping the largely Africa-originated population in place.

At 13 per cent in 1962, unemployment was like melanin bonded to the labour force's DNA. It was not a catastrophic rate, especially given the context of dependence and historical exploitation, and it was 'black people time'. A government charged with pushing the country forward was influenced by the economic model of University of the West Indies academic W. Arthur Lewis, whose industrialisation-by-invitation strategy targeted the 'modern capitalist sector.'

This was a bourgeois' ideal policy placing attention on the monied classes and was designed to have industrialisation and growth in the modern sector. The logic was that as economic growth took place and Jamaica's economy transformed, it would 'trickle down' into the traditional sector.

There would be rapid impact on unemployment in the new expanding industrial sector, and the masses of the lumpen proletariat would be gainfully engaged. Soon, the modern sector would soak up all of the available labour and then turn to traditional labour to fill the gap. Thus, agricultural workers would then experience an improvement in standards of living because the modern would absorb the surplus, and wages would rise.

Unfortunately, this never happened. Bauxite was potentially the panacea because it was the middle of the Cold War and our ore was loose and cheap; however, despite the promise, it never delivered as it was capital-intensive, demanding a modest workforce fewer than 8,000 warm bodies. In fact, mining did little minding as the industry in many ways created a bauxite of a social problem. The demonstration effect of the high wages in bauxite pushed up those in the agrarian sector, creating distortions. This led to an increase in the prices of goods and services, pushing a small working elite into the middle- and upper-middle classes, thus widening the rich-poor gap.

discontent

A perverted version of Jamaica's industrialisation took place. Gross domestic product (GDP) increased at an average of seven per cent annually; however, discontent boiled because what trickled down and out from the capitalist sector did not go to the 'down and out'.

As 1965 ripened, unemployment doubled, with signs of social unrest. Riots broke out in Kingston over a relatively minor incident involving an Asian businessman and his black worker. With increasing social marginalisation, the Government was forced to create a safety net in the National Insurance Scheme. Ironically, in Opposition, the PNP's Norman Manley was stridently against it.

Government banned books with any hint of blackness, blocked University of the West Indies lecturer Walter Rodney from returning to the university, and politicians recruited the unemployed and semi-employed into gangs. These gangs were located in politically exclusive zones now labelled garrisons. High unemployment at the end of the 1960s facilitated the political culture of clientelism. A term popularised by political sociologist Carl Stone, it points to the culture of political patronage as large groups and communities of unemployed would either get direct cash subventions or sinecures.

distorted figures

Intermittent work became a feature of the politics as well. Separate from seasonal employment associated with the agricultural cycle, there was the regular Christmas and occasional gully work involving the cleaning of drains and verges. This distorts unemployment figures, obscuring large numbers of persons who really have no work. Thus, all of the data should be understood as hiding more of the iceberg below the surface.

Nonetheless, the 1960s ended with a rate of 28 per cent. As the decade turned, so did the populace, and the JLP slid down the slippery slope out of power. A populist, Michael Manley led the PNP into Parliament with a landslide victory in February 1972.

Manley, the darling of the masses, declared democratic socialism as the PNP's official doctrine with a worker-centred development model, featuring worker protection and social statutes.

Still, faced with a robust unemployment situation, Manley introduced the National Youth Service and his own 'Gully government' special-employment programme - the "Crash Programme". During this period as well, the National Planning Agency was established and along with the pre-existing Department of Statistics, became dedicated to providing more accurate data regarding all aspects of social and economic life, including the labour force surveys. Now defined as the "number of persons who are without work during a reference period but were available and were seeking work," the unemployed exclude students and those who have stopped looking for work.

Try as he did, Manley did little to reduce unemployment, and from 23 per cent, the figure leapt to 28 per cent by the end of 1980. Unemployment grew, and Manley lost in October 1980.

In came Edward Seaga, riding a deliverance promise like a white horse and a distinct pro-American, pro-capitalist approach. Large amounts of foreign aid and grants followed, and the local capitalists were enamoured with him. Within two years, he initiated the Human Employment and Resource Training (HEART) programme and absorbed thousands of post-secondary students who the flawed educational system did not properly orient. Perhaps the single most important initiative was the establishment of the Free Zones, which soaked up many of the unemployed at the low and semi-skilled levels. By 1985, unemployment fell to 25 per cent, to 21 per cent in 1987, to end his regime in 1989 with an impressive 16 per cent.

Nonetheless, this did not ameliorate the lives of the workers. The majority of the poor were employed, the gap between rich and poor increased, and much of the employment was underemployment or unsatisfactory work. Furthermore, Free Zone workers were unprotected and mistreated, unlike their unionised counterparts.

unemployment records

The PNP ousted the JLP from 1989 to 2007, and its unemployment record is more impressive. After creeping to 17 per cent in the early 1990s, unemployment bobsledded to 15 per cent in 2001, ending the period with the developed world statistic of nine per cent - single digits for the first time since Independence! Nonetheless, the PNP lost. After a four-year tryst with the JLP between 2007 and 2011, the people put it back in power. Whether or not it was the result of the global economic crisis of 2008, unemployment resurged to double digits, reaching 12.4 per cent, the trend continuing under the present administration to 14 per cent - exactly where we were at Independence. Full circle, it seems, we have come.

Still, when the data are broken down, there is cause for alarm. Between the 1980s and 2000s, we have experienced low unemployment and decreasing rates of poverty. Yet violent crimes blossomed. There are two factors which the data are hiding and for which governments have taken little responsibility . Despite the 'impressive' statistics', the working poor have not declined. More persons labelled as employed are in fact 'underemployed', working shorter hours and making relatively less. Furthermore, unemployment is gendered and skewed towards youth, with the 20-24 age group showing 31 per cent, which is two and a half times the national average. Females in this category are 41 per cent. If one looks at the 14 to 19 group, the figures hover around 50 per cent. Simply put: "Young people naav no 'rerk!'"

Fingers are to be pointed. Neither 2007 election manifesto offered a coherent youth policy, and massive employment-generating ideas are yet to come from the Government. Both political parties have failed this country in generating quality employment for its young people.

WAY TO GO

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix. Unemployment strategies have to be predicated on an overall approach to expanding the macro-economic framework. Therefore, Government must prioritise sectors and industries for growth and initiate policies accordingly.

Agriculture

Long abandoned since the late 1980s, agriculture has to be given renewed attention. Paradoxically, sugar was considered less economically important in an increasingly sugar-addicted world. The industry must move to secondary sugar production. Shamefully, after 500 years of sugar production in the place which partially fuelled the Industrial Revolution, nothing was done to produce the higher valued-added white granulated sugar, or confectioners' sugar.

With additional technology to extract flavours and make value-added agricultural produce, Government must give incentives to export-oriented agro-industries. Agriculture is a sine qua non because of the need for food security. Markets must be explored for non-traditional agricultural exports.

Sports

Mooted by the sports minister in the aftermath of the success at the Olympics, a business model of sports must be incorporated. While sports will not absorb the large surplus of youth, its increased visibility must be channelled towards industries. The idea of manufacturing sports apparel with the exclusive 'Made in Jamaica' brand removes the issue of competition with cheap imports for Asia because superior or prestige goods do not obey the same laws of supply and demand.

Sports tourism must also be explored. Thrilled with the idea of 'running with the fastest people on Earth,' it is easy to see how a pilgrimage to 'Boltland' could materialise.

Training for Export

Given the legendary strong work ethic of migrant Jamaican workers, though paradoxically, not locals, the surplus can be absorbed by training professionals and skilled personnel who are in demand internationally. Bonding and remittance implications are to be explored.

National Consensus

Nonetheless, it is important that as the Barbadians did in the early 1990s, trade unions, employers, and Government coalesce. Other interest groups and social partners need to force the policymakers to be more honest and do less politics. Part of this consensus must be to have unemployment and severance payment fund greater worker protection. Despite the flawed trickle-down doctrine, there is no evidence that high worker protection leads to low productivity and unemployment.

All of the above are not panaceas. Rather, they are suggestions based on experience, research, and common sense.

Hopefully, we will find a way.

Orville Taylor, Phd, is a senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Psychology and Social Work at the University of the West Indies, Mona, and a talk show host. Send feeback to editor@gleanerjm.com.


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