Wed | Nov 29, 2023

Peter Espeut | Creating a labour shortage

Published:Friday | November 17, 2023 | 12:08 AM
In this 2022 photo, farm workers assigned to work in Canada are seen boarding a bus to head to the airport.
In this 2022 photo, farm workers assigned to work in Canada are seen boarding a bus to head to the airport.

“They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7).

It is hard to accept that unemployment is genuinely at an all-time low when there are so many thousands idle on the street corners and shop piazzas in urban and rural Jamaica. I have pointed out before (‘Is Jamaica Nearing Full Employment?’ The Gleaner – August 25) that the April 2023 Labour Force Survey, which reported that unemployment was only 4.5 per cent, needs to be sensibly interpreted.

From the notes which accompany the Labour Force Survey, we learn that someone is considered “employed” if they worked “for one hour or more during survey week”. So the thousands we see hanging out on the street corners and shop piazzas may in fact be “employed” by this convenient definition, but we happen to see them during the 39 hours of the 40-hour work week when they are not gainfully employed. Clearly, with this definition of being “employed”, we cannot conclude – by any stretch of the imagination – that Jamaica’s employed labour force is fully employed.

Neither can we conclude that there is a labour shortage, as by definition there is an unspecified number of workers who have dozens of hours each week available for work.

The trouble is that the people complaining that there is a “labour shortage” want literate workers. Maybe most of the underemployed are among the thousands who leave high school illiterate, or barely literate – mostly males. And so it is not so much an absolute labour shortage, but the lack of literate labour – skilled labour.


Possibly the brain drain is partially to blame – the migration of skilled workers to greener pastures overseas. We create a labour shortage when we exploit our trained workers by paying low wages, forcing them to move on.

Further (as I pointed out in the aforementioned column) the April 2023 Labour Force Survey reports that only 61,300 Jamaicans are “unemployed”, but it also reports that of the two million or so of us Jamaicans 14 years old and over, 725,000 are “outside the labour force”, and therefore don’t get to be classified as “unemployed”. Of course, this number includes students, pregnant and lactating mothers, the aged and the infirm, who are clearly not in the labour force; but if you are not working, and have not looked for work during the previous month, you are dropped from the labour force into the 725,000.

And so, if you previously looked for work – you registered with an employment agency, you wrote job application letters, you asked your friends and church brothers and sisters to “look work” for you, you visited job sites in search of a job – without result, and then in frustration you stopped job-hunting for one month before the survey week, you are dropped from the labour force, and don’t get a chance to be deemed “unemployed”.

Of course, thousands of illiterates and semiliterates and persons without an employable skill (who should really be deemed “unemployable”) fall into the 725,000.

And so what we are calling a “labour shortage” is really an indictment of Jamaica’s education system, which has underperformed over many decades, producing many unemployables. Thank God for the churches and educational trusts which own and operate the best schools in the country.

Jamaica’s national skills training agency has a lot of money, but even with no fees and the availability of a daily stipend for transportation and food, relatively few people register, because they simply cannot read well enough to learn a skill!


Don’t we see how we are creating our own labour shortage, holding back the development of the country?

In reality, if the education system functioned properly, in my view another 300,000 to 500,000 persons would be qualified to work across all sectors of the economy. Fix the education system and all of a sudden the category “outside the labour force” will shrink, and the so-called “labour shortage” will evaporate!

I am sure there are many who read this who will disagree with me; there always are; and that’s alright! Some may argue that I am barking up the wrong tree, and that Jamaica’s real labour shortage is rooted in our small population relative to our growing, burgeoning economy; and the only solution is to import workers (Chinese? Haitians?) to do the work and increase our gross national product (GNP).

Do they really know what they are saying?

This is a profound criticism of active Jamaican government policy over the last 60 years!

Ever since Independence, Jamaica has followed the line that our island is overpopulated, and that national development will only take place if we can persuade Jamaicans to have fewer children. Safe sex (rather than stable family relationships) was promoted. Contraceptives (preventing conception) were made cheap and widely available; and even some abortion-producing means (the coil, the loop, the morning-after pill) which did not prevent new human life forming but prevented implantation, were promoted. Despite abortion being illegal in Jamaica, it is easily available; by some estimates some 22,000 are performed annually in the island.

Despite the wastage of innocent human life, abortions are leading to a labour shortage in Jamaica.

Imaging what our labour force would be today – and what our GNP would be – if we did not prevent the conception and birth of so many? We certainly would not have a labour shortage.

(I am already ducking from the expected backlash. But honestly: am I right or wrong?)

And so: prepare to welcome the imported workers, and their families. We are already paying from the public purse for the education of athletes imported from overseas into our sports academies. Why not subsidise the education of the hundreds of children of guest workers at our best schools? Jamaicans can go elsewhere.

If you sow the wind, don’t be surprised if you reap the whirlwind.

[By the way, does this spate of bomb threats provide the government with a good reason to suspend local government elections for the fourth time?]

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Send feedback to