Post 305.

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Standing ankle deep in the gentle waters of Point Sable beach, with miles of thick mangrove behind, all of Trinidad’s west coast curving ahead and families of pelicans soaring between, it’s hard to imagine that the fish in the Gulf of Paria are so poisoned, by oil spills and the toxins used in clean up, that they are not safe for consumption.

Indeed, dead fish and birds lie all along the shore. These are examples of how Petrotrin has devastated one of the island’s main fish nesting and catching grounds with multiple leaks of hundreds of thousands of barrels, with about two hundred pipelines with slow leaks which are unlikely to ever be fixed, and with chemicals that disperse the oil, but have toxic effects lasting years.

I saw the marks left by oil on the old jetty nearby. I met a fisherman who won’t eat the fish, but who can’t find another livelihood, and so is prepared to return to the Gulf after four years so that he can survive.

Fishing as traditionally practiced is a noble industry. Fishermen go out with their nets and exercise the kind of individual entrepreneurial spirit that state managers are now cajoling out of ordinary people, as if it isn’t how we have survived all along.

The footprint of working class fishing communities is relatively small compared to the trawlers and fishing boats of big companies or even boat owners who are minor millionaires, and it is the small man and small woman and small children in these families who will be worst affected by both the decline of the fishing industry and the poisoning of our marine environments. Dead fish mean, one day, dead people, for we are not immune to pollution in our air, land or seas, nor its impact on any part of the food chain.

I was walking the beach with Lisa Premchand, a young woman once working on seismic surveys, with a graduate degree in environmental management, for whom it one day clicked. She joined Fishermen and Friends of the Sea, an organization which has been working on issues from mangrove protection to squatters’ rights to marine pollution for decades.

I admire them because I admire citizens who take risks to protect our ecology, which includes humans, for we are part of nature, from corporate irresponsibility and state-managed harm. For the record, I have more time for FFOS than its critics, if those critics themselves are not stepping in to do better.

Lisa realized that the global data suggests that seismic surveys also kill fish, driving them away for years, and she turned her sights instead to learning how to legally defend nature and its inhabitants.

Listening her talk about the governments’ plan to build a highway mere feet from the Aripo Savannah, which is the only ecosystem of its kind in Trinidad with species found nowhere else in the world, makes you appreciate citizen investment and sacrifice to resist the unholy trinity of private contractors, state planners and the EMA, none of whom care about the rest of us as much as one young woman with her boots on.

I identified with her. Twenty years ago, I was helping hand out fliers to protect the mangroves from plans for Movietowne. Those mangroves and the biodiversity they contained took millennia to form and had a vastly complex relationship to the entire western coast, to migratory species, and to marine life and its food systems. For our entertainment, they’re now gone.

The ones on Point Sable beach will themselves be destroyed for a dry dock facility being built, using Chinese loans, in collaboration with a company, CHEC, globally considered corrupt. Bangladesh won’t let them in the door. The PM said there were 2700 direct jobs to be had, but Caribbean maritime industry lobbyists put this “bright new dawn” for La Brea at between 600 and 1200.

We don’t yet know the final cost to the nation for this facility, though it’s expected to push GDP up by 2.4%. How fisher folk and fishing traditions will endure, no one knows.

Standing ankle deep with Lisa, in this nesting ground for scarlet ibis for thousands of years, all I could think is that we understand money, but not wealth.

As I said goodbye to the 900 acres which will forever be turned into or contained by concrete, in another irreversible industry footprint, all I could think is that we cannot eat the money. Already, we should no longer eat the fish.

 

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Post 304.

The PNM’s Stuart Young appears more frightening than Monday’s call to block the nation’s roads.

The social media call tried to mobilise citizens fed up of “poor governance” and “secret deals” to “shut down the country” by shutting down their cars at major locations.

It’s a great idea, simple and potentially effective, if it actually reflected the emotions pulsing through the nation. But, it didn’t. Not yet.

School children and workers are already frayed on mornings by endless traffic, which reflects poor transportation planning, and poor governance of land use.

All this has been overseen by the PNM, which has governed for more than forty-five years, and has primary responsibility for our problems today.

Families just want to get where they are going and get on with making ends meet amidst increasing unemployment, crime and debt, all reflecting similar decades of poor diversification of a petro-economy, poor levels of crime convictions, and poor levels of savings in our Heritage and Stabilisation Fund.

As both Minister of Communication and National Security, Young had zero sense of the nation’s pulse, and resorted to strong-arm state muscle to deal with a threat in which citizens had little investment. Too much sense of power and too little clue.

However, it gets worse than warning police would be out “in full force” to make arrests as if it was the water riots of 1903, which burned the Red House to the ground, for similar reasons of “poor governance”.

First, Young’s signature authorised government communication which declared the ‘gridlock’ call was the work of Opposition. When a government accuses the ruling party’s opponents without facts, on official letterhead, not only is there a disturbing mix up between state and party, but also worrisome use of state power for party politics.

Second, the public release unwisely confused ‘irresponsible’ and ‘unpatriotic’. Blocking the nation’s roads would have been irresponsible, but what would have made it unpatriotic? Is public protest against a government unpatriotic?

Our history is filled with pivotal illegal protests against inequity and unjust rule. Contemporary politicians mimicking colonial governors should note that the goal isn’t to repress such protests, but to prevent them with good governance in the first place.

Protesting can be necessary as is blocking tractors when they are razing mangroves without a proper certificate of environment clearance or without necessary social impact and cost-benefit analyses, even when Jack Warner illegally brings the army with him to intimidate you.

Patriotism means loyalty to one’s country and its people. This has been twisted to mean loyalty to the government and state, but don’t get chain up. It takes patriotic citizens to resist secret deals and government irresponsibility.

Third, CoP Griffith, who once recommended rolling military tanks into Laventille, also warned against communicating and publishing any statement with a seditious intention.

Under Section 3(1a) of the Sedition Act Chapter 11:04, “a seditious intention is an intention to bring into hatred or contempt, or excite disaffection against Government or Constitution.”

This 1920 law has long been wielded against labour leaders and workers. Maybe the ‘mother of all marches’ worried Minister Young, the way worker unity worried Dr. Williams.

Uriah ‘Buzz’ Butler, hero of the masses, was charged with sedition in 1937. Colonial police attempted “full force” in Fyzabad and Corporal Charlie King, who misunderstood the mood of protesting oilfield workers and who wanted to be hero, was burnt to death.

Months later, Elma Francois, a labour and pan-African organizer, with only a primary school education, was also charged with sedition. The first woman in the country to be so accused, she defended herself, discussing workers’ poverty and increasing taxation in her speech, and was unanimously found not guilty.

“Not a damn dog bark” has defined a PNM approach to dissent. I remember PM Manning sending the riot squad, in full military war gear, to unarmed, peaceful, responsible, legal and patriotic civil society gatherings. It was dark and undemocratic, and not a damn dog in the party barked.

“I don’t know that my speeches create disaffection, I know that my speeches create a fire in the minds of the people so as to change the conditions which now exist”, said Elma Francois at her defense.

Both Minister and CoP should refrain from macho brandishing of law and police boots. Such authoritarianism is a red flag. It poorly chooses fear and obedience over mutual respect and trust.  Luckily, there’s time for both men to learn from history, for people are not ready to shut down the country.

Not yet.

Post 303.

A family can buy a sofa or a washing machine.

The sofa will benefit everyone, will be shared by all and will be in the collective interest. However, without a washing machine, the woman who has unequal responsibility for laundry will be laboring outside, with less time for sharing leisure with family, and unequal benefit from the sofa. Buying the washing machine will mean she has more time, and the whole family benefits from being together.

Of course, everyone could fairly share the household burden, but as life isn’t yet like that in Trinidad or Tobago, the financial decision both recognizes and addresses inequity, seeing its greater benefit to all. The sofa seemed like a development that could be equitably shared, but its wealth would not have been distributed that way.

Gender responsive budgeting, or GRB, brings exactly this lens to national budgets. It recognizes that women and men unequally experience development and wealth.

Globally, even women who work in the labour market put in more unpaid care labour than men on families, children, the elderly and the ill. This affects their career advancement, incomes, employment choices and expenditures. Women are also more vulnerable to a wide range of forms of violence, which affects how they experience transportation, and their needs from health and social services.

On average, in Trinidad and Tobago, women earn about $100 000 less than men each year, and they own significantly less property in their own name. Agricultural funding increased from $.054 billion to $.078 billion, but grants and programmes that rely on land ownership won’t be as accessible to women, even if they seem to benefit everyone.

This is because our beliefs and values about manhood and womanhood are not add-ons. They shape every aspect of our lives – from how we labour in our households to the decisions we make at home or in the Ministry of Finance to our work in the economy.

What are the implications of a budget that doesn’t recognize this?

Stimulating the construction sector, in which 80% of workers are men, puts wealth directly into men’s hands.

An apparently gender-neutral stimulus strategy could worsen women’s economic dependence on men, reduce their power in negotiating money and household decisions, and increase their vulnerability to violence.

A ‘game changing’ government should track the disbursement of such resources and their impact because money shapes gendered power relations. A GRB approach would transparently trace whether revenues and expenditures improved gender equality and justice, fail to do so, or make it worse.

No government ministry systematically tracks, from planning to implementation, whether every dollar is advancing equal benefit from public funds among women, men, girls and boys. Fuel subsidies are not sustainable, but responsible fiscal policy should anticipate how its social costs will land on man-woman relations, and children’s lives.

Allocations to the health sector dropped from $6.02 billion to $5.69 billion, and we have to see where was cut, but a balanced budget often transfers burdens for care of the sick to households and women, from having to stay with patients while they wait two days for a hospital bed to greater reliance on private tests for quicker diagnosis.

The Petrotrin lay-offs will cause extreme social dislocation and economic insecurity. Yet, the national strategic plan to end gender-based violence is still not approved or resourced by government. How will it ensure the Petrotrin refinery closure doesn’t worsen intimate partner violence and injury? Increased fines for child abuse are mere lip-service.

The maid and gardener jobs to be created by Sandals are globally considered stable, but low-income and dead-end, without opportunity for upskilling or advancement. Indeed, women still dominate in such low status work in the service sector, and this doesn’t change such labour market distribution.

In contrast to a gender-blind budget, and small spending targeted to women or men, GRB would ask:

What is the labour, health, mobility, security and equality situation of women, men, girls and boys? How will all budget proposals impact their specific and persistent vulnerabilities? What data will track and measure this impact? Are there any proposals which, from a GRB perspective, should be changed or accompanied by other necessary strategies? How can government be held accountable for proper implementation of this ‘better budgeting’ approach?

A Finance Minister should be able to explain his understanding of gender inequities in the national family, and how his budgetary decisions account for these. Just as it takes understanding of and commitment to gender justice to decide on a sofa or washing machine.

Post 302.

Keep me company while I remember Anuradha Rekha, known to all as Baby. Baby was an ordinary Indian woman, secondary school educated, one of fifteen siblings, married for thirty-three years, with three grown, good-looking sons of whom she was very proud, and a six-year-old grandson, with whom she would bake on Sundays.

She drew the loyalty of all, including parrots, goats, dogs and ducks, who loved her like children. If you asked Baby, she’d tell you the cow, Gayatri, would call her ‘ma’ when it saw her coming, and you’d have no doubt it was true.

Everyone knew Baby, from San Juan market through Santa Cruz to Avocat waterfall. Almost anywhere you could turn, there would be one degree of separation between you and some unexpected member of her dizzyingly vast family. You’d probably get better treatment across El Socorro and Aranguez if you said you knew Baby than if you were related to the MP.

Even though she was also daughter, sister, in-law, niece, and neighbor, she was matriarch to many. She commanded respect the way that women do, without wielding authority or domination. You could be her age, with more degrees, and feel you were in front of a woman full of sharp smarts you hadn’t yet earned and far more resourcefulness than you.

I was boss, but ten years younger and knew my place. My job was to go out there, do well and earn enough for us both. At home, my role was to do whatever she advised me to do.

She had the rarest of qualities; a capacity to instantly win you over with her kindness and genuine care, mixed with an immense amount of affectionate banter, scandalous laughter and natural zest for life.

Few people could have financial challenges, times of ill-health, and daily ups and downs, and still stand out as the person most likely to bring joy, life and light to others in a room. Few people could request duty-free Scotch, when I passed through the airport, with Baby’s brand of expectant charm.

Baby worked in my house for more than ten years. She was already working there when we arrived and began our family. She didn’t just look after it, she walked in like she was entrusted with it, the way we are entrusted with responsibility of the nation for another generation.

Baby was there when Ziya was born, at home, and immediately decided that she was her first grandchild. Whether cough, fever or unsettled crying, Baby was ready to jharay it away. She’d carry her home, and Zi would emerge plump, powdered and looking proud, with her hair curled in rings like a doll. Baby’s dhalpuri and curry mango was legendary, and she had begun to teach Zi to make aloo pie and roti like a proper dougla beti.

She wasn’t just a ‘domestic employee’, the official name for women who contribute their invaluable labour to others’ households. She was CEO of all that went on in my house, and her thorough system of sorting, folding, packing and more is in every cupboard. Almost as in her own home, her conscientious, mothering spirit is in every room, just as I am sure it touched all the children along her street.

Domestic workers are a category of women workers whose value we underestimate. We highlight stories of those considered successful, such as heroes, national medal winners and business people, as if such women were not the backbone to their lives, and they often go nameless in public recognition and thanks.

I’ve never attended an awards ceremony where the women who cook food, look after children, clean, and hold your greatest reserve of trust, are acknowledged. These women are not just workers relied on to create the conditions for others’ success, they are women without wealth, fame or power, who are also often hidden in history.

My professional advancement relied on her. The labour of such women, and the importance of their friendship, is hardly cited in print and in public, but gratitude for the difference Baby made and the example she set makes me do so today.

She was avid about Play Whe, which was convenient given the regular appearance of snakes and centipedes in our house, and some part of me now feels duty-bound to play a mark for Baby.

If you open a bottle, pour a drop in her name and join me to wish her beloved spirit rest in peace.

Post 301.

It’s only week three of school. Last Friday, Ziya forgot her science books at home even though school bag packing was supervised. We learned to double check until her seven -year-old self gets it right. On Monday, I packed an award-winning healthy meal, but forgot her water on the kitchen counter. I’m not sure if that’s better or worse than forgetting to pack her lunch cutlery a few days earlier. Next week, I’ll be happy just to get her to school in the right sneakers on P.E. days.

As a working parent, I might not perfectly manage the challenges of keeping track of multiple minuscule moving parts. Still, I’m deeply committed to a bigger picture: paying attention to what Zi learns and how, and nurturing her curiosity and interest in learning

There’s a purpose to learning that involves being organized, focused and high-achieving, but there’s also a purpose that aims at courage, problem-solving, cooperativeness and creativity.

Invest in education. It’s a simple idea. It’s what enables children to grow up to solve national problems. It enables men and boys wishing to meet breadwinner ideals to access higher, stable and legal incomes. Made a priority for women and girls, it’s the best way to both create a chance for greater gender justice and tackle family poverty. Finally, it’s the best way for a country to be a player, and to create citizens who are also path-breaking leaders, in the global economy.

Yet, it’s not simply about investing in education. The national budget for education is one of the highest sectors. Most parents invest in extra lessons for their children. Still, something is missing.

We know this from the failure rates, both at SEA and CSEC levels. We know this from the paucity of a powerful youth movement able to hold adults accountable for our crimes against their generation. We know this from the early ages at which boys become engaged by criminality, gangs, and the court and prison system, and from their far lower rates in tertiary education.

We know this from teen girls continued higher rates of vulnerability to HIV, sexual violence and unemployment. We know this from the hesitance of incoming university students to think independently, their difficulties writing well, and their limited sense of their degree as a public good that comes, not for free, but with civic responsibilities to a wider region.

Children don’t all learn by sitting and writing, which is the predominant way that we teach, leaving those needing different learning approaches cast as troublesome or incapable. We think of schools as teaching discipline before we think of them as our best chance for teaching youth empowerment, and the skills necessary to transform authoritarian power in politics, patriarchal ideals in families, and insecurity in communities.

The last time conscious youth rose up was 1970 and, we should ask ourselves, how can schooling both create another generation of inventors and entrepreneurs as well as activists and agitators? How can we rethink schooling entirely so that school is the one place that students are fighting to go, especially when family or community hardship are part of their realities?

How can we make sure that the poorest really do have the same chances as the rich, such that it doesn’t matter what school a student attends, for there is equality of opportunity regardless of the conditions and place of one’s birth?  And, when youth fall through the cracks, ending up in prisons, how can prisons become another site for education, in which those who enter are never going to return unless it is to transform, teach, mentor, and inspire?

Schools that excite and embolden rather than bore and alienate. Prisons that mirror universities rather than cages. An end to a system that has institutionalized extra lessons for those who can pay. Learning through active engagement with the culture, creativity, landscape and ecosystem around us. Education that creates children who can challenge us on our hypocrisies, greed, waste and carelessness, and grade us on meeting their generation’s needs.

If any of this seems unrealistic, it’s because we have to imagine a more inclusive vision as both possible and necessary.

We want girls and boys across the nation to feel loved and safe, welcome learning and want us to be proud. Therefore, our investments in their excellence and empowerment need to recognise what our own improvements must look like. Some days, they might be in the wrong shoes, but there’s a purpose to learning which we can still get right.

Post 300.

The OWTU’s blustery style of bois hasn’t done itself any favours as many seem anti-union or are in jobs no longer represented by unions or are bosses who consider unions advantageous and difficult.

The union itself hasn’t been done any favours by media representations of it as protecting overpaid welders and carpenters, as if carpenters or welders shouldn’t make $50 000 a year while executive management raked in millions overseeing corruption, nepotism and ineptitude, and threw their hands up at the very political interference that we should have been protected from by those collecting such oversized pay cheques.

In speaking in fiery tones directly to its membership, the union is doing its job, but calmer explanations of the situation, in ways that show the reasonableness of its perspectives to a broadband of skeptics, would build more population empathy, and provide information considered trustworthy.

As it stands, the government appears rational, though regretful, and the union appears unreasonable and opposed to the national interest. Political and economic elites have won the media war when the workers – not the managers from Ken Julien down who have slunk into the past and now seem obsolete to the blame game – appear to be the enemy of the national economy.

The current solution fundamentally misdiagnoses a problem that plagued Petrotrin, which is the ability to impose accountability on those in charge.

Note that not one package of strategies has been articulated by the government to prevent any of the three – corruption, mismanagement and patronage – from further impoverishing the public.

Note, there’s no sense that the Petrotrin shut-down should have involved public consultations, or accessibly presented and truthful data and analysis so that every cook could contribute to such decision-making. There should have been clear projection of potential fall-out, for example across south-west Trinidad, so solutions for managing the social and economic costs could be anticipated together.

This top down process repeats the top down status quo that got us here. A board has to make the final decision, but this affects everyone, requiring an information package in everyday language which builds commitment and capacity to participatory governance – a crucial idea that ordinary people must have all the resources they need for an informed say in decisions which affect our nation.

Such decisions may appear to be about technical knowledge, but when the Petrotrin disaster can be traced back to failures of top-down decisions, working people must powerfully resist such business as usual.

Overwhelmed by unclear facts and spin, and disappointment at the PNM resort to rallying party faithful, points for demanding answers disappear amidst the noise.

David Abdullah pointed out that Petrotrin’s debt was $10 billion less than Clico’s, which we bailed out to avoid sector collapse, and yet it’s unlikely that the ordinary person can explain one decision in comparison to the other. Selling the refinery won’t erase the debts owed, so what happens to those? Which average radio listener knows?

Hamid Ghany pointed out the state is being used to break the unions, which is convenient for privatization, and provides a right wing political platform for the machismo of kicking down a national threat with the PM’s government boots.

Yet, it is particularly important for the population to support the union in holding the state and company accountable for how it treats retrenchment, retirement and pensions of employees. Up to April this year, newspapers reported that over 4000 ex-Caroni workers are still waiting on their severance package, fifteen years after shutdown of the sugar industry. The President General of their union said 25% of workers died without their package in hand. Which of us, while demonizing the OWTU, will protect workers’ interests this time around?

Helen Drayton suggested that employees are increasingly shying away from engaging in industrial strategies to shut down the country, perhaps as the start of political and cultural change. It’s more likely that economic vulnerability has people desperately anxious about making ends meet, particularly when unions seem out of their league.

Insecure labour and unstable employment have changed the labour market and labour relations. New forms of collective organizing are needed in an economy that’s shifted – precisely because the same accountability challenges remain. In Terrence Farrell’s words, “All roads lead back to the fact that these are State enterprises operating within a deeply flawed governance system which can produce only failure”.

The bottom line is, caught between floundering unions and an untrustworthy state, working people must insist on information, participation and power to protect every national dollar.

Post 299.

Sacrifices must be made. The question is how much, by whom and at what cost.

Ordinary working people, from retail and restaurant workers to office clerks to nurses, are carrying the unequal burden of economic adjustment.

This is felt deep in the bones of families in term of increased prices at the gas pump, or the uncertainty of month-to-month contracts, or lay-offs without sufficient labour opportunities anywhere in sight.

It’s almost impossible for thousands willing to make an honest living wage to make ends meet, qualify for a loan, buy a house, build family savings or even know if they can afford medicine and school books in one year’s time.

Even attractive VSEP packages cannot simply be reinvested or turned into new income among those forced to become entrepreneurial for the first time in their 50s.

Entrepreneurship rarely leads to economic security or wealth, and access to health and other labour benefits. Meaning if you can’t work, you starve, you wait two days to see a doctor in the hospital, and when there’s a downturn or too much competition, minor profits evaporate.

The lesson from the Caroni 1975 Ltd shut down is that the psychological impact, which can hardly be managed by four or six EAP sessions, rolls out across communities through increased intimate partner conflict and violence, child sexual abuse and incest, substance abuse, and undiagnosed depression, particularly when men’s sense of masculinity is also at stake.

The myth and reality of women’s ability to make miracles out of scarcity, and the basics of the welfare net, are holding household budgets together by a shoestring.

Still, don’t fool yourself that such survival produces children that are well. Policy makers rely on people’s capacity to live on very little, but they don’t fully consider or cost how much children suffer or truly fail to thrive.

Thinking about all this, I called up Ozzie Warwick, Chief Education and Research Officer of the OWTU. Both his parents lost their jobs around 1987, under the NAR. Ozzi will tell you he had to eat bread and butter with sugar water during the week, and stretch one chicken from Saturday to Sunday among a family of six.  He was in QRC, but none of his other siblings passed for seven-year schools.

It’s likely that the 1,486 students who scored no pass marks in the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) exam this year were from homes pressured by such economic stresses and harms. The burden of belt-tightening had a direct impact on the children in his family, as it will on others today.

I asked Ozzi the questions that seem so obvious. Shouldn’t the gas subsidy be removed? Don’t jobs have to be cut in bloated public sectors? Isn’t our national problem one of champagne taste and mauby pockets?

There are different ways to deal with a subsidy, he said, but it’s important to understand that it ensured widespread benefit to all citizens, whether rich or poor or single mother on minimum wage, from our national resources.

We fall for the story of cutbacks while no more empowered to stop corruption and elite collusion, or the stranglehold of party patronage. We see businesses benefit from subsidized electricity and water rates, which they rely on for profit rather than to live from day to day. We see banks booming when people are being made to sacrifice even while their actual income value falls.

The long-expected Petrotrin crisis, as Bhoe Tewarie pointed out, is also related to “the debt created by the Malcolm Jones-led board in 2005” which has now become due, and requires a payment of US$850 million in August 2019 which cannot be met.

Ozzi also argued that rating agencies downgrading of Petrotrin and the country’s credit rating is something which a government reliant on borrowing wants to avoid. Yet, shouldn’t the reports and the decisions that follow be debated in Parliament where we can hear all sides?

As we said our goodbyes, Ozzi highlighted labour’s economic alternative plan. He cited Barbadian PM Mia Mottley’s approach to stimulate and stabilize growth through public investment and to default on debt rather than lead Barbados down an IMF-advised road that made Jamaica poorer today than thirty years ago.

We are all in pain, but it’s worse when there is inequity. Fair sharing of national hardship and wealth is the guarantee that government should provide. This should make us all call for consensus on how to share the national burden of adjustment and its impact on our lives.