September 2018


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.

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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.