Post 428.

JULY 30 is the UN World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. There’s lots for us to think carefully about.

First, there is our understanding of trafficking. The term is often used as a catch-all for slavery, debt bondage or legal sex work. These are not the same, of course. As scholars have pointed out, forms of migration that traverse coercion, debt, and violence are complex and include both women and men working as domestics, and agricultural and factory labour.

Sex work is also common across the region, and is a form of labour for many to survive, whether in TT’s oil and gas economy, in the tourist economies of other Caribbean islands or the extractive gold and diamond sectors in our South American neighbours.

Sexual exchange for different kinds of financial and other support is also common, and may provide some with bargaining power, in conditions not of their own choosing, which they would otherwise not have.

However, more often than not, the “slavery” of women and girls for sexual exploitation is highlighted in the language of “trafficking,” and often there are photos of chained and shackled women which accompany headlines and campaigns.

These images are compelling, partly because they are so stereotypical, but also because they are simplistic to consume. We can see women and girls as helpless victims to be rescued (often by militias of men).

We can reproduce a panic that makes us feel good for feeling bad about others’ plight, and we can think that our awareness is making a difference, even when it’s not clear what action more aware citizens should undertake.

Such images also feed our empathy for those considered “innocent,” but leave in place our mixed feelings about the majority of unregularised migrants, who may inhabit a grey world between agency and exploitation and who may not make perfect victims.

To return to how we think about trafficking for sexual exploitation, it’s easy to empathise with the stories of those kidnapped and forced into prostitution, but still not support those who negotiate their economic lives in relation to sexual labour and who already face state-sanctioned violence, over-policing and stigma.

In focusing on narratives of rescue, we are also rarely made aware of the deeper political and economic causes that lead to indebted or bonded migration.

To what extent does TT’s ambiguous legal and policy approach to migrants and refugees strengthen the conditions for migrants’ vulnerability? If migrant women without regularised status go to the police to report coercion, unsafe working conditions or violence, will they be returned to the home country which they fled in the first place? What is the impact of corruption among coast guards, immigration officials and police, and what action should we be demanding from the state to address this existing issue?

How does the sex industry in TT, in which sex workers cannot legally unionise and represent themselves as workers, leave room for precisely the kinds of extortion that then takes place? What happens when state action to protect migrant women forced into prostitution also criminalises those in the sex trade consensually? Instead of shackles, what would happen if we shine a light on such state complicity and its harms, and what effective responses actually require?

It’s interesting. TT has significant labour practices that are informal, illegal and non-contractual, and defined by low or under-the-table cash wages or poor working conditions. Much of the national population is not unionised and, as one writer in the excellent Open Democracy Series, “Beyond Trafficking and Slavery” put it, “there are few trafficked people in highly unionised industries.”

If we want to make the country a safer place for economic migrants crossing dangerous waters, defending workers’ rights would expand the protections available across bars, factories, groceries, farms, stores, households and brothels where migrants may work alongside low-waged citizens. As Kamala Kempadoo puts it, we also all need to be much more critical of a world and region defined by “the growing wealth and security of a few and the impoverishment and precarity of the majority.”

Solutions profoundly intersect migrant rights, worker rights, gender and sexual justice, and economic justice. Definitely, we should all be more aware.

Post 417.

HOW ARE Caribbean people coping in the pandemic? This is important to ask, for it connects those discussing diversification with those examining social protection, bringing the social together with the economic in ways we must consider.

If Caribbean households are becoming poorer, have exhausted their savings or increased their debt, and are raising tens of thousands of children whose educational performance (and future earnings) are set back, to what extent must our economic plans address the familial and generational shock that more greatly defines our future labour force, consumer demand, and psychosocial health?

The Caribbean Policy Research Institute (Capri) in Jamaica just published its report, “Insult to Injury: The Impact of Covid19 on Vulnerable Persons and Businesses.” It reviews Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago, and helps us know the state of insecurity across our sister isles.

There is a lot to say in response to my opening questions.

As we already know, nearly all households across the region are experiencing decreased income. However, more “women are becoming permanently unemployed than men, exacerbating their existing situation of having lower incomes, precarious work, and higher unemployment.” Capri’s survey showed that 18 per cent of respondents were no longer able to work due to care roles in Jamaica compared with 17 per cent in TT, six per cent in Antigua and Barbuda, and seven per cent in Barbados.

Both women and men equally reported care work affecting their ability to earn an income and, thus, reduced earnings. However, in terms of not being able to work at all, the impact on women was more than double, affecting 13 per cent of them versus five per cent of males. In a region with a high number of woman-headed households, this implies a significant increase in daily familial stress and insecurity.

As we also know, there is increased demand for social assistance to meet basic household needs, particularly for those below the poverty line. It’s also been well established that inequalities in student access to online learning are a crisis in the making. There’s great regional variation, however, with 34 per cent of students in Jamaica versus only 11 in TT reporting difficulty focusing on schoolwork.

Up to January 2021, 30,000 of our children were still without devices. Capri offers comparisons of those surveyed, showing that 44 per cent in Jamaica, 14 per cent in TT, five per cent in Antigua and Barbuda, and two per cent in Barbados reported no access to the internet.

I want to highlight the report’s focus on access to food, particularly in terms of the poorest households in our region. The impact on the poor is significant and unequal, pointing to a widening gap even among those at the bottom.

For example, Capri reports that 60 per cent of respondents from poor households below the poverty line were unable to buy food because of high prices, compared to 34 per cent of non-poor households which were just above the poverty line, and 47 per cent of respondents from households with children were unable to buy food because the price was too high. More specifically, “poor households reported having to reduce the number or portion of meals they eat each day, almost twice as much (29 per cent) as non-poor households (17 per cent).”

Only ten per cent of respondents in TT reported this compared to 49 per cent of respondents in Jamaica, but the recession is deepening in TT and deficit- and debt-financing can only float us for so long. We should also note the particular precarity of Venezuelan migrants, who exist in the no man’s land of our state policy, which offers no clear position on asylum or refugee possibilities. This affects their access to income and ultimately food.

We are here already. San Fernando Business Association president Daphne Bartlett has been quoted assaying, “Half a pound of flour is being sold. Also, a half-pound of rice. People are cutting a margarine in half and selling it. That tells you that consumers’ purchasing power is really bad.”

Across the region, economic contraction means increasing hunger, greater dependence on the State, higher crime, riskier forms of livelihood, and social unrest; further undermining our collective vulnerability. Concern for unequal and increasing financial, nutritional, and psychological depletion among the most poor has to be woven through our aspirations to generate wealth that includes and uplifts, rather than just distributes subsistence welfare.

The alternative is expansion of those unable to cope, and small societies with appalling wealth inequality. Let’s consider recovery options that don’t add “insult to injury.”

Post 335.

Today, I turned 45. I’m not sure I feel celebratory. I feel like a survivor. Like the walking wounded. Moving slowly, but surely on my feet.

For all my empowerment, I’m amazed I’m still negotiating women’s timeworn challenges. Like an increasing number of us, precisely because sheer hard work has led to vastly more university educated women than men, I’m a main breadwinner.

At the same time, because male privilege remains so resilient, I also put in the majority of time on child care and carry the majority of responsibility for managing all the logistics and planning related to family life.

This comes at the cost of my savings and my career. It brings the exhaustion that so many single mothers are familiar with, and dust off like just another day.

It’s labour that is mostly invisible, undervalued, taken-for-granted, and assumed to be mine. For the good of my daughter, like so many moms, I do it willingly and wholeheartedly. I’m clear-eyed about the inequalities, but I’m prepared to sacrifice, to provide the absolute best, and to teach lessons of generosity, care and justice with joy.

I’ve started a whole new life. It’s like adulthood, which is cynical at best, but blushed with rose-coloured bliss. Maybe bliss is just a choice. I imagine I’m past life’s half-way mark so, at this point, I have fewer years ahead than I’ve already lived. These days, therefore, I’m just trying to be happy.

There’s debt to climb out of, overdue publications to submit, a house to buy, and ends to meet. It’s the kind of stress that keeps you up calculating at night.

There are also rivers to walk, waterfalls to find and beaches to remind of the wind and the waves, alternately whispering and roaring, as both wash across the shore.

There’s also love which feels like winning the Lotto every day. Maybe past forty you are not looking for perfect, maybe you are not even looking, maybe you just get lucky enough to cross paths with someone committed to growing.

Inside, I’ve turned bountiful like the hillsides after first rains. I awake more aware that love is a harvest you sow each morning. I count lessons about commitment and communication like seeds, in between calculations at night.

Some days, I lift each limb depressed and empty, like Sisyphus waking to discover the boulder he had shouldered uphill had rolled back down again. What working mother doesn’t know the feeling of not having an hour for herself, to breathe, to think, to feel or to stay sane.

I pole dance twice a week now which is both hard and hot AF. It enables me to support a woman-run and women-only small business which challenges women to become strong, to feel good, to recognize their challenges, to value themselves, and to connect to their sexuality. My goal is simply to show up, for me.

I’ve reached here through taking on and giving up, through gathering and letting go. I remind myself that it’s not possible to have it all, at least not at the same time, wondering if men tell themselves that daily too.

Patriarchy, from politician to religious leader to employer to lover, is a killer, but it’s like rising above the falling rain when you finally reach where you know yourself, your rights and your power. Women come into our own because we’ve hurt and healed, stooped and conquered. I hope I can carry my own independence and freedom, for it has been hard earned.

I now understand how women seem to become more certain, more centred, more unapologetic, and more fearless in their fifties, sixties and seventies. They’ve paid their dues pleasing everybody. Having learned through love and loss, they know there’s far less to fear than they thought. Such insight is a trade with age.

I’ve learned gratitude and forgiveness for those on my side, for those in my softly-beating heart, for the giants in my life, for the child who teaches me, for allies and inspiration, for opportunities to become a better person, and for laughter and cool mornings with trees in the distance.

Every dawn, we receive life as a gift to keep opening. Every dusk, women know the weariness from standing tall like a silk cotton tree, carrying our scars and imperfections, worries and burdens.

Over my shoulder, my own jahajin bundle is slung. Thirty kilometres per second on this next rotation of the sun, and blossoming in my own time and season, here I come.


Post 333.

Finance Minister Colm Imbert might as well have said, “let them eat cake”. The phrase has historically symbolised disregard for struggling masses ketching to afford even basic necessities by suggesting more expensive alternatives out of reach except to the rich. It’s his buoyancy in the face of obvious, everyday economic challenges that smacks with such disdain.

Commonsense tells us that unemployment has significantly risen, and this has led to contraction across the economy. Statistics can’t disagree with commonsense as we haven’t collected unemployment data since the end of 2017. Are “revenue and expenditure now in broad alignment”? If you are spending more than you are bringing in, doesn’t even an ordinary housewife know that this is mere robber talk?

When our children look back at this moment of creating a “solid foundation on which transformation and growth would now be anchored”, will they see creation of an economy with the capacity for self-sustaining growth? Currently, 63% of government revenue comes from taxing agriculture, manufacturing, construction, finance and insurance, but the majority of foreign exchange comes from energy. Non-renewable fossil fuels, converted into state spending, corruption and patron-clientelism, enable us to sustain our import-dependence, but what happens when prices fluctuate or when the fields empty?

Will there be less reliance on foreign investment and more on investment supported by national savings? Commonsense also tells us that increasing our deficit increases our debt and decreases savings, leaving our children to pay in the future for politicians to gallery today.

Finally, will they see a more resilient and diversified economy? Where? How? Construction is a standard stimulus strategy which assumes that putting more money into men’s hands, as the sector is 80% male, will lead to equitable development, sustainable diversification and socio-economic resilience.

Is this a valid hypothesis in Trinidad and Tobago? We don’t even collect the sex-disaggregated data to track the unequal impact of such a strategy on men and women, and on trickle-out across communities. When the construction money disappears like rivers in dry season, what will contractors do?

Experience tells us that this sector will then fall into some of the highest levels of unemployment, with predictable effects on man-woman relations, family insecurity, and domestic violence. Luckily, as money is being released, this will happen after the election, ensuring the local contractocracy plays the role it always has in financing an incumbent’s campaign.

To draw on Caribbean thinker, William Demas, who I knew as a child, will my own daughter see structural transformation of the economy with growth of inter-industry linkages, reduction of dualism (an-offshore and in-shore economy with different realities), and complete eradication of open and disguised unemployment?

Economic stabilization of our kind relies not only on necessary belt-tightening, but on young graduates remaining unemployed and supported by parents because joblessness is real and entrepreneurship isn’t an easy or always realistic fix. It relies on labour becoming increasingly precarious as health and other long struggled-for benefits are cut by the new regime of short-term contracts even for long-term public servants.

It relies on hospitals, prisons, courts, social services, and schools simply not working as they should for so many. It relies on people surviving through the informal economy. It’s great to hear that food inflation was kept low, but what does that mean when local fruit prices are so high? It’s joyous to hear the Minister Finance pat himself on the back, but what are NGOs saying about the everyday suffering they see?

I know self-congratulation is the key language of the hustings, but I’m tired of it before it’s even properly begun. There’s areas of revenue and GDP increase, there’s profit at the banks, and there’s big projects to disperse the dollars, but there’s also a reality in households at odds with the table-thumping in the House. It’s like how we report 98% literacy when any teacher can tell you that’s not the true story.

There’s no updated survey of living conditions nor household budget survey data to turn to in order to empirically applaud a story of turn-around on the ground. I suppose it’s too much to ask for a little humility just in case those who can’t afford bread are also not yet celebrating with cake.


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 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.