Post 376.

Forecasts predict long-term dislocation. Each of us has to figure out how we will adapt. Many incomes will not simply bounce back, particularly among those working in non-contract jobs, the gig and digital economies, and the creative industries.

Trinidad and Tobago has many in these fields – photographers, musicians, filmmakers, graphic artists, web designers, hairdressers and make-up artists, dancers, writers, event planners, youth workers, tour guides, exercise instructors and computer technicians. All of the buy-local, green and artisan markets over the last years showed our immense and vastly under-exported creativity in making art, soaps, candles, woodwork, clothes, bags, books, cocoa-based foods and products, jewelry and condiments.

These workers were doing exactly what the World Bank had pushed as its economic ideology over two decades. They were being entrepreneurial – selling their individual skills on the free market, being agile with how they networked and marketed themselves, and earning incomes through supply of specialized labour to meet demand. They were free to work the hours they chose, to pick the jobs they wanted, and to enjoy other aspects of life without the exhaustion and oppressiveness of a 9-5.

Entrepreneurial is a big word for what these workers would better describe as an everyday hustle, without certainty of another job, without the wage security that comes with greater professional experience, and without the reassurance of health, vacation, pension and other benefits. Most wouldn’t have annuities, wouldn’t qualify for a home mortgage, and may not leave enough for their children to pay for their funeral. It’s likely that their limited saving are already close to depletion, and many are beginning to wonder how they will pay for food by the end of the year, particularly as they may be in increased debt from these months when rent payments are deferred, but not entirely forgiven.

For all these creative, independent and often brilliant people, there’s small chance of a return to 2019 incomes at the end of lockdown or upon opening of the borders or in a year. The economic data predicts a contraction and miraculous change would require that energy prices rise and create liquidity – which is not likely in the short-term. Government funds have principally been spent on welfare – which is necessary, but also our model of economic trickle-down and our primary mode of political campaigning.

They have not yet been spent on transforming economic opportunity for these independent earners who fall outside of the energy, manufacturing, big retail and agricultural sectors, or state jobs. There would have to be a distinct recovery plan, heavily integrated with private sector sponsorship and marketing needs, that includes this vast array of individuals in ways cognizant of the underside of entrepreneurship, which is the unpredictability of hustling and difficulties planning their businesses beyond the short-term.

This broad sector is extremely diverse – hairdressers may survive because they have loyal customers with regular needs. Social media workers may invent new prospects out of the technological turn that COVID has wrought. Entertainment and film industries will struggle with advertising funds where available. High quality, locally-made beauty care products can benefit from us thinking regionally. The fact is, however, that that technological and creative sectors often fall through the cracks in planning and economic stimulus as well as export development. That is because they are seen as beneficiaries of energy wealth, not as income generating or foreign-exchange earning sectors on their own – leaving their potential untapped.

Along with stimulus are new ways that individuals like these may want to organize group health plans, shared saving schemes, and collective standards around contracts and fees, or be helped to do so by ministries of culture, trade and finance. Gig, creative, wellness and technological workers exist and their experience provides first-hand perspective on individuals negotiating survival, savings and success, and having to reinvent themselves. State, private sector and collective organizing can together support safety nets and innovations that forecast and follow the money.

Realistically assessing informal workers’ recovery over the next two years suggests that tough decisions are ahead for many. Some may have to move back into family homes. Some may have to rethink their individual business model. Some may have to learn a new skill that puts food on the family table, though it sacrifices some of their dreams. Some will have to plan, and save on less than before, for generational, technological and market changes are also both threat and opportunity.

The point is, let’s not lose sight of these entrepreneurs, and both the potential and risks of their innate creativity.

Post 372.

Our societies were already defined by exclusion, inequality, and lack of sustainability prior to COVID-19.  Now, Trinidad and Tobago can no longer rely on oil and gas revenues to distribute the basic welfare provisions that kept so many from homelessness, crime, illness and starvation. We simply will not be earning what we spend.

Increased insecurity means that we will not be able to buffer ourselves against the next crisis, whether epidemiological or ecological, unless we plan our recovery as if we are already protecting ourselves from such an inevitability.

To be honest, I’ve struggled with what those options are, and their realism, and will explore them over the next weeks in this column.

On the one hand, as the Guardian Weekly noted last month, “whenever a crisis visits a given community, the fundamental reality of that community is laid bare. Who has more and who has less. Where the power lies. What people treasure and what they fear”.

On this basis, I’ve wanted to argue that we commit to economic and social justice, which is more than welfare provision to women and the poor, as the goal around which we plan national growth. How will our economic recovery also renew the possibilities for women to carry less unequal burden for care; how will it prevent increasing distance between rich and poor; how will it include an education transformation that doesn’t leave so many alienated from learning, how will it create greater inclusion for those on the margins?

Even as we emerge from this period, we also have to keep in mind that the biggest threat to all future generations remains climate-related destruction and death. Around the world, both governments and corporations are rolling back environmental protections in the wake of a focus on the economic recovery.

I’ve wanted to call for us to not lose momentum. Climate change, like COVID-19, is a global disaster which does not respect borders or identities, and requires the very global collaboration, respect for science, speed of response and individual investment in preventing unnecessary deaths that have shaped our lives these past weeks. If we understood the climate crisis as far more lethal, we would find the funds to invest in renewable energy and low-carbon alternatives on every front, so many of which are our endless resources in the Caribbean. “We would see these kinds of emergency packages that would get people off of the fossil fuel grid and onto a clean grid right away” says May Boeve, executive director of the climate advocacy group 350.org.   

These are the big issues of social, economic and climate justice which require not just big ideas, but much bigger political will. I’ve been drawn to them, knowing as we now do that everything we consider harmful can be stopped, regardless of the impact on international travel or school exams, if we decide an emergency response is required. If we think of the injustices we were living with all along as a disaster, we could decide this was a time like no other.

On the other hand, I’ve been drawn down from thinking that every big idea is one we should be allowed to consider to focusing on the nitty-gritty of immediate protections. Corruption and mismanagement has been the major harm to our financial wealth since independence. This is why our national savings are so small – they have been stolen and wasted by our very own, leaving us less able to protect our most vulnerable or turn our economies around on our own. Enact procurement legislation so that it no longer occurs from today.

Negative growth across the region and increasing indebtedness – both individual and national –  means harder times for most, increasing hunger and hardening anger. We need hope that comes from alternatives, imagined with our broadest, most inclusive ideas of justice at their heart, quieting the cynicism we have all felt that nothing changes, at the very moment when everything absolutely can.  

Frankly, the whole society – every cook, cleaner, caterer, cashier and child carer –  should have a say in how we will survive, including on the basis of cooperative-based and solidarity economy models, such as bartering and sharing. So many development solutions can come from listening.   

From the midst of economic and emotional despair, we must therefore find on a future defined by each other’s resilience and renewal, and do so collectively and transparently. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to move beyond recovery of an older order and, instead, birth long dreamed and long overdue possibilities.    

Post 275.

Women, this week, speak your truth.

March through Port of Spain on Thursday 8th March at noon, continuing a 60-year tradition started first by Christina Lewis in San Fernando. Rally from Whitehall and around the Savannah on Saturday 10th March at 3pm with others painting posters, T-shirts and banners, and highlighting the challenges of women’s realities and our demands for long-due women’s rights.

Gather with your male allies to build movements, sisterhood and safe spaces around women’s issues and their solutions.

And, if you cannot be there, know that we have not forgotten you.

Maybe you’re a grandmother looking after grandchildren whose parents are incarcerated, managing just enough for passage to school and food. You’re an institutionalized woman or girl, the majority of whom have experienced childhood abuse and may now be deeply missing potential for healing.

You’re on your feet six days a week in retail stores in Tunapuna, High Street and Chaguanas Main Road, and the low wages and long hours mean you’re conserving your energy and money for waged work, work at home and managing another week. You’re the daughter primarily responsible for care of your aged or unwell parents, and don’t leave them more than you have to.

Your husband has been laid off or one of the hundreds killed by gun violence, and you’re in the kitchen after work and on weekends catering to make ends meet. You’re in treatment for cancer, but without enough strength to walk.

You’re one of tens of thousands of women living with intimate partner violence in the last decade, and you experience body pains, lack of confidence and an inability to concentrate, and it just feels too much to do one more thing in public. Maybe the bruises or the threats against your life are so bad, you’re unwilling to leave wherever you are now safe.

You’re on shift in the police force, in the army, at KFC or as a domestic worker in someone’s home. You are cleaning your temple, church or mosque as part of women’s work, keeping you away from organizing to advance struggles solely in your name.

The struggle for women’s rights is founded on common truths. Right here, on average, men make about $15 000 more than women per month. National-level prevention programmes and a coherent state strategic plan to end gender based violence do not exist. Girls’ rates of HIV infection, child sexual abuse, teenage parenthood and economic insecurity remain higher that boys. These are real harms, negotiated with great risk and backlash. Still, girls and women dust off and cope, survive and improve.

If you can’t gather, open up to your neighbor, your trusted religious elder, or your partner, so that hearing compels them to turn empathy to solidarity. Tell your co-workers, your boss, your support group so that they can commemorate your resilience. Make your survival visible on your Facebook or Instagram profiles so that you refuse shame and silence, and so that we can affirm the conqueror in you. Honour unrecognized women who are the foot soldiers holding families and nation together.

However, you can, press for gender justice, for a national gender policy, sexual harassment legislation, better services for trauma victims, ratification of ILO Convention189, and an end to corruption that steals from our children’s mouths and backpacks, and from their very dreams for a better future.

Visit the Facebook page, International Women’s Day Trinidad and Tobago, for a list of events meant to educate and empower. Whether you march or you finally leave or you speak up for yourself or you break a long held silence or you celebrate another day that you grow strong, you can stand up, speak up, get up.

Imagine and create a world in which girls and women feel collective power to make change that comes from boldly speaking our truths. However you can, this week, this is what you can do.

 

 

Post 246.

Have you heard of the ‘precariat’? This term names the experience of employment or under-employment for many, and maybe for you also, in the next decade.

The precariat comprises those who are salaried, but working in conditions of extreme insecurity. Workers on one month or three month contracts, whose year-long contracted jobs with benefits have been reduced to six or nine-months without benefits, those working longer hours for the same pay, in jobs not guaranteed to be funded another year. Such people could be any of us, working in government offices or as a newspaper columnist or in the university. No chance of loans or a mortgage; uncertainty regarding whether you can pay school costs, health bills or rent; fear of whistle-blowing corruption, mismanagement or ineptitude; undercut collective bargaining power; and demoralization follow.

Think of all the workers on the breadline since fossil revenues fell away, the impact on families, and the absolute futility of underfunded social services unable to respond. From this, expect an oncoming rise of drug and human trafficking, gun crimes, gang and intimate partner violence, and religious fundamentalism as gutted governments find nations increasingly ungovernable.

But, here, the precariat is lucky because they haven’t been laid off, just underpaid and without job security. They’ve joined those already making ends meet in the informal economy, in daily-paid jobs, in home-based work, or in the poor conditions of the retail sector – where women predominate. It’s worse for the young, and worst of all for young women, despite their greater investment in education. We have yet to see whether managers and bosses will fight for fair salaries for their staff or bow to a logic that exploits those earning the least with pride that they are, at least, still salaried. It’s a loss-loss scenario and fails the standard of a human-centred economy, for people with stability are much more likely to show vision, investment and leadership in their jobs and community.

And, we can’t legitimately throw entrepreneurial language at these folks, though such tiefhead is all the rage. Entrepreneurship or self-employment has a long, proud history in the region, as farmers, market vendors, seamstresses, bakers, broom-makers, designers, music producers and others will tell you, but it comes without health or maternity benefits, clear work hours, legal protections, and a strong social safety net, and results in lower lifetime savings.

Cadres of stable jobs, particularly in institutions, are necessary, as insecure workers find it hard to think or live beyond the present and their own bottom line – a major problem in our national culture already. Such precarity is what would have been considered exploitation in better times, but what you better be grateful for today. Although, the truth is, the rise of precarious work gives rise to a precarious society.

Yet, keep these in mind.

Globally, while the incomes of poor and middle-class have risen incrementally (though precarity is reversing this), the incomes of the wealthiest have risen exponentially under neoliberal capitalism (a term which you should get off Facebook and go google). The problem isn’t one of lack of money globally or in Trinidad and Tobago.

It’s that wealth is concentrated or wielded rather than equitably or responsibly distributed, particularly to workers of all kinds. In 2002, our budget was almost 50 billion less than today, yet our population is only marginally larger. Waste, corruption and irresponsible elites have left us in this state. We must learn to follow every dollar. For, workers pay the price.

Third, though corporations, investment and equity firms, and banks, rather than governments, rule the global political economy, the state has huge responsibility for managing this moment, through its education, prison reform, border protection, gender, environmental, agricultural, public transport and other policies.

Better governmental management for greater public good is totally possible as anyone familiar with dozens of unimplemented and common sense recommendations made over the past thirty years knows. Every kind of worker must hold political elites accountable for state failures and suffering that follows.

New movements must thus emerge, for this growing group of workers can organize for greater collective power and decision-making over this increasingly insecure and unequal economy.

Welcome to the precariat for whom the struggle is present and real.

 

Post 229.

Economic insecurity increases violence.

Hunger, anger, frustration, trauma and desperate choices all rise. Expectations and needs cannot be adequately met. Low income communities, which are most exposed to these stresses, feel the effects in their homes, schools and streets, and in their relationships with police, social services and political representatives. This, despite their supportive networks, cultural strengths, elders, and positive neighbourhood leaders, both women and men.

Success, Laventille. Picton. Upper Belmont. Sea Lots. Embacadere. La Romaine. Samaroo Village. Enterprise. Covigne Road. Cocorite. These communities’ experience of destructive masculinities and gang-related violence, high rates of early parenthood, and intra-family violence are firmly linked to the effects of economic inequality, which are not effectively countered by the ‘freeness’ of hospitals, schools, social programmes or patronage-based jobs.

Indeed, economic insecurity is itself a form of violence. Throwing money at ministries is not the solution to crime, despite today’s headlines. Budgets are critical, but just as important are bureaucratic decisions, processes and cross-sectoral involvement, in this case regarding the Ministry of National Security.

With oil prices down, inflation high, and a significant part of the population dependent on the informal and illegal economy, we have to calculate more than dollars. We have to see whether how, when and through whom they are spent makes sense, directly addressing the oncoming rise of violence within vulnerable communities, and beyond them.

Over the past eight years, the Citizen Security Programme has been working to create greater peace, and community capacity to address the risk factors associated with crime and violence in 22 communities in Trinidad and Tobago. This pilot programme is coming to a close, but it’s crucial that the work introduced and partnerships supported not end. For, more than during past boom years, trust-building, conflict management, mediation, peer-counselling, youth mentorship and after-school programmes are necessary.

There’s now a National Crime Prevention Council, but its approach moves away from a successful CSP model, and requires coordination across many actors, suggesting extended start-up delays. Perhaps community peace initiatives should be implemented through regional corporations, but they lack experience. Bureaucratic lag, between when the CSP stops and when this pilot project translates into sustained state roll out, will thus literally result in increased everyday sufferation.

In the 22 original CSP communities, between 2008 and 2016, there was a reduction in murders by 55%, with the national reduction for the same period being 17%; a reduction in wounding and shooting by 20%, with the national reduction for the same period being 11%; and a reduction in sexual offenses by 63%, with the national reduction being 54%.  Additionally, the Crime and Victimization Survey (2015) found that more residents in these communities felt safe at home, that the authorities were concerned about them, that they could make a positive difference in their community, that neighbours were willing to help and trust each other, and that serious crimes could be reported.

Here, sustaining the leadership and capacity of communities themselves, and Community Action Councils, was key to preventing crime and violence, and possibly promoting long-term behavioural change between intimate partners, between parents and children, and among residents. More work has to be done specifically targeting youth and children, specifically taking into account gender-based violence, particularly against women, and child sexual abuse. Continuous investment in conflict mediation and redefining masculinities is crucial.

That work has to not stop while ministers, advisors and councils transition too slowly, in the process losing experienced service providers and generating communities’ sense of abandonment and uncertainty. Regional Corporation administrators need extensive training, in collaboration with NGOs and police, if that is the final plan for the way ahead. Timely release of funds is needed to avoid cynicism about the process among front-line workers.

There’s some simple adding up here. Economic tightening means worsening risk. Without a national programme to help higher-risk communities manage safety, gains will be reversed. Increased crime and violence will not stay within the imagined boundaries of those stereotyped areas, but eventually affect us all, heightening national trauma. Budgetary allocations must be met by urgent bureaucratic leadership and implementation of a effective programme which provides continuity as CSP ends. Post-budget, following monetary proclamations to such a necessary conclusion is what is now required of us all.