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 373.

Our next crisis is one of food. At the end of March, Minister Paula Gopee Scoon assured that there was a six month food cover, and that food shortages would not be an issue. Supermarket owners instead signaled that food prices will continue to rise and predicted supply shortages. Agricultural economists pointed to a two to three month cover – this isn’t unusual when supply chains are working, but when they are not, shortages are to be expected.  Newspaper headlines have already highlighted that people are having difficulty putting food on the table.

The UN’s World Food Programme has predicted that the number of people suffering from acute hunger will double, to 265 million. More than the numbers, however, it’s their language that hits home, describing an oncoming catastrophe as “as hammer blow for millions more who can only eat if they earn a wage. Lockdowns and global economic recession have already decimated their nest eggs. It only takes one more shock…to push them over the edge”.

There are multiple shocks to the region, from a decline to tourism to energy revenues. We are weeks from hurricane season and potentially devastating flooding, including of farmers’ fields. Venezuelan migration will continue, putting additional pressure on diverse population needs in Trinidad and Tobago. It’s an issue of supply chains, but for Trinidad and Tobago, it’s also an issue of excessive food imports, declining foreign exchange, decreased family income, and the long devaluation of local agriculture.

Here at home, 194,000 people make a living on minimum wage. If some of those jobs will never recover after this initial impact of COVID-19, how will people afford to eat? 

Labour and livelihood are directly related to food provision. In this context, women will experience the hammer blow hardest. They dominate in the lowest-paid jobs and there are fewer women in higher paying sectors. Given that women also undertake the majority of childcare regardless of whether they are employed full time, all those calling for the economy to open, while children remain home, seem blind to the cost and value of childcare, and women’s unequal responsibility.

Women are clustered in the service, hospitality and retail sectors where jobs will contract as consumer demand decreases. Many women also depend on the informal economy as self-employed or own account workers with little  financial protection – whether they are domestic workers or free-lance in the once-lauded ‘gig’ economy. Those that were in more secure jobs will receive contracts of shorter duration that cut costs on their health and other benefits as employers aim to save money. Those who were able to send remittances, often mothers, may now be among the millions of unemployed in the US, directly impacting children’s welfare.

When men also experience lower wages and unemployment, thousands of unresolved court cases for child maintenance will result in less support to women who still need to send children to school and provide sufficient nutrition.

So, the food crisis is gendered in terms of vulnerability of income and responsibility for food provision. Mainly, this situation has been seen as an historic opportunity – to cut excessive imports, to establish more autonomy from US agricultural outputs, to diversify outlets for regionally and locally grown food, to strengthen intra-Caribbean agricultural trade, and to reduce food waste.

In the meanwhile, at times of difficulty, women and girls become more vulnerable to exploitative options such as transactional sex, borrowing money, staying in violent relationships or going into debt to pay for food.

With greater dependence on food hampers and donations over the next year, there is also risk of shifting families to non-perishable, nutrient-poor, heavily processed foods, which are high in fats, salts and sugars, instead of fresh vegetables and fruit. This threatens to increase diseases such as diabetes, further deepening responsibility for care of ill family.

Women already labour longer hours than men both in the economy and at home – that means fewer hours to earn an income amidst greater responsibility for children. Calls for everyone to plant food gardens are good, and necessary, but also impose an additional responsibility on women as breadwinners, nurturers and food producers. This fits the myth that Caribbean mothers can work miracles and it enables blame when they can’t cope.

Multiple voices are pitching good, often long-proposed, food solutions. For each of them, issues of gender – defined by roles, responsibilities, and inequalities in access to resources and power – must be given a place at the table when we face what is being called ‘third shock wave’, which is hunger.