Post 345.

With Monday’s “election budget” delivering promises to increase CEPEP and URP wages by 15%, ethnographic look at some of these workers shows the realpolitik of expenditures and elections.

The workers appearing here are members of a neighbourhood of squatters who often petition their political representatives for basic amenities. They also participate as women and men whose area of residence carries social stigma. They participate in general and local-level election campaigns and voting. Yet, they do not do so out of civic virtue or for an imagined greater good.

Through informal actions such as talking to a party activist or formal actions such as registering for a party group, these low-income workers-voters establish personal and reciprocal networks with higher-level party loyalists woven into government offices and practices.

Indeed, contacts with a party activist is key to employment. Leroy explained that an extended family member was “expecting PNM to be back in power and told me I could get a CEPEP work because he knew people and was in the campaigning thing”.

As Baby Girl described, “The URP was passing around to get names, they was using a voting list and asking people if they were voting or not. I say why vote if I not getting work and just before the election I get a ‘10 days’. I took it and then for the election helped them campaign by going around with a list asking people to vote and organising a car for them. They gave us breakfast, lunch and even dinner. All campaigning people got a promise for a ‘10 days’. I got mine and they told me I would get one every other fortnight. We had to wait to see who won the election…UNC and PNM wasn’t giving jobs to who was seen in a PNM or UNC rally or t-shirt or with a flag”.

Baby Girl had secured successive URP jobs through campaigning for the UNC, but could not turn around and openly support the PNM. She, therefore, had no contacts to turn to when the UNC lost power. However, she felt she secured a URP job under the PNM because she declared she would vote for the party.

The elision between squatters, voters, party activists and workers also plays out in CEPEP and URP work teams. As Leroy reflected, “I feel working CEPEP, if a person want to say he belong to a different party, he will keep that to himself. Either belong or keep silent. You supposed to hush your mouth if you are a UNC on the job”.

Renegade agreed, “you have to act like you belong to one party, that is how de contractor puts it to you. He tells you “is PNM gave you this work and if you don’t support them, your job could be jeopardized”. He tells us we have to go to rallies. He told us we had to join the party, but that was nice to now have a card and number”. Josanne added that workers are “mainly PNM, but half the workers are UNC playing PNM to get a work. If they a UNC we run them out”.

After getting a CEPEP or URP job, joining a party and helping campaign is common practice. Usually, the work involves sticking posters, handing out fliers, bringing in people, going to rallies, helping to set up tents, and being “up and down night and day” with the party. The Constituency Executive also encourages workers that are members of or join party groups to see themselves as “agents of the party” and as “PNM representatives there every day in the wider community”.

In a context of high unemployment, economic discontent, scarcity, and difficulty accessing social resources, governing parties rely on these patron-client relations to win elections, control dissidence, and secure loyalty and dependence.

Giving high visibility and higher wages to CEPEP and URP is not simply about assuaging poverty and destitution, distributing income and providing social security. Deployment of state funds between those in authority and those that need their help is a means to electoral ends. Formal state channels are merely structure for extending political influence through informal contacts, especially in marginal constituencies.

Partisan allocation, however, creates the threat of resentment among those excluded, and fears of loss of power among those who benefit, fueling the election battle as citizens are mobilized into voters. Taxpayers will fund Colm’s campaign strategy. If they get their politics right, at least some workers in insecure communities gain a better chance of making ends meet.

 

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.