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.