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posted 15 May 2020, 06:40 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 15 May 2020, 08:10 ]
Gerry Kangalee
In Trinbago we have a saying: All ah we is one family! This has never been so. The history of our country is one of slavery, indentureship, colonialism and wage slavery. It is a history of a tiny group of planters, now turned merchants, controlling the remnants of the economy that the large foreign corporations are not interested in. They amassed and keep on amassing their wealth through the exploitation of labour and their influence on state policy. These days they are referred to as the one percent.

I recently read somewhere, I cannot remember where, someone, in referring to the period of the pandemic, said we are not all in the same boat, contrary to what is being bandied about. We are all in choppy ocean waters, but some of “us” are in ocean liners, while the majority are in pirogues.

The lowest paid; the minimum wage workers are the ones hardest hit by the pandemic. They are the ones who work in the service industries: catering, retail, hospitality, recreation, entertainment and suchlike. They are almost all non-unionised.

According to the Central Bank in 2017 the number of persons with jobs was 603,000 out of a labour force of 634,000. According to the National Insurance Board (NIB) Annual Report for 2017-2018 workers insured with the Board stood at 452,234. There was therefore a big gap between those registered with the NIB and the actual number in the labour force.

The figures given by Minister Imbert in Parliament on April 27th are a bit different. He claims that the Labour Force is 620,000 strong and that those registered with National Insurance was 420,000. This is understandable because since the NIB Report there has been a wave of retrenchment both in the private sector and in enterprises owned by the State. Remember Arcelor Mittal, Petrotrin, TSTT, UTT to name a few. This means that there are 200,000 persons not registered with the National Insurance Board and consequently not registered with the Board of Inland Revenue.

According to Minister Imbert, there are 194,000 workers on minimum wage. It is reasonable to assume that most of those have been affected by the public health regulations They may have been laid off, retrenched, had their wages reduced, working less hours and so on. There are even reports of “essential workers” working full time who have had their wages slashed.

Imbert at first said that the government was catering for 90,000 workers to access the salary relief grant through the NIB, a large proportion of whom are minimum wage workers. He subsequently changed the figure to 100,000. If you get more and more confused at the official figures, I, too, am getting a pressure. So that leaves tens of thousands of minimum wage workers left in limbo or at the tender mercies of Robinson-Regis’ Ministry of Social Development. This situation is tailor made for friend and party member thing. The election campaign is well and truly on.

According to Imbert in his presentation to Parliament on April 27th “As of Friday March 24, 2020, 30,300 applications for Salary Relief Grants had been received”; a far number from that which was originally projected. Even if the numbers have gone up since, it seems that they are no way near the numbers allegedly catered for. The number of horror stories circulating about those who are supposed to have received their salary relief grant of $1500 for three months suggests that bungling and incompetence are the order of the day. 

Imbert went on to say “the Ministry of Social Development is currently processing applications for Income Support Grants of up to $1,500 per month per household, for persons who are outside of the NIS and BIR systems who have lost their jobs or incomes as a result of Covid-19 measures, i.e. persons in the informal economy.”

This means that Ministry has to cater for 200,000 workers, many of whom would be minimum wage workers, many of whom have to prove that they are bona fide workers. Many of their employers have refused to counter sign their claims so as not to expose themselves to scrutiny by the NIB and the Board of Inland Revenue. This Ministry is also responsible for topping up food cards and implementing additional social support measures which is becoming a national scandal in that they are being carried out in typical political party partisan style.

The government is always going to do this and going to do that, but when it comes to implementation, their track record is rather embarrassing to say the least. It is one thing to announce measures, but actually implementing them is a whole other story. Imagine up to May 11th only $12 million had been spent on the salary relief grant. No word on expenditure on the Income Support grant.

Now while all these announcements are being made and not translated into sustained action, the horse is starving. Many people cannot afford to sit at home and socially distance. How can one socially distance living in a two or three room house with five or six other people? It is just a middle class fantasy.

People are not going to wait for weeks for that which is promised to them and knowing that for many of them they will never receive. The $1500 salary relief and income support grants are just around half of what a minimum wage, super-exploited worker takes home. It is not enough and is not even a surety, the way government bureaucracy and corruption works.

While it may be risky to violate the health regulations, many people really have no choice. Roti Kapda aur Makaan is the basis of human survival. (Older people may remember the movie) People have already begun to push the envelope when it comes to the health regulations and while we may frown our faces and cluck our tongues in disapproval, it will happen, whether we like it or not, whether we steups and disapprove or not,  and as time passes the rising wave may become a tsunami. The lockdown is going to end whether by decree from the top or by action from below.

People need the money and they need it now. The $1500 salary relief grant and the income support grant should be increased to nothing less than the minimum wage for minimum wage workers. As Mao Ze Dong may have said - Get rid of the baggage (bureaucracy) and start up the machinery!