Another two thousand jobless!

Dr Robert Lewis

Dr Robert Lewis

According to the 2012 CIA World Factbook, the African nation of Zimbabwe has the highest unemployment rate in the world, ninety five percent (95%). This is the percentage of the labour force that is without jobs. At number forty, according to the same 2012 figures, is Saint Lucia with just over twenty percent (20%). One year later and the unemployment rate here has risen by another three percent. The information was released last week to the media, by the island’s director of statistics, Edwin St. Catherine. According to the statistics department, the total labour force of St Lucia was just over ninety seven thousand in the second quarter of 2013 and the unemployment rate increased by over one percent reaching 23.8% in the same quarter. The total number of persons unemployed increased from 21,114 to 23,124.

Over the last few months a number of businesses have either been scaling back their operations or shutting down entirely. This has resulted in thousands of job losses this year alone. Particularly glaring was the shutting down of a major call center in the north, the closure of several restaurants and the laying off of several workers by at least one telecommunication company and a number of hotels. The construction sector, which under such circumstances would help stimulate the economy, has been at a virtual standstill despite the Government’s offering of a stimulus package for construction.

In response to the new unemployment figures, the executive director of the Saint Lucia Employers’ Federation said he was not surprised. “But we must move quickly and collaboratively to stabilize the job market,” Joseph Alexander said. “I think that the Government, employers, everyone is worried. What I think we need to do is that we cannot wait any longer, we need to put our heads together and decide how we are gong to deal with this situation,” Alexander added. He also pointed out that a number of businesses were teetering on the brink of closing down, but that now was not the time for the blame game. “The solutions are not that simple. We will require sacrifices,” he said, emphasising the need to avoid the issue becoming a political football.

But one has to wonder whether the credibility of these new statistics will be questioned by the Government, after the debacle two years ago over the percentage of growth in the country.

During the 2012/2013 Budget Presentation, former Prime Minister and current Leader of the Opposition, Stephenson King, in response to Dr Kenny Anthony’s correction of the actual GDP, tried to explain to the people of St Lucia what had transpired during his 2011 announcement of a 4.4% growth in the economy. King in effect blamed the Director of Statistics who he claimed was responsible for the figures, eventually calling for the Director to be fired if he did in fact provide the wrong figures.

St. Catherine responded to King’s call for his termination, saying that the statement was rather unfortunate. In an interview with the STAR, St Catherine explained what had transpired. He admitted that there was “a poor medium of communication”.

“It was quite an unusual situation where we had to make a decision and we had to produce a number by the end of February, which is generally the deadline for us. I wrote that specific letter somewhere in the middle of April or so of last year. That letter indicated that we were having problems with the data source and we cannot decide that this is the number and we are confident, you can go ahead. It is only when we are forced, for instance, a week before the Budget, we would have to make a decision to say, you know what, this is the number. We may have a problem with the input in the process but we respect the process.

“If we cannot validate the input then we have to respect the process and go with the number, and that was what we did,” said St. Catherine. The Director also took time to explain what caused the figures to drop from 4.4% to 0.6%. He said although figures for tourist arrivals were up significantly, that alone was not enough to maintain a higher GDP.

But unlike the GDP figures that dropped drastically after the revision, there is hardly any likelihood that the same will happen with the unemployment figures. In fact the experts are warning that we brace for more bad news at the end of the fourth quarter.

Looking at the current unemployment figures, one has to also question the SLP’s promise of creating ten thousand jobs once elected into office. The party, lead by Kenny Anthony, was voted into power in 2011 boasting a manifesto dubbed “The blueprint for Growth” with the promise of creating “jobs, jobs, jobs!”

Under the header “Our Economic Development Programme” the manifesto stated; “the crisis that faces us manifests itself in the following ways; a dramatic decline in construction activity; a significant decline in government revenues; a marked increase in indirect taxes, duties, levies, and fees to bolster falling revenues; a drop in retailing and wholesaling of goods; a huge increase in unemployment, growing from 14% in 2006 to 24.5% in 2011 and a marked increase in the cost of living. “Jobs,” the manifesto read, “would be the party’s number one priority if elected into office.

“Through an effective combination of short term employment activities, an active public sector investment programme, the strategic use of incentives to encourage local investments, and the creation of an environment that attracted foreign direct investment, the SLP was able to reduce unemployment from 25% in 1997 to 14% in 2006,” it stated. “Incompetent management by (this) UWP government has caused unemployment to rise once again to alarmingly high levels of over 20%,” it further charged. “A major priority of our government will be the creation of jobs. Our party will translate its comprehensive Employment Activation Programme (LEAP) into a national initiative to create employment, dedicated to creating and finding jobs for Saint Lucians,” the SLP manifesto stated.

The measures to be taken to create these jobs were as follows; the immediate injection of EC$100 million into the economy to stimulate job creation and reconstruction, post-Tomas reconstruction programs, the resumption of STEP and the re-engaging of the private sector in a new public private sector partnership for job creation.

According to the SLP, after forming the government, five areas for growth in job creation would be targeted; the tourism industry, the creative industries, the ICT sector, the renewable energy sector and high value-added agriculture.

However, so far none of these sectors have been able to make any significant dents in the unemployment rate. A number of new hotel initiatives have stalled whilst others have gotten off to a slow start after their ground-breaking ceremonies.  The creative sector still seem like an experiment and has for the most part been pegged to the NICE program offering short term gigs and hand-outs to local entertainers. However there appear to be no linkages to the various sectors like tourism, e-commerce or even an education component through the schools that would make it viable and sustainable.

But whatever the reasons for the continued increase in unemployment and there may be many, it is obvious that a number of workable solutions is needed and needed fast. No longer can we continue to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that we are not in the grip of a crisis  that shows no favour to colour.

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