Unemployment has long been a hot topic at local watering holes as well as other less spirited venues, and there appears to be no relief in sight. Recently it was revealed that almost a quarter of the island’s “employable” population were on the breadline.
While some point accusing fingers at the government’s inability to deliver on promised jobs for the masses, one local businessman is sharing his thoughts on the escalating rate. His assessment may surprise you.
Rayneau Gajadhar, CEO of Construction and Industrial Equipment Limited and chairman of the National Competitiveness and Productivity Council, made it very clear he was speaking only as an observant citizen.
“Unemployment in St Lucia is not as high as I think it is made out to be,” he said. “While the statistics say unemployment is 24.9%, a lot of that unemployment is voluntary unemployment or unemployable. As it stands now, a lot of the unemployment is directly attributed to the inability to perform. Of the number of people who are unemployed, the majority either have no skills or lack the skills necessary for the work available.”
Gajadhar revealed he had been looking for quality employees for his own company, with little success.
“As I speak to you I have in excess of thirty positions available but cannot find the people to fill them,” he said. “I am looking for mechanics, truck drivers, supervisors, and managers. I am also looking for people who can do audit and analysis. But I cannot find them. So while we say there is unemployment, the people are not skilled, not trained, and they are not interested in learning the skills for the available jobs.”
He said a great number of people were “voluntarily unemployed.” And there were those who refused to work because they didn’t want the salaries offered. They do not balance between their output and the salary they are going to get. “A lot of the available jobs,” said Gajadhar, “cannot pay what workers expect. If we compare salaries to productivity we will notice that there is a major disparity.”
The construction magnate praised the government for a particular project. It was a concept he had toyed with himself, he said.
“The stimulus package was a very good initiative,” he said. “If you recall, I was the first person in St Lucia to have created a construction stimulus package. I had done that under the UWP regime about five years ago, when things were slow. I created that stimulus package to create work in the construction industry. It did create a little work. It did make a difference though not the difference that I expected.”
On the other hand Gajadhar believes the recent government stimulus package, while he personally had benefited from it, “many of the persons in the lower income brackets, for whom it may have been intended,” had not.
Intriguingly, Gajadhar does not think the country should place its hopes in the industry where he’d made a name for himself. “Construction is not the answer,” he says. “It does not translate into lasting employment.”
Additionally: “It creates very short term employment. Although I am in the construction industry full-time, I think it is a very wrong thing to do to push and drive construction. Construction is driven by large sums of money invested in a short space of time, with a very long-term repayment. So the benefits for construction are only for a very short period of time—one year maximum. But the repayment is over twenty years. Which means that someone has to work for twenty years to pay a construction activity that only benefitted the economy for one year.”
Besides construction, there are other avenues Gajadhar would like to see explored: “If it’s sustainable, agriculture can be driven and be pushed. Small businesses need to be seen as the next driver for this economy. We cannot depend on large-scale employment anymore, because nobody is going to come here with a factory; our wages are too high and our productivity is too low.”
“The work ethic of Saint Lucians is also terrible. So we cannot expect anybody or any business to create the atmosphere employing large numbers of people in any one industry. The hotel industry is the only one that has sustained employment. We look at the growth in the hotel industry; it is a bare one percent per annum or even less than one percent per annum. And that’s not enough to sustain the number of students coming out of school and the number of people that need to be employed.”
We must continue to drive our individuals to be self-employed, said Gadjadhar. “I think very little respect has been given those people with trays on the side of the road. If we look at history, you will see that a lady with a tray at the side of the road sends four kids to school; they go to university from a little tray. This is the kind of contribution we need to look for. It takes the pressure off the government. It puts it directly on the person who determines what they become in terms of how well they do. If they work and they’re consistent, they will do well. If they don’t produce, they don’t do well.”
By Gajadhar’s measure, the entities responsible for improving conditions of the workforce have had a detrimental effect: “I think the unions . . . have contributed greatly to our being where we are today. Increased wages . . . are the only thing they fight for. They never consider productivity, work ethic . . . They have contributed to our economy being where it is, our workforce being as small as it is and our unemployment rate being as high as it is.”
He referenced last year’s CSA strike as an example of everything that is wrong with the system: “It was all about money. Nobody was interested in how many hours were spent at work, what was produced, what was done, late days and so on. So they stopped working for weeks, cost the government 3 million dollars and yet they still got paid. Where can you go with that mentality and attitude? How did it benefit people? They got their wages but how will it benefit St Lucia and our economy in the long and short term?