STEP in line?

Government says renamed STEP will concentrate on Uplifting People.

Government says renamed STEP will concentrate on Uplifting People.

Two thousand, three hundred and twenty five Saint Lucians are currently employed under STEP,” screamed the headlines of a press release from the office of the Prime Minister on Monday July 29, 2013.

The “Short Term Employment Programme” (STEP) an adopted creature of the Saint Lucia Labour Party government, has been described as their “bedrock policy” by none other than Prime Minister Kenny Anthony.

“The Short Term Employment Programme was the bedrock of the Labour Party government when we took the responsibility of reviving the economy in 1997. STEP then found a place in allowing the country to put its people to work in a variety of areas. Today, this new Labour Government continues to embrace the wisdom and foresight of our early days, that is, there is something dignifying and empowering when someone is given a chance to earn their daily bread, small as it may be,” said Dr. Anthony at a ceremony to re-launch the program last July.

The program has now been renamed STEP UP (the U.P. for Uplifting People!)

First of all, if this STEP policy was designed to revive the economy, then it has failed. And don’t take it from me. Take it from the serious economists among us.

Secondly, I have not seen the “variety of jobs” as promised by the PM that STEP offers and there is also nothing uplifting about people having no other choice but to cut grass in the hot sun each day in the name of survival.

Maybe half a century ago, on an estate in Errand or Balembouche, that was how the plantation owners saw it.

STEP seems to exist only for the purposes of the unemployable for just one week. Then it’s back to the ranks of the unemployed. Who would be surprised to learn STEPPERS invest in fast cash around the block, and I don’t mean the supermarket. There has been nothing by way of a program to teach out of work young people  skills not associated with STEP. And so I fail to see the “hope” or wisdom in giving persons bread for a week, with no likelihood of them being able to purchase butter the next.

The fact that this “great SLP idea” is debt-financed makes the idea all the more absurd. Since the start of STEP in 1997 the government has borrowed in excess of EC$70 million dollars to finance the program, placing a greater debt burden on the backs of hard-working tax and VAT payers. Couldn’t all of the highly paid consultants in government, at NICE, PROUD, SSDF and all the other acronyms, come up with some more sustainable projects to help create the ten thousand jobs this Government promised two years ago?

And so the STEP cutlass wielding bushwhackers were busy again last week, all over the island. But as is usually the case, their systems of operation, as primitive as they are, saw debris lying on the roadside for days before being collected.

In some cases, the debris had entered drains, creating new problems or exacerbating old ones. There is also the problem of STEP employees cutting grass and plants in areas where these are needed to hold the soil together. This begs the question whether the STEP foremen consult with the Ministry of Forestry and Agriculture before they set out to chop every blade of grass in sight, every land-protecting tree.

And so, the aforementioned press release from the Prime Minister’s office went on to blow its horn explaining that another cycle of the STEP was underway  in all seventeen constituencies in Saint Lucia.

Announced the government: “Persons would engage in beautification and de-bushing works in communities around the island and that would provide much needed assistance to poor households who are currently struggling to meet monthly expenses and are preparing their children for the September 2013 school year.” I mean, really.

“A deliberate effort was made to engage single parents, who have never been employed under the programme before.”

But even as the government was boasting of its golden button in the emperor’s new clothes, daily paid government workers were crying foul last week. While there were millions in the coffers for STEP, a “system glitch” found the government workers penniless at the end of July.

To date they are still broke and expected to get in STEP this week to receive their dues, which in some cases is less than the fifty dollars a day paid to STEP workers.

Meanwhile hundreds of Saint Lucians over the last few months have joined the unemployment line with the laying off of a number of hotel employees, the closure of a number of businesses and at least one telecommunications company and a call centre sending hundreds more home.

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