February 03, 2002
By Raffique Shah
THE Unemployment Relief Programme (URP) in its many incarnation—from Special Works to ETP—has been a razor-sharp, double-edged cutlass that inflicted incurable social wounds on both the governments that spawned it, and the people who were meant to benefit from it. Some 40 years ago, the then prime minister, Dr Eric Williams, introduced it as a means of stemming the tide of violence among the urban unemployed. Since then, no government has had the guts, far less the vision, to either eliminate it, or to transform it into a vehicle for rescuing the wretched of this country from a state of persistent poverty.
Instead, much the way it was when the programme first began, the URP serves as a stomping ground for "badjohns" and criminals. Politicians seem to be mortally afraid of these characters who have taken charge of the programme, whatever government is in power.
Under the UNC government, the URP/ETP was riddled with criminal elements controlling it at the highest levels. Today, the PNM government picked up from when it demitted office in 1995, substituting its own gang of "muscle men" for the blowhards who found favour with the UNC. And in the midst of it all, the dispossessed, for whose benefit the programme was intended, remain hapless political pawns at the mercy of men for whom compassion for human suffering is alien.
It never ceases to amaze me, the sight of scores or hundreds of URP "employees" protesting against the removal from office of their managers and directors. It happens almost every time a government changes, since it is axiomatic that the "changing of badjohns" (read "managers") goes with any change in government. Indeed, the same people who protested against the new PNM government firing Arnim Smith and other senior officials in the "UNC's URP" will be the very people who will rise up against any changes in "management" if another government comes to power tomorrow.
What do URP workers really get from this programme, for which funds ranging from $150 million to $300 million a year, are allocated? As I understand it, there is a permanent staff that is fairly well paid, given their lack of technical or academic qualifications. Smith said that some programme managers were earning "petty sums"—like $4,000-$5,000 a month—while he, as overall director, had a $14,000 monthly compensation package. These "permanent" employees, I believe, number more than 1,000.
Smith, and those who live and die by the URP creed, need to bear in mind the fact that nurses, teachers, police and prisons officers (among other public sector employees), most of whom have decent academic qualifications or other training, have only recently found themselves in that salary range.
And these are professionals who do not "prop hoes and shovels" for a few hours a day. They often work long hours under trying conditions, risking life and limb, and in the process they make positive contributions to society.
The average URP employee, on the other hand, gets a few "ten days" every year—if he is "badder" than the boss, or if he is lucky. Or he must be prepared to sacrifice his manhood, not to add part of his pay packet, to the "criminal" who did him a favour of granting him the pittance.
For women, it is still the norm for them to be coerced into giving sexual favours to the unscrupulous men who control this programme. In fact, it has reached the stage where older women who are no longer attractive to these beasts have to offer their daughters' bodies for the privilege of getting "ah ten days".
Nothing that I have written so far should be news to the average citizen who keeps abreast of what's happening around him. Which means that governments are aware of the nasty side of the URP, of its savagely exploitative nature that borders on outright criminal acts. Yet, because it has grown from being a refuge for warring steelbandsmen to a national "vote-catching" institution, no party wants to touch it. They therefore stand accused of condoning criminal activities and harsh sexploitation that are part of the programme.
In the latest URP/ETP altercation, the UNC claims that its members are being fired or debarred from employment purely on the basis of their political affiliations. The party will not say that it did the same thing to PNM supporters when it took office in 1995, or that it offered employment to PNMites who were prepared to join the UNC. And when Basdeo Panday accuses Patrick Manning of employing insurrectionists to run the programme, he and his minions conveniently forget that under their stewardship the same insurrectionists (or maybe a different faction) were in control.
Worse, isn't it true that among the groups with which Panday formally met after he became Prime Minister, the Muslimeen took precedence? Does he deny that when he were in opposition, post-1990, the Muslimeen was in close alliance with his party? In fact, the Muslimeen claimed credit for "bringing home" the constituencies in the East-West Corridor that made the difference for the UNC. So it was "halal" for the UNC to use the Muslimeen, but it's "haram" for the PNM to do it. Talk about lies and half-truths!
Bilaal Abdullah, the man who is said to have put the new programme together, comes across as a man with a social conscience that is usually missing among religious zealots and most politicians. But perception is more powerful than reality. And Abdullah will always be known as the leader of the Muslimeen squad that stormed the Red House and shot then prime minister ANR Robinson and AG Selwyn Richardson. Hell, as leader of the army mutiny way back in 1970, I still have to live with a notoriety that is linked to that rebellion.
If Bilaal really has the interest of the nation at heart, he would advise the Manning government to find ways of radically transforming the URP into something more meaningful, more rewarding. It would be better to give straight welfare benefits to the unemployed and poverty-stricken, rather than dehumanise them for "ah l'il ten days". In 40 years, the programme has remained unchanged, except for "ole time badjohns" giving way to a new breed of criminals, and "Jean and Dinah" making way for Nicole and Suzette.
The URP, like Caroni Limited, is stuck in a political time warp, and only radical surgery will save it. But both are so politically sensitive, they have withstood changes on the political front for decades. Ironically, these two may well destroy the very parties that depend on them for political survival.
Copyright © Raffique Shah