Raffique Shah


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Poverty is hell

October 20, 2002
By Raffique Shah

OVER the next two weeks or so I expect both politicians and people to focus on the Budget. This annual parliamentary exercise that has become so routine, even predictable, I often wonder why sensible citizens bother with it. Personally, I have long ceased listening to either its presentation by the Finance Minister, or the sterile debate that follows. As a citizen, I want to know only how much more-or less-I have to pay in direct taxes, and then scan the measures announced to see what other forms of picking my pocket are contained therein.

Because one can be certain that whatever lofty promises politicians make on campaign platforms, when it comes to "balancing the Budget" they are sure to find ways of pleasing the masses through a few populist measures, and many hidden ones that are sure to reduce people's purchasing power. So the top income tax bracket may be reduced by whatever percentage the government decides, but the people who really control the country's dollar-flow, senior public servants, have already inserted "incidentals" that would more than make up for any shortfalls in revenue. In the end, people who earn fixed incomes pay the piper for others to enjoy his music.

Of course, new Prime Minister Patrick Manning, sitting as he does on an ample flow of oil-and-gas dollars, may choose to tackle our serious social problems through budgetary measures. He and his colleagues campaigned heavily on the intention of the PNM to first mitigate, then eradicate poverty. It's a tall order for any government operating under an unbridled capitalist system that necessarily divides people into the "haves" and the "have-nots". Any attempt to close the rich-poor gap will be stoutly resisted by those who must protect their dollar-lined turf.

One has merely to look at the minimum wage issue. When the Basdeo Panday government raised it to seven dollars and hour, the business sector was very vocal in opposing it. Many claimed they'd sooner close shop than pay such "ridiculously high" wages. Now, the current minimum wage yields a paltry $56 a day, or $280 a week, for tens of thousands of souls. Manning is talking about raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour. He is sure to run into a concrete wall in the form of the ECA, the Chamber of Commerce and the TTMA.

Mark you, those who are resisting the proposed increase in the minimum wage will think nothing of spending $1,000 on dinner-for-two. That, of course, is the amount thousands of poor, minimum-wage workers, have to mind their families on-for a full month! And lest these "scrooges" feel that they are being overly generous in meeting the $7-an-hour wage, I have long maintained that outside of small entrepreneurs like operators of parlours or doubles stalls, if a businessman cannot afford to pay an employee $56 a day, he should close his doors! He ought not to be in business.

And this is where both the politicians and the people should be focusing-not on the abstruse contents of the Budget. It is to the credit of Point Fortin MP Larry Achong that he has taken a firm position on the plight of contract workers at the Atlantic LNG plant. Imagine the German company that's the main contractor and project manager at what is a short-term construction project daring to justify its $11-an-hour labourer wage by saying it's what obtains "on the market". I'd love to see Lurgi use that ruse in Hamburg or Berlin!

The concept of "contract labour" has its benefits, employers tell you. They get greater productivity without having to worry about fringe benefits like medical plans, safety, payment for overtime work, and so on. But "contract labour" can also be viewed as modern-day slavery. Workers in this system, which happens to be the majority of the work force today, work for far less than what their full-time counterparts earn for comparable work. They also enjoy no benefits, do not get paid if they fall sick, have no vacation or other forms of leave available to them, and they cannot be unionised, so they are at the mercy of their bosses who are invariably modern-day Shylocks.

This is one reason why the UNC's boast, when it was in government, of lowering unemployment was somewhat hollow. Because its heavy reliance on "contract labour" meant that what it effectively did was remove a significant number of people from being unemployed to being under-employed. In other words, yes, they got something to feed themselves and maybe their families. But the levels of income were so low they had little impact on their standard of living. So while statistics favoured the UNC, the reality on the ground was as grim as it always was.

Poverty eradication must be the main focus of the Manning government. Eliminating or even minimising poverty will yield several positive benefits to the society. Someone who is given the opportunity to earn a decent wage finds his self-esteem take a quantum leap. He is also less likely to engage in criminal activities (we saw a marked drop in crime before the elections-and I firmly believe the jobs created, albeit for electioneering purposes, were partly responsible for this decline). And in families that can be held together by parents who earn a living by working with dignity, there is often a new approach to educating their children. So by attacking poverty with full force the government will also be fighting other negatives that flow from destitution.

Finally, I should like to remind the Prime Minister of his many promises to the youth of the nation. The PNM made its gains in the elections largely because the party was able to mobilise young people for the first time in many years. These youths are the most vulnerable in society, in the sense that they have the least opportunities. Empowerment of our young people through education (be it academic or vocational), sports, cultural activities, and finally productive and rewarding employment, is an absolute necessity.

The new government may choose to give token attention to these young people, to ignore their many problems. If this government fails to act on their behalf, it may well be the last elected government in the country. Because that mass of youths will not sit idly by and see billions-of-oil-dollars flow through this country like Michael Manley's proverbial "dose of salts", while they continue to suffer as the rich get richer. That's a recipe for revolution. And the PM can take that from an old revolutionary who is seeing mirror images among the young and restless.

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