Barbados’ ongoing battle to revive the economy will certainly require the fiercest political will, cooperation from the country’s private sector and trade union movement and the patience of an increasingly anxious population.
A staggering unemployment rate that is said to be hovering around 40 per cent is a mountainous challenge that could undermine the very fabric of our community as we know it. The current level of unemployment is a situation that not many in our population have had the displeasure of experiencing.
When we speak of unemployment numbers, some may unintentionally view them as mere statistics but they represent disrupted lives, personal anguish, mental health challenges and financial woes.
At the personal level, it is extremely debilitating to one’s self-esteem to lose the independence that comes with being able to earn a living and provide for one’s family. Prolonged unemployment brings with it the potential for scourges such as homelessness, poverty and debt. Regrettably, workers who remain unemployed for extended periods of time become less employable as time goes on.
Such workers miss out on vital training that comes with being in an active work environment. They are less knowledgeable of the latest workplace practices and trends and unfortunately their own confidence in their ability to function in the modern work place becomes diminished.
An equally important consideration is the impact on workers’ mental health after being displaced from their jobs. Reputable global studies have shown that particularly in the case of men, signs of depression, mental anxiety and health problems are noticeably higher during periods of unemployment.
In the Barbadian context where there was already an extremely high rate of youth unemployment and male youth deviance, it is now incumbent on the state to make whatever provisions are necessary to tackle the issue of unemployment in this country.
And though the Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU) has not publicly spoken to the matter, it is a given that with tens of thousands forced on the breadline in the private sector since the pandemic hit this last March, the island’s longest serving trade union must be under tremendous pressure to continue to provide the level of service to workers for which it has been known.
The union’s base in the private sector and more specifically from the tourism sector has been significantly undermined, if not eroded by the sudden job losses. We certainly hope that the BWU is able to manage its operations under these extremely trying economic and social conditions.
For the Government, continued high levels of joblessness create a vicious cycle of increasing debt as it causes a drop in Government revenue and with the base of income earners becoming smaller, the state is forced to uncover more ways to extract increasing taxes from a shrinking base.
High unemployment is also the clearest indicator that gross domestic product (GDP) is falling and the economy is operating well below its capacity. More important, unemployed people cannot contribute and fully participate in the economic life of the country as they cannot spend on goods and services.
And so it was not surprising that the Barbados Economic Recovery and Transformation (BERT) Monitoring Unit issued a cautionary note to Government about the threats posed by the current wave of job losses on the island.
“The severity of the impact of COVID-19 and the resultant significant levels of unemployment, coupled with the shrinking of GDP are the principal risks to the programme. . . . The continued elevated levels of unemployment raise concerns regarding social implications that the country may face as the periods of unemployment benefits come to an end. It is critical that the counter-cyclical measures announced so far to mitigate the situation are implemented as a matter of urgency,” said the grouping of private and public sector interests, as well as the country’s creditors.
It was a clear signal that concern is growing about the island’s high level of unemployment.
With the country still in the grips of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) structural adjustment programme, it will be essential that this multilateral institution appreciates and acts on the special circumstances that the country faces in its efforts to recover from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic while still maintaining the social equilibrium that has held this country together through other periods of difficulty.
Having reduced the expectation of a six percent surplus, the IMF has accepted that public sector spending in support of the country’s most vulnerable will also rise. We say that it is time for major lenders to consider cancellation of a portion of the national debt for middle income countries like Barbados, to provide them with the space to recover after the devastation caused by COVID-19. It is not an outlandish thought, but a needed wartime strategy against an unseen enemy that has proven itself to be more destructive that one with physical weapons.