The world has and continues to endure a pandemic the likes of which we have not seen since the Spanish flu and whose impact on the work world is akin to that of the black death in the 1400s. Certainties have been shown to be uncertain, things which were impregnable now totter and those things which were once tottering now seem as if they are ready to fall at any moment.
Jamaica has not been immune from this — workers losing jobs permanently or temporarily, hours being cut resulting in a cut in wages, all of this is coupled with the increase in the cost of living as oil and gas — the grease of our mechanized life — constantly inch up.
As we discuss reopening the economy, which was forced to close up shop due to this life-threatening virus, we need to ask ourselves what kind of economy are the Government (and Opposition) going to open up or create from the ashes of this pandemic, and conversely what type of economy should we be creating when we open up and how can it be achieved?
From what can be garnered, based on pronouncements from the State, a gig economy is what they wish to create. The gig economy can be described as ‘a labour market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs’. These jobs are seen in their fullest extent and rawest form in the hospitality sector and the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector. We can base this on the fact that the Prime Minister, Education Minister, and Health Minister, have stated that the BPO sector remains a key pillar for them as they pursue national development, that schools will be geared towards these jobs in the service sector, and even going so far as to state that a main reason for the Education Ministry’s push in improving English Language skills is to better meet the demands of the industry (as opposed to building students who can provide real productivity in meaningful jobs).
What will this mean for the Jamaican public sector worker who, lest we forget, pre-pandemic was experiencing sluggish growth as seen in the paltry wage increase during the last round of negotiations? What can the Jamaican worker or soon to be worker about to leave high school or university expect when they enter the labour market and if they are one of the lucky few to get a job in the formal sector?
This spells a further entrenching of the short-term contract labour which we have slowly become accustomed to. It means the cementing of jobs and whole sectors of employment in which collective bargaining is a no go and where the mere thought of it will have you fired. It means making permanent the kind of ‘employment’ in which you are never certain if you will be on call for the day or if you will be sent home half day so that the company may save money, depriving you of funds as you are an hourly paid worker.
Such gig-type jobs and enterprises are seen to be the way of the future by the Government (and the Opposition who seem to oppose only on a superficial level). The introduction of Uber — with guidelines of course — being welcomed by the Government shows us that they either are oblivious to the types of job that these sectors offer or they really wish to have us remain in this squalid condition as a nation where so little have so much and the thought of even reaching out of the mire becomes more of a pipe dream.
Growth — sustainable and evenly distributed growth — will not come in the form of the gig-economy, it never has and it will instead spell the permanent impoverishment of the nation if we allow this to continue. What it will result in is what we have all become accustomed to — even if it still grates us and makes us uncomfortable — and that is those who currently have will receive more, those who are closest to power will receive opportunities of wealth creation and those closest to the money trough will feast first and best. And this naturally will be on the backs of the precarious worker as evidenced by the wealth generated by them for the tourism moguls or titans of the local BPO sector whose workers live hand to mouth while they jet-set and hobnob with global wealth.
National wealth, national growth and national development cannot, does not and never will come simply from the primary and or service sector. We as a nation have seen this with the plantation society, the mining sector, BPO sector and the hotel industry all of which are primary or service driven and have left those workers living in large ghettos on captured land or cheaply built houses sold at over-the-top rates trudging in to work in enterprises which enrich a select few or worse still, see the funds leave the nation.
What is needed to escape this race to the bottom? What is needed to ensure that this country and its people can see a development which isn’t skewed towards the haves? What is needed to ensure that the reopened and redesigned economy is one which sees equitable growth and distribution of wealth, one which sees workers empowered and filled with the knowledge that the profits derived from their labour will in fact be used to better their lives and the lives of their families?
Decent jobs will do this, and this comes from not only a private sector which feels altruistic or nationalistic, it comes from a State which provides the environment and sets the rules of the game in which the private sector plays. The types of jobs which will see not just national growth, but real, equitable and sustained growth, are the types which a State must incubate and stand up for when the foreign TNCs call for their demise.
We need secondary industries, light manufacturing, and processing of raw materials which we currently produce such as milk, mutton, beef, chicken, coco, yam, etc, all of these could be linked into a secondary industry, then fed into our tourism sector, the BPO sector in the form of forcing BPOs to utilise local food to feed workers, shoes for children and so on.
We need farming on a large scale to feed ourselves, and farm work in the modern world is decent paying work as evidenced by the scores of workers who trek yearly to Canada and the US just to pick fruit and veg, and this coupled with the modern forms of farming would help ensure that the jobs tilling the land or looking after livestock are well paid and backed up by animal husbandry departments and fully functioning agricultural institutions looking for new methods and breeds to maximise potential and profits for the farmer.
We need a pharmaceutical sector and a research and development sector to take advantage of not only our flora, which has the potential to cure many ailments, but also to take advantage of the creativity of the Jamaican citizen and the worker on the factory floor who will invariably find the next labour-saving method or nifty tool or medicine or so on.
Spanish Town Road, Marcus Garvey Drive all the way to Twickenham Park used to be home to our nascent industrial sector. It achieved what it did due to State intervention and was allowed to die a death of a thousand cuts due to a vicious ideological struggle that ended with the retreat of the State and a lack of will on the part of industrialists who either migrated or accepted the new reality of mass imports and changed models to simply act as a part of the TNC supply stream. If we are to move beyond the gig economy, the service and primary sectors, extractors of raw minerals and resources, if we are to have a future as a nation where people want to live, then we must look at other forms of job creation and employment.
Lowering the cost of energy, introducing green energy and breaking up the monopoly on electricity generation would be a start. Standing up to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and enacting policies which the European Union (EU) and United States (US) have in place to protect our industries and a fierce monitoring of local industrialists to ensure that they are playing by the rules of the game are the low hanging fruit. If we wish to get the ball rolling, if we are scared of being blocked or punished, then we have a regional body in CARICOM which would back us up as such ideas would be more than welcome to them and they would seek to implement them in their own countries.
The gig economy doesn’t have to be the future. A better way is out there and though it may take dealing with sectors I am not comfortable with, I’m sure even our local industrialists see that in the end the gig economy means their destruction and the total domination by foreign capital and as such would be willing to make deals to save their bacon, even if it means them losing power.
We can move beyond the neo-feudalism, which seems to be what our leaders have in store for us. It requires bold thinking and bravery and not the tough chat and posturing which our politicians and industrial class currently practice. It is their choices which will decide what future we will have and what this new reopened economy will look like.