Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Keeping A Job Is Hard Work

We are reaching the point in the current economic downturn that many people fear most. It's easy to be sanguine when you are still in your job while those around you are losing theirs. But that comfort quickly changes to fear and even panic when the job losses touch family and friends. In a small country like Barbados and many others in the Caribbean, such losses quickly take on a personal tinge.

Much discussion goes on in different places about living through the recession. I am not going to offer advice because personal circumstances are so different, that no sooner have I flagged my belt tightening that it indicates perhaps the excesses I practised before and perhaps how little real pain I am suffering relative to others. But sacrifice is sacrifice and it should not really be graded; everything is relative. It is a little ironic that we are in the Christian season of Lent, when the notion of personal sacrifice is perhaps most pressing.

Over the past year, I have been in touch with many who have left their employment, but all were like me, choosing to do that as our organization 'restructured'. For me, it was a formalization of something I was living: I was not on the payroll anymore, and living off my savings, which were supplemented by a severance package. I added to my savings by finding other ways to make and earn money. Many people took this change badly, having never imagine leaving their job until retirement age. Now, they had to deal with that departure some 10 years early. Each makes his or her adjustment to the new world. I personally like the freedom to do lots of things I want to and without the suffocating presence of a boss who can neither give direction or make good decisions. Having been my own boss for most of the preceding four years, it was perhaps easier for me. Now, the institution is rethinking the need to shed jobs and many are relieved that they can defer their departures; defer, not cancel. One such visited Barbados last week and asked about life 'in retirement'. I pointed out politely that I was still working. Some, who really retired, are looking wistfully at overtures to get them to come out of retirement.

In the past few weeks, I have heard from no one who has been fired, but I have spoken to friends in London, New York, and Kingston, who are now looking at empty offices and chairs where colleagues sat a few days ago. In some cases, it is the boss who has been axed. They feel lucky, but very uncomfortable. They have comments about 'how people were treated'. No one is telling any positive stories about the atmosphere in the work place. Whatever good employers feel is being done, it seems to be theoretical and not one that people feel they share in on a practical level.

In Barbados, the sense of fear expressed in public commentary about job losses has increased in recent weeks. Most dramatic was the lay-off of some 700 workers at a hotel/villa project on the west coast; this was indicated to be temporary, yet time has moved on but the work has not restarted. Several important companies have also reported job losses locally, after showing good group profits in the previous year (One Media Communications Group, Sagicor). Does that job shedding highlight problems with the Bajan entities? A major bank, FirstCaribbean International (with some 700 workers in Barbados) is rumoured to be due to lay off many workers: they acknowledge that they will be restructuring but that jobs cuts will be "small" with "no major one-time reductions" (see Nation report).

The number of jobs shed may be large or not, but they are all bad signs for many people. Many policy makers and business people are urging that job losses be a last option. We know that the lost job is part of a long chain of support and income and pride and self-esteem, and once the chain is broken much else may then have to be let loose. Someone asked the pertinent question last week whether welfare payments were a small price to pay for social stability. A similar question is often asked about the cost of cutting jobs. But, most companies are not social clubs or there to provide social welfare. These are not the days of Rowntree's and company towns with employers who cared from cradle to grave. So, how far should corporate concerns stretch beyond doing business well and trying to satisfy the needs of all who own them?

Without knowing the process that has gone on, we cannot say that the companies have not been creative before they decided to lay off staff, and we do not know if they have not indeed used their last option. What we need to probe generally and specifically is what else the companies have done. We often hear as companies fail of the spending excesses in their past--gold-plated executive latrines, junkets for staff, etc. How much of that has been pared before people have been shown the door?

Unemployed people may be visible but are not necessarily the first or only steps taken. But companies seem reluctant to make the case for the options they have taken. Is this a failure of public relations or is it that they really are being savage and heartless, and therefore do not want to show that clearly? Job losses are emotional and to be regretted, but I think we should make sure that employers fulfill a duty of painting the full picture. The absence of frankness tells us many things, some bad, some good. In the absence of fact, people will speculate, naturally.

Are people being dismissed because functions have been reduced or can be done as efficiently with fewer people? If machines have been made idle as well as labour shed, what implications might that have for others who depend on the business?

Yesterday, Minister of Environment, Water Resources and Drainage, Denis Lowe, went on the war path about the ethics of some public sector workers. He warned supervisors for lapses in their duties, and asked for a day’s work for a day’s pay: he flagged the practice of the morning arrival, identifying of areas to be worked on, then returning in mid-afternoon often when workers had gone. Sounds like executives taking taking work time to go and play golf or watch a baseball or cricket game. The Minister made clear that while the ministry's programmes may go, on they may be without some of these people. Clearly, some have not realised that their jobs are a privilege not a right.

This did not sound like a criticism of workers as a whole, but is an indicator of how the ‘social contract’ between employers, workers, and government is playing out.

In the tourism sector, the sighs of relief are loud because no major hotel closures have been announced. But, are some inevitable? If foreign arrivals are due to decline, and if spending by foreign tourists is due to fall, how is the sector going to stay afloat? Air Jamaica's cutting its New York-Barbados service is not in the face of overwhelming demand on the route, and comes on the back of its earlier cut of the service between Barbados-Jamaica. Advanced bookings are reported to be at their lowest. This stung me personally as I tried to book a trip to Jamaica for Easter, but left me with at least a very acceptable alternative using Caribbean Airways. My family are headed to New York but almost never used Air Jamaica for that route, because of the lack of daily options, preferring American Airlines. Will those lost customers ever feel ready to go back to Air Jamaica?

Where will the ripples end?

No comments: