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**

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tipping Points

I tend toward a view that, if and when people tell others they barely know about their problems, then the matter is really one that is deep in their core. I'm comfortable believing that when it comes to business activities.

I was at an establishment in midweek, waiting for a group of legal migrants to arrive at the airport from New York. I had been in a series of long and sometimes frustrating exchanges about Barbados' recently announced change to its amnesty regulations for undocumented migrants from other Caricom countries. I was glad to free my head from some of the silly diatribe and try to sift out some of the essential points that were being made.

The manager came along and complained to me and another guy I knew that people were using his establishment as a parking lot. To sour matters, they did not patronize the establishment and buy any goods. "Why not charge a flat fee for parking?" I suggested. He said that he could not do that because the official car park rate was the same. "Well, in that case, those who do not want to pay wont park, so you still win. Those who want to park for a long time could now do so more cheaply, so you win again," I added. He said he did not have the personnel to do that. In all, he resented the intrusion but felt helpless, and taking action like clamping or chaining the vehicles seemed to him like more work than it was worth. I suggested that he give it a try, and see what the reactions were, and I'd check again when I have to deliver my passengers back to the airport on Monday.

I then asked him a question: "When are you due to open each day?" He told me the time and noted my surprised reaction: "I know that we don't open then, because I call in and no one answers," he added. "If it rains, some don't show. If they have a bruised toe, some don't come. If they had a few too many drinks the night before, some don't come." I then asked why he tolerated that from his staff. Why did he not replace them. He then told me that he had plans to do that, but the government was blocking the plans, fearing adverse reactions during the current economic downturn.

There is often an uncomfortable stand-off between private or public entities, unions, employees, and government when it comes to actions that threaten jobs. In the end, if the private sector employer cannot bear the brunt of inefficient or less productive workers, he/she will usually up stakes and close, and then the job losses are there anyway. In the public sector, there may be a stronger push to hive off the entity and let it sink or swim in the private sector, so long as it's not longer a burden on the public purse.

This led me back to some of the discussion on illegal immigrants. It's well known that one of the driving forces is an inability to get certain types of workers from the pool of available nationals. The ethical thing to do would be to go through whatever processes are there to get work permits, etc. and engage legally non-nationals. But, ethics be blowed. People short-circuit the system, often with a complicit blind eye from officials, and bring in people to work whom they know do not have the right to do so. The migrant worker who offers to work without the right documentation, is of course prepared to have lower wages and worse terms and conditions of service than nationals because these are better than would be available in the country from which he/she came. I know that my frustrated entrepreneur would love to be able to take on a willing non-national and have his establishment open on time and the worker come in, no ifs, ands, or buts.

My thoughts also drifted off to the debate going on about productivity (though it's not always couched in those terms). We know that some public sector agencies are in a mess. There is the matter of the Barbados Water Authority (BWA), a corporation that seems unable to deliver water where it should, and is incapable of dealing with wastage of water where it occurs: I have been driving past a leaking pipe for two years, and I heard reports this week of repeated calls to deal with leaking water pipes and stagnating pools that have gone uncorrected for months. It also has a serious arrears problem (the latest reports indicate B$26 million/10,000 accounts in arrears, and 60% of this is owed by residential customers, see Advocate, June 20, 2009, part of the rationale given by delinquent customers is that BWA is slower to disconnect for non-payment and no rewards for early/prompt payment). It is about to be granted an increase in rates, but I have yet to hear of a comprehensive plan to deal with its ills. We read that the Government of Barbados is currently in negotiations with the Inter-American Development Bank and the Caribbean Development Bank regarding a package of measures to reorganise and modernise the BWA (see Advocate, June 20, 2009, front page). I personally cannot see the justification for a rate increase ahead of the reorganization and ahead of any move to bring those arrears down substantially: it sounds like pouring money down the drain.

The private sector has its culprits too, and we've seen, heard and suffered from the poor service doled out by a range of establishments that are supposed to make their livelihood from offering good service. While there may be no conspiracy, there may be an unholy alliance of the sort outlined by the manager of the impromptu parking lot. One of those, of which I have complained in the past, told me recently that they are making efforts to deal with poor customer service as reflected by public and less-visible complaints. That's a step in the right direction in one case, but will it work and will it spread? In the meantime, some prominent commentators continue to give air to their grievances (see "The Lowdown" in The Nation, June 19, 2009)

It's interesting to speculate whether the coming together of discussion on these and other issues of national importance suggest that we may be moving to some kind of tipping point, where lots of things change. How much discontent with the status quo does it take for people to say "enough already"?

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