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**

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Connecting the dots.

Few things in life move in straight lines, and it's often more than a passing interest to try to find how things are really connected.

An aquaintance, Kevin O'Brien Chang, wrote today in the Jamaica Gleaner that "A fundamental principle of democracy is that the people cannot make proper decisions if they are not properly informed" (see Gleaner article of PNP election race). That remark leads to many thoughts about this week's fiasco concerning the "do we, or don't we" about the signing of the EPA. But, my economics oriented mind makes me think also about how one shifts and shapes an economy. Margaret Thatcher famously dealt with the prospect of economic upheaval in the UK by suggesting that people "get on their bike" to go to where the new jobs were, once mines and shipbuilding were under threat of nationalization.

Today's Nation newspapers reports (see article) that Barbados' PM wants to "stop the rot" of Bajans not being able to find work in a country where employers are telling him that there are jobs to be filled, and the Immigration service is telling him there are openings to be filled, but Bajans are telling him they cannot find work. The newspaper reports that the PM said: "I am issuing a warning to employers in Barbados today that their attitude to the employment of Barbadians must change or they too will feel very shortly."

Unless, I am greatly mistaken there is still an economic logic known as supply and demand, and these are supposed to meet happily if the price is right. What is evident in Barbados can have a number of very simple reasons. Is it that the jobs that exist are not jobs for which Bajans have the skills or if they have the skills, their levels are not the best for the price they want to offer them? This mismatch, and many others that may be the roots of the problem, cannot be solved overnight, and Bajans at the very least will have to go through a process of retraining and re-education, including accepting that they are overpaid for what they do. No business person should be encouraged to take on people not well suited for tasks just because of some desire to see nationals in work, and few business people will stay in business long if they are paying too high a price for their inputs. The PM is reported to recognize certain aspects of that problem, in his remarks that "aspersions have been cast on the work ethic and productivity of Barbadians". And he argues that "if attitudes, aptitudes and productivity of Barbadians are not what they should be, then we shall invest time, energy, and resources in making them what they ought to be". But, I hope that he has a lot of time and energy, and is honest enough to know that this cannot be done overnight.

This is where the proper information starts to become important. Somewhere in the whole array of government, business and labour organizations should be a notion of what jobs the economy is producing and what kinds of skills exist to fill those jobs. In an ideal world, this would be forward-looking and would have schools, colleges and training institutions geared up to develop skills that can find a good match in jobs being created. At a cursory glance some of Barbados' problem is that jobs coming on stream are not those for which enough quality workers exist in the country, some of this was evident in the construction sector during the preparations of cricket World Cup. But the economy is also changing and is producing jobs that require particular skills for which a general education and training may not be enough, or do not rely of demand simply for unskilled manual labour. If you need doctors, engineers, computer technicians, linguists, financial experts, expertise in hospitality services, etc., then you had better be focusing on training enough people in those skills to a high level or accept that locals will be unemployed because internationally those skills may already be in abundance. You cannot get by hoping that people can learn on the job, or take what's available and know that it is inferior in quality.

People I know make very unfavourable comparisons in a key area saying that the average Bajan worker in the tourism sector is far inferior to the comparable worker in a hot tourist market like The Bahamas. We have heard many tales about the BPO--business prevention operative--who hinders the doing of things as if it's a national sport, whether this is in the public or private sector, big or small operation. We have read and heard stories of the non-service philosophy of people working in the service sector, the "You wan' it? It ova dere" syndrome.

How much of the high cost of living in Barbados is rooted in the relatively high cost of labour? How can I explain to myself that goods and services in Barbados are so expensive? It's not just import duties. So, a business person, trying to make a profit is going to be more attracted to a source of labour that is cheaper and/or more productive. If the Bajan worker is not high on either of these criteria then work is not going be easy to find.

There are debates raging about the quality of education in Barbados--not just about whether a child's trousers are baggy or a skirt is too long. The discussion about employment cannot really take place without knowing whether schools, while perhaps able to get children successfully through certain exams, are failing the economy in not focusing on developing other skills that it needs.

The PM mentioned seeking to employ Bajans who left and went to be economic successess abroad. Involving the Diaspora is never a simple process, and at an early stage people need to understand why some left their homelands and succeeded abroad. Those who departed voluntarily could have been amongst the best, and left behind others who could be called the rest. People who found that they had skills that the economy could not use well, or that the conditions for work were better than in Barbados, are not necessarily likely to uproot themselves and come back to work in their homeland just because of national ties.

Another reason that could be important is that there is a bias by employers against certain kinds of nationals. Barbados has an intriguing racial backdrop to many issues and it is interesting that the PM's plea and warning come in the same issue of the Nation as an article by Tony Best that discusses the "residue" of racism. It points to problems that come from the "allocation of economic resources in a nation that is 90 percent black", saying that Barbados' economy is still largely controlled by whites, though less so than it was 50-60 years. Could it be that those who have economic muscle are tending to look less favourably on the majority of those nationals who are available for work?

I do not have the answers to the questions that I have posed, and there are many more questions that could be asked. But if this is really a serious attempt to address a national problem then it needs to start with some attempts to provide proper information and identify the "why" in the problem. I feel that this is not a debate that will be comfortable, if it is conducted honestly, because it may require a dismantling of some myths about Barbados' economic success.

I have not even begun to tackle in my mind how this argument about jobs for Bajans sits with commitments to a Caribbean Single Market and Economy. I don't think that they are consistent, but that is another issue to be discussed.

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