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Saturday 16 February 2019
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Businesses facing labour shortage

The idea might seem contradictory and even unbelievable to many, but while workers are being laid off in the current recession, the country is actually woefully short of people to fill vacancies in a whole range of companies and sectors. A team of consultants from the University of the West Indies, headed by economics lecturer, Dr Roger Hosein, has calculated that Trinidad and Tobago will need at least 330,000 additional workers if it is to expand the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by fifty percent by the year 2030.

The conclusion was one of the key points of a study conducted by Dr Hosein’s team on behalf of the Westmoorings-based Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce. Dr Hoisein said once economic growth returns to Trinidad and Tobago by 2018, just two years from now, “dependent on how sharp the labour market fallout is in this current time period, we may end up in the same situation of full employment/unemployment and consequently with just a labour force of about 650,000 people. I am very sure than in the medium term period once growth returns, we need to look for warm bodies to fill our vacancies in Trinidad and Tobago. We definitely need a manpower planning strategy and a labour market intervention that could help to increase the size of the labour force as we move forward.”

Dr Hosein said a country with a workforce of 650,000 people is a “nano state, it is a micro, micro state” and Trinidad and Tobago needs to be thinking ahead. “When growth resumes where will we get workers?” he asked, adding, “Our population seems set to decline by 2036 given the trends in the fertility rates, migration rates, birth rate and death rate and natural population growth, so certainly we need to be thinking ahead and I am sure that the policy makers at the Ministry of Labour have ideas and suggestions they would bring forward.”

Chief Executive Officer of the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce, Catherine Kumar, told Business Day that the study was aimed at establishing a foreign worker programme in this country and was conducted on behalf of a large number of companies which were (and still are) having problems attracting workers.

“There is a sector, which is the sector we were looking at: the hospitality, the retail sector, they are in need of a particular type of labour that is not easily available in Trinidad and Tobago. Additionally, the productivity at that level is extremely low.” However, although the study was completed and paid for by the Chamber, Kumar said the business body was forced to abandon it without even making a proposal to the government.

She said the study was done on behalf of a broad group of companies including hotels, fast food chains and retail organisations which were not necessarily seeking workers with degrees but people to fill service vacancies such as fast food outlets. However, she noted, “What you find is that a lot of the retrenched workers outside there, some of them have degrees, they are extremely skilled in certain aspects of the energy sector. So we really are talking about unskilled workers and a lot of the unskilled workers are in fact in the CEPEP and URP and these programmes.

Kumar, said the study team completed its work last August and September, “and very early in the game the new administration said loud and clear that they would not even consider any proposal to bring in foreign labour. And thereafter that was further substantiated by others within the ministry that ‘there are people who are losing their jobs, we were already in an economic downturn’ even though we saw that the unemployment rate was still very low – artificially so, recognising that a lot of that labour was employed in government make-work programmes and we are not even sure about the accuracy of the data gathering to arrive at that percentage – so we basically were stumped, having done the report and having paid to have The UWI do the report for us, we still strongly believe that there is need for that foreign workers programme.”

On the problem of low productivity among local workers, Kumar said “We have examples over and over and those examples were given to Dr. Hosein, where people get a job with (a fast food restaurant) for example, and after three days and they had to work on a weekend, or they had to work on a public holiday or so, they pick up their handbag and they say ‘no, I don’t want this, I’m going back to my CEPEP job.’ They prefer that even though it doesn’t pay them as well because these organisations on whose behalf we did the study, paid more than the minimum wage, give you food, provide transport for you to get home and stuff like that, give you uniforms and at the end of the year if you don’t miss work for a certain number of days there’s a big bonus to get – they have incentives in place.

“So these companies are up to now still crying out even though we have had companies which have retrenched, basically mainly in the energy sector, we have seen the retrenchment and those people are looking for jobs where they would be paid at a level similar to what they earned before.

“We had also gone to a session put on by the Ministry of Labour for retrenched workers to come and help them with how to get resumes done up and there were a lot of the chambers and companies there which were interested in employing persons. So we basically put together a listing, an inventory of some of those persons who have approached the chamber and we have circulated that listing to some of these very member companies with very little result in terms of people being employed or being interested in taking jobs there.”

Interesting and surprising to many business people is the number of vacancies which remain unfilled and the range of companies which are suffering for workers amid a recession in which an alarming number of workers have been laid off. Service businesses in many malls across the country have become so desperate for workers that they are no longer satisfied with placing advertisements in the media, they have taken to putting up signs on the doors and showcases of their businesses places hoping to attract staff – all to no avail.

According to Kumar, “You drive, whether it is in the West, whether it is on the East-West Corridor and you will see: the gas stations have signs up: workers wanted. All the fast food places. I mean it is also holding back investment because some of these companies which were part of the group we did the exercise for want to invest, want to put down additional plants and do some further investment or want to continue their operations to later hours in the night and they can’t, so they’ve cut back shifts and it is hurting them. So even with all the retrenchment taking place, they are still hurting”

Kumar said that several countries have instituted foreign workers programmes particularly countries which depend on one commodity as in Trinidad and Tobago which is focused on the energy and hydrocarbon sectors. She said the study noted that such a programme would need to have the proper regulations to ensure that persons do not remain in the country after their allotted time is up. “Because they will only be coming into the country for a certain period of time and then they go back home and so on. The government would have to ensure that those things are in place.”

Kumar said that at the conclusion of the study the business body did not even bother to make a proposal to the government because there were public declarations by the administration all over that the government would not consider any proposal to import foreign workers. She said the Chamber was forced to shelve the proposal although there was information in the study which it has been able to use in other ways “and we continue to try to see how we can help that group of (retrenched) persons.”

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