3166873
Group of homeless people are seen collecting lunch from a good samaritan at Independence Square, Port-of-Spain, on Wednesday.

Unemployment, hunger and poverty have been gripping the population of T&T with the closure of businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The restrictions put in place by the Government to help curb runaway numbers of infections and deaths have forced businesses to close their doors and lay off employees and it has also impoverished working people who were already struggling.

Some people who have lost their jobs have become desperate as they do not know where their next meal will be coming from or how they will pay their bills. Many people are being evicted from their homes and their mental health are being affected. While thousands have been clamouring for help from the Government and have received food relief hampers and employment relief cheques, hundreds of others have not been so lucky.

With nowhere to turn, they have been forced to flock to Non-Governmental Organisations like Living Water Community, Kindness Makes a Difference Foundation, the Catholic Commission for Social Justice, the Anjuman Sunnat ul Jamaat Association and other groups helping out the less fortunate across the country. Some of these groups, unable to keep up with the increase in demand have been appealing to corporate T&T to lend a hand.

Labour Minister Stephen McClashie told the Sunday Guardian that from January to April 2021, 235 people filed with the Ministry of Labour as being unemployed. Last year, he said, that figure was 2,744 people. However, hundreds of people who have lost their jobs have not gone to the ministry to file their unemployment status. McClashie did not give an estimate of the total number of people who are unemployed in the country at this time.

According to economist Dr Regan Deonanan along with Benjamin Ramkissoon from his UWI research group, the unemployment rate for T&T was 3.5 per cent in 2019 and jumped to 6.7 per cent in 2020.

Deonanan and Ramkissoon, in a statement, said the “modelled estimates” came from the International Labour Organization (ILO) which regularly publishes unemployment figures for countries across the globe.

“The Central Statistical Office of T&T (CSO) calculates indices of hours worked and employment in certain industries. The industries include manufacturing, electricity, water, and oil and gas. These indices therefore may not reflect changes outside of the manufacturing sector. However, they are correlated with official unemployment data,” according to the statement.

“The index of hours worked declined by 2.5 per cent from 2019 to 2020 (annual average) and the index of employment declined by 1.9 per cent over the same period. Based on the correlation between the sectoral employment indices and the overall unemployment rate, the overall unemployment rate for 2020 may have been about 7.2 per cent. It is also reasonable to think that the further lockdown measures in 2021 may have given rise to higher levels of unemployment than in 2020.”

While there has been an increase in unemployment, Deonanan pointed out that there has also been an increase in underemployment.

“All the above statistics highlight the likely increase in the unemployment rate for 2020. Although the unemployment rate is an important labour market statistic, it does not portray the entire picture.”

He said people may remain employed but are working fewer hours. “Other individuals may have lost their jobs but did not seek re-employment and would thus not be counted among the unemployed,” he added.

Although there has been no recent data on poverty levels in T&T, Deonanan used data from studies done over the last 15 years in T&T.

“The Survey of Living Conditions (SLC) 2005 reported that 16.7 per cent of the population was poor, with the poverty line at TT $7,980 (annual). The SLC 2014 analysis revealed a poverty rate of 24.5 per cent. Since 2014, unemployment has risen. A higher proportion of unemployed workers may be linked to greater vulnerability to poverty.”

However, despite the grim situation that the country faces, McClashie remains optimistic that the worst is over.

“I believe that the situation has peaked. The reasons are that most businesses that had to make adjustments would have done so already. I think that we are at a peak. Now with vaccines becoming available, what we will see is a slight reduction of those unemployed. Of course, we will take some time to get out of this situation. I think we will see a glimmer of light.”

McClashie said the National Employment Service (NES) unit at the Ministry of Labour invites the unemployed to drop in resumes which they match with employers seeking workers.

“We receive applications and resumes and we register people in the system. When we get requests from the various ministries, we match resumes to vacancies…”

When asked how many people have applied to the NES unit for 2021 so far, he declined to give statistics.

NGOs

Living Water demand for help increase by 50 per cent

Director, Living Water Community Rhonda Maingot said they have seen a 50 per cent increase in people coming to their building in Port-of-Spain asking for food and other basics.

“We have seen an increase, we have online registration. Most new people have lost jobs. There has been an increase of approximately 50 per cent in the last two months.”

The Living Water Community distributes cooked food and sandwiches every day feeding 300 people. Also, every week, they distribute 700 hampers.

Given the large increase in people accessing their services, she appealed to the corporate community and those with resources to assist them with food, sandwiches, and hampers.

Food is priority

Director, Kindness Makes a Difference Foundation Kavita Ragbir said that people are much more impoverished as the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the country’s social fabric.

Her NGO, which is based in San Fernando, delivers hampers, cooked food, pay the internet bills for needy students and help in house construction for those facing the hard times that the pandemic has brought on.

Her NGO gives out 100 hampers weekly to needy people.

“Right now food is a priority. We provide hampers and cooked meals to those in need. We help families who move to a different apartment in terms of transportation. We also help poorer people who need repairs to their homes. We help over 50 families weekly with groceries, we go to their homes to see what they need.”

The group also helps families with their internet bills so that their children could engage in online schooling. They have also helped some families with devices like laptops.

She called upon the corporate community and the wider national community to assist NGOs like the one she runs.

People’s mental health affected

Chairperson, Catholic Commission for Social Justice, Leela Ramdeen told the Sunday Guardian that the faith-based organisation was involved in the distribution of 90,000 hampers to needy people and the underprivileged in 2020.

Like other NGOs, they have seen an increase in poverty in recent times.

“We really don’t have adequate data in T&T about how much poverty there is. People have lost their jobs and are desperate. People are evicted from their homes and their mental health are being affected.”

ASJA distributing hampers

Public Relations Officer Anjuman Sunnat ul Jamaat Association (ASJA) Imam Raffaic Mohamed said that they distributed 300 hampers in June. They also want to set up a training programme to help unemployed people to earn skills to help them become more marketable.

Grim stories from the unemployed

Two unemployed people spoke to the Sunday Guardian about how they have been pushed to the brink of poverty as they lost their jobs and have little or no way of earning an income to feed their families.

Garfield Charles, who lives in Valencia, had a take-home salary weekly of $1,350 before the pandemic.

The announcement by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley at the end of April that some businesses would be closed indefinitely was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Charles. He was sent home.

But Charles said that even before April the owners of the bar had started to cut back on his salary by half given the restrictions on their operations since the pandemic began. Now he is out of a job, life has become challenging with mounting bills.

“I applied for the $1,500 relief grant and all I got was an email saying they received

my application but nothing from the Government so far. My situation is really grim now. I’m in arrears with most of my utility bills, I have my T&TEC bill, phone bills. My son does online classes and I have no money for my internet bill. I don’t know how my son is going to continue his online schooling,” he said.

A depressed Charles said he even had to cut back on buying food.

“The little money I have is to buy food. Soon I will not even have money for that. My savings now depleted. The truth is I don’t know how long again I could last like this. Thank God up to last week, the owner of the bar dropped by to help me with a little money to buy groceries. I know that the bar owners are going to cut that soon as they too in a bad situation. Only God could help me.”

He said, I have a washing machine for a year that broke down and I have no money to fix it. I have to wash by hand now. That tells the kind of situation I’m in.”

According to Charles, the owners of the bar had been assisting him over the last year, but they too have been under financial strain.

Charles said that his wife has become creative, selling soft drinks, sweets, and cigarettes from their home in Valencia, but he admitted that money does not do much.

“I’m looking for a job but there are few businesses opened and those that are opened already are saturated. They’re not really hiring. So I have few options.”

Struggling to survive

Reshma Rampersadsingh, who lives in St Helena, used to work in a club in Malabar, Arima, but has been unemployed since April.

Although she is not married and has no children she said that being without a job has pushed her to the brink of poverty as the small savings she had has been wiped out.

“I know some other friends who might still get $200 from their bosses while they are at home, but I don’t even have that as my former bosses have so many bills to pay, they can’t afford to do that. In good times I earned $1,500 weekly, then during COVID-19 I started to earn less. I have my rent, phone bill, cable bill, food to buy and I’m broke. I don’t know what to do.”

She also assisted her mother, a pensioner, when she was working, but now she is unable to do so. “Her pension is not a lot when she has medication and other things to do.”

With all the restrictions in place, Rampersadsingh said there was little she can do to earn money on the side to feed herself and pay bills.

“It’s not like I can sell food on the side and make a few dollars, the authorities said you can do nothing like that. Most of my savings were depleted a while ago. So I’m struggling to survive. If I have $100 in the bank, I have a lot. I’m hustling now, that’s what it reached to.”

Her situation is so desperate, she has even cut back on how much she eats.

“I cut back my eating by half. I just go to the grocery and buy a few basics…I have money for nothing. I could imagine how hard it is for parents who have no jobs. How they’ll feed their children? It’s a fight to exist.”

On the verge of tears, she also said she applied for the Government grants and all she got was an email acknowledging her request.

“It’s heartbreaking. Apart from the hunger and lack of money, people are dying from COVID-19. This is the mental and emotional stress. Only God knows what I will do again.”

Central Bank statistics on retrenchment

T&T’s retrenchment figures increased by 80 per cent last year, when compared to 2019, data from the Central Bank showed.

“Data on retrenchment notices filed at the Ministry of Labour showed that 2,744 persons were retrenched during 2020, much higher than the 1,528 persons retrenched during the previous year,” the Central Bank stated in its annual economic survey for 2020.

The Central Bank’s report was published on its website in May.

“In 2020, most of the retrenchments occurred in the finance, insurance, and real estate and other business services (879 persons), manufacturing (562 persons), and distribution, restaurants, and hotels (527 persons) industries,” the Central Bank stated.

According to the Central Bank “retrenchment” refers to the termination of employment of a worker at the initiative of an employer for the reason of redundancy according to the Retrenchment and Severance Benefits Act (No 32 of 1985).