By A.T. Freeman
The effects of the Covid 19 outbreak and the steps taken to contain it have been devastating on the working class in the Caribbean. In particular, the collapse of the tourism sector across the region has seen thousands of workers lose their jobs as hotels, bars and restaurants close. There has also been a knock on effect among taxi drivers, tour operators, workers at tourist attractions and among the thousands of informal workers, such as beach vendors, deck chair operators and water sports providers, who make a living on the edges of the tourism sector. Although not many governments in the region have published information on the number of workers who have lost their jobs, it is clear that it is significant. Allen Chastenet, the Prime Minister of St Lucia, stated recently that 13,500 workers had lost their jobs in the tourism sector in that country which represents some 16% of the existing workforce. This increase pushes the unemployment rate to some 30%. In Barbados, Dr Justin Robinson, Professor of Finance at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus has estimated that unemployment in that country could jump to over 20% of the workforce as a result of the recent job losses. In Jamaica, some 47,000 unemployed workers have applied for support from the government’s Covid Allocation of Resources for Employees (CARE) Programme, while in Trinidad the number seeking support under the salary relief grant stands at 38,000. It needs to be borne in mind that these official figures are likely to underestimate the actual situation since they often do not take into account those who previously made a living in the informal sector of the economy.
In response to this dire situation, various governments in the region have launched what they describe as economic relief and economic stimulus programmes which they claim are intended to address the needs of those who have lost their jobs or had their income reduced through working reduced hours. However, these programmes share a common starting point that the issue is one of government’s finances and not that of upholding the fundamental right of citizens to a livelihood. For example, support under these programmes is only available to those workers who can prove that they have been negatively affected by the Covid 19 crisis and, in most cases, have made payments into the National Insurance schemes. Unemployed workers who are unable to meet these criteria are excluded from receiving support. Another problem with these government announced programmes is that they are currently time limited to the end of June, when it is obvious that the current crisis will not be over by then. There is no indication from governments as to what workers are supposed to do once July arrives and they are still unemployed with no income. In some cases, as in Jamaica, the government is offering those in the informal sector a one off payment with no indication as to how these individuals will be supported once this money runs out.
Workers cannot accept this approach which leaves them to fend for themselves in the midst of a crisis which is not of their making. The issue is not one of affordability but of the right of the working people of the Caribbean to a livelihood. For years, Caribbean governments have found money to service debts, to pay international airlines for bringing passengers into the region and to offer so-called investors all types of tax breaks. They will need to find the money to support those unemployed and under-employed workers who now need help. The current situation calls for the working class across the region, those working and those unemployed, to organise around the demand that every unemployed person must be supported and for as long as it takes.
For your information
Economic support and economic stimulus programmes across the region
Barbados – National Insurance scheme (NIS) support
- Unemployment benefits –Those who are laid off fully will receive unemployment benefits for six months and those on short weeks will receive 60 percent for the days they are not working.
- Household Survival Program – A Household Survival Program (injecting BD$ 20 million) will be implemented consisting of three initiatives to assist displaced workers. Those being laid off are entitled to unemployment benefits.
- Welfare Support – Where, as a result of COVID-19, a household is left with no person employed, the government will provide a minimum income for those households and make available through the Welfare Department an amount up to $600 per month during this period of hardship.
- Adopt-a-Family Program –The government is working with persons who have been fortunate to be earning more than BD$ 100,000 a year to “adopt” a vulnerable family and provide them with very much needed support of BD$ 600 per month or to contribute to an Adopt-a-family fund chaired by the Director of Finance.
Jamaica: Covid Allocation of Resources for Employees
- The Jamaican government decided to pay J$54,000 (approximately US$400) in unemployment benefits to each worker who loses his job during three months period starting March 10, when the Caribbean country reported its first COVID-19 case.
- Finance Minister Dr. Nigel Clarke has clarified that employees in tourism and Business Processes Outsourcing (BPO) sectors are also eligible for the severance pay. However, employees earning more than J$1.5 million (US$11,244) annually will not be paid any benefits.
- Also, those who lose jobs from June 30 onwards will not be eligible under the program. The money will be released from the US$74 million contingency package unveiled by the government in a recent parliamentary session.
- The Supporting Employees with Transfer of Cash (SET Cash) Programme will provide temporary cash transfers to individuals where it can be verified that they lost their employment on or after March 10 2020.
- Benefits: Individuals who apply and qualify will receive $9,000 per fortnight, paid monthly from the month of their application through to June 2020. An applicant who applies in April and qualifies can therefore receive a grant of up to $54,000 spread equally over the months of April, May and June.
- COVID-19 GENERAL GRANTS (barbers, hairdressers, transport operators, craft vendor, bar and night club operators)
- The Covid General Grant of a onetime amount of $25,000 will be available to barbers, hairdressers, beauty therapists, cosmetologists, market vendors, taxi and bus operators (i.e. PPV licensees) who are registered with a Municipal or Transport Authority by April 30, 2020.
- The Covid General Grant of a onetime amount of $40,000 will be available to bar and night club operators who are registered with a Municipal Authority by April 30, 2020.
- The Covid General Grant of a onetime amount of $40,000 will be available to craft vendors, JUTA, MAXI and JCAL operators who are registered with the Tourism Product Development Company by April 30, 2020.
St Lucia: The National Insurance Corporation Economic Relief Program
The NIC Economic Relief Program:
- The NIC will pay 50% of insurable earnings (salary amount on which contributions are levied) subject to a minimum payout of EC$500 and a maximum of EC $1,500 MONTHLY to persons unemployed as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. In other words, a person with a monthly salary of EC EC $3,000 or higher will receive EC $1,500. A person with a monthly salary between $1,001 and $2,999 inclusive will receive 50% of salary. A person whose monthly salary is $1,000 or less will receive $500.
- All individuals who contribute to the NIC, who were in employment in February 2020 and are currently out of work as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Payments are to Employees only, not Employers.
Entitlement to Benefit/Qualifying criteria:
- Claimant must have contributed to the Fund for at least one month prior to February 2020
- Claimant is unemployed as a result of COVID-19
- Claimant is not in receipt of any other benefit from the NIC other than a funeral grant. In such cases, the higher amount (economic relief or the NIC benefit already being received) will be paid
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines: Temporary Unemployment Benefit
- the provision of supplementary income to displaced hotel and other affected workers for up to three months in the first instance;
- banks and credit unions to grant all customers a six-month moratorium on payment of principal and interest on mortgages, loans, and credit card debt;
- no disconnections of electricity or water will be permitted and no fees for reconnections for an eight-month period;
- no VAT on electricity and domestic, hotel or guest-house customers from March 30 – June 30;
- the National Insurance services will provide a two-month pre-payment of pension benefits to pensioners and EC$ 1.25 million in temporary unemployment relief to displaced active registrants;
- a one-time support payment will be made to water taxi and tour operators affected by the cancellation of cruise ships;
- EC$ 3 million for small businesses and cultural workers;
- EC$12 million direct support to farmers and individuals engaged in the fishing sector;
- a EC$30 million job stimulus package; and
- assistance benefits for vulnerable citizens including home help for the elderly.
Trinidad and Tobago: COVID-19 Social Assistance
- Citizens of this county who lose their jobs as a result of the measures being put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19 will be able to access a Salary Relief Grant of $1,500 a month for the next three months
- Venezuelans who have been working here and lose their jobs will not be entitled to this grant
- those persons who are not on the National Insurance Board’s list and were employed and are now not covered can approach the Ministry of Social Development for social development assistance
- In the case of a family where a member was retrenched/terminated/or experienced reduced income; income support/food support/rental assistance for a period not exceeding three months will be provided in the first instance and where there are children under 18 years, these children will be considered necessitous and the public assistance grant will be extended for a period not exceeding three months
- The applicant must have experienced reduced income and where the reduced gross income (Minus Statutory Deduction) of the family does not exceed ten thousand dollars ($10,000) per month.