The recent election poll commissioned by Guardian Media has shown that what is worrying voters the most are poor public utilities and unemployment. The third most important issue identified through the poll conducted by HHB & Associates is about youth training and development.
The outcome of the survey may not be surprising, as we are all becoming painfully aware of the potentially devastating impact on jobs by the coronavirus pandemic. And, when it comes to public utilities, we know all too well how poor services like water and electricity are.
Both issues share some common threads, though, together with the question over youth training and development. The main one being the way we handle employment in the country.
The population ought to be worried about unemployment, even though T&T has, so far, avoided the kind of rise in joblessness seen in many countries around the world.
As much as some union leaders would like to deny it, the relatively low number of additional job losses so far has been primarily down to employers in T&T doing their very best to avoid retrenchment despite the hit they have been taking since the beginning of the pandemic.
However, this may not be sustainable, especially if the world ends up facing an even longer period of uncertainty over new infection spikes, adding to the depth and length of a global recession (no wonder investors were spooked by the recent record-breaking GDP drop in the US). None of this will make life easier for the young either, as we discussed in last week’s column.
And, as far as public utilities are concerned, the problem here is not lack of employment but the opposite: too much of it. We all know that bloated payrolls and poor performance management are the norm, not the exception, in our state-owned companies. On top of that, their typically poor management standards, unfair subsidies and unrealistic pricing don’t help at all.
But here is the problem we face: despite voters telling us what is troubling them the most, our main political parties are entering the final phase of the campaigning without clear and realistic plans to tackle these problems.
We have all heard lofty promises of improved state services before. Or more employment, usually by landing taxpayers with even higher liabilities through poorly devised and executed programmes or projects.
But the fact is that none of these issues that are troubling voters will be sorted by the quick fixes or painless solutions leaders from all sides of the political spectrum tend to peddle ahead of elections.
What we really need are deeper and meaningful improvements to our labour laws. We must considerably improve our industrial relations environment by modernising our legal framework and ensuring we have the kind of dynamic jobs market that is essential for the growth of modern economies.
Fundamental rights for workers must be maintained–this is not about a completely unregulated and potentially unfair labour market. But this is about ensuring business and jobs can move with the times, adapt as needed and continually invest in skills development for them to remain competitive in a global market.
The pandemic makes the need for reform even greater, as countries around the world will aggressively seek to kick-start their economies and gain new markets for their products and services.
Changes to our labour laws, together with the political will by whoever wins the elections, can also make a significant impact on how our state companies are run and how efficient they can be.
In the Government’s la-la-land, there are no performance metrics required and inflation is always zero when it comes to their pricing, whilst inflation is always high when it comes to salary increases.
State-owned companies often offer the best terms and conditions in the country–at the expense of the taxpayer–whilst providing the worst in terms of quality and reliability.
That can happen because they are often monopolies, with the public having no alternative. After all, you can’t get electricity or water without having to engage with T&TEC and WASA, irrespective of their performance.
And, in a typically populist approach, the Government is always reluctant to charge a fair amount for these services, with prices left untouched for years if not decades. Often, state companies pay to deliver the services they charge you for, creating an opaque and unfair subsidy system, with true costs hidden and the state effectively subsidising the rates irrespective of whether the user is a millionaire or a pauper.
There is still a chance we will hear grown-up, intelligent and honest proposals by our political leaders to deal with the real issues that need tackling if we are to grow in a sustainable and equitable way.
The likelihood is small, though, at least if judged by usual mudslinging, allegations of bobol and bacchanal, and populist, unrealistic pledges that are already very much present on this campaign trail.
So much was said about how the pandemic could become a watershed moment, an opportunity to radically change for the better the way we do things. From what we have seen so far in these elections, our political parties have shown little or no interest in doing so.
It doesn’t help that, in the land of the ibis and the hummingbird, our political leaders, from all parties, continue to wrongly think all we want to see and feed are magic unicorns instead.
We deserve better choices, even more so when we are clearly not out of the pandemic’s grip yet, with a real and present danger of more lives being lost and more economic pain ahead, including job losses.