Despite the sweeteners announced in the 2019/2020 national budget, labour leaders and economists believe many of them are merely political offerings by the People's National Movement (PNM) ahead of the local government and general elections.
At the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OTWU) and Co-operative Credit Union League’s (CCULTT)’s annual People’s Sector Post-Budget Breakfast Forum yesterday at Paramount Building, San Fernando, speakers tore down several of Government's initiatives for economic growth, poverty reduction and gender development.
Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) political leader David Abdulah described the budget as papier-mache, saying that about 30 per cent of the information was cut from the previous document and pasted into the new. Listed in last year’s budget that reappeared on Monday included the Magdalena Grand Beach and Golf Resort in Tobago. In 2018, Finance Minister Imbert told the Parliament that the Government was at an advanced stage of securing an internationally-recognized brand operator for the 198 room resort. Imbert said then that the operator, three investors had conducted site visits and submitted proposals in September 2018. He said the government was “making tremendous efforts to have in place on January 1, 2019, an internationally recognized brand manager for the Resort. However, Imbert said on Monday that the brand manager was identified and will assume operatorship while the Government undertakes the rehabilitation and outfitting works on the hotel. Upon completion of those works, the hotel will be rebranded under the new operator.
Abdulah also pointed out that the completion of the Point Fortin Hospital was included in the 2019 budget but has again appeared this year. The upgrades of the Port-of-Spain General Hospital, the completion of the Arima Hospital, the establishment of the Revenue Authority, Property Tax, Public Procurement, Skinner Park and San Fernando Waterfront redevelopments were also plans in the old budget.
While an estimated 194,000 people are to benefit from a $2.50 increase in the minimum wage, economist Hayden Blade believes this will do little to lift them over the poverty line. The increase will see the current minimum wage earners' salaries rise by $20 a day.
“How much is rent in San Fernando these days? For two people in a little apartment. After you’re finished paying rent, how much money do you have to buy food? What about transport? I’m asking you, how are you going to exist on $2400? But here is the disrespect in all of this, you can’t exist on $2400 but the great celebrations have occurred, you must now exist on $2800. Now you can save abundantly and buy HDC bonds so that you can pay down on your upcoming purchase of an HDC property. That is the disrespect that we accept from our politicians. You can’t exist on $15 an hour, but surely you shall exist and live an abundant life on $17.50,” Blades said while applauding the move sarcastically. He described the budget as a concoction to woo voters after almost five years of minuscule economic growth. He said Government must come with a different approach.
OWTU general secretary Richard Lee said the Union has been lobbying for a minimum wage of $20 per hour. Despite the increase, Lee believes that many people will remain below the poverty line. He was sceptical about Imbert’s comment that unemployment remained at a low level, given that Petrotrin, TSTT, UTT and other companies undertook mass retrenchments in the last year. He questioned whether the Government had used temporary URP work to boost employment figures.
While OJT trainees are set to get a 10 per cent increase in their stipends and despite Government's plan to increase the intake for the programme to 8000 from December 1, Trinidad Youth Council president Shanice Webb said employers used the programme for cheap labour. Webb said there is no real planning for youth employment following the programme and it is either they sit at home jobless or return to school, only to struggle to find jobs thereafter.
President of the United Farmers Association Shiraz Khan said the government was spending more money to build a highway to Toco than investing in agriculture. Khan said while the Health Ministry continues to get a large chunk of the budget, the food import bill continues to rise, with importers bringing in foods that cause citizens to fall ill and fill up the hospitals. Khan believes this trend continues as friends of the government continue to benefit.