Last week the International Labour Organisation (ILO) warned that tens of millions of migrant workers, forced to return home because of the COVID-19 pandemic after losing their jobs, now face unemployment and even poverty in their respective countries.
Undoubtedly, this will also have repercussions for T&T as the economy struggles to remain afloat, economists warn.
Dr Vaalmikki Arjoon said official statistics from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs indicated that last year, 334,304 people migrated from T&T.
Of that number, 280,062 migrated to North America while 35,565 settled in Europe.
Arjoon said these values, however, are understated as they would not have captured all those people staying in these countries without legal permission.
He explained migrant labour returning to T&T will create added competition for employment, which will be compounded by the Venezuelan workforce locally especially in low and semi-skilled occupations.
However, in the short term, many businesses will continue to cut existing staff given that consumer spending is expected to remain lower than pre-COVID 19 levels, Arjoon said.
He further noted that businesses will not be able to fully meet their wage bills and cover their operating and fixed costs due to low sales revenues.
“Therefore, some of the returning migrants could end up having to remain unemployed in T&T for the short term.
“Depending on the extent of this reverse migration, we may have to stretch our limited resources to accommodate these persons such as health resources, housing, and social benefits such as food cards etc,” Arjoon said.
Many of these migrants would, however, be returning with valuable skills gained while they were abroad.
Arjoon said this can only serve to benefit the domestic economy once the State can create opportunities to integrate such people into its national labour force and leverage these skills.
As part of T&T’s recovery plan, Arjoon suggested that the State develop a procedure for matching the skills of returning migrants to occupations that will create further economic value.
“Some would also bring a healthier work ethic which should be mimicked by our local workforce to boost productivity.
“It can, therefore, be useful for the State to hold diplomatic talks with the US and other countries where migrants may be returning from, so that a bilateral agreement can be fostered where we receive support (financial or otherwise) to reintegrate these returning migrants to our local economy,” Arjoon said.
Some of these migrants will also return intending to start a small business to support their livelihoods, especially if they have some savings that they are willing to invest.
This, Arjoon noted, can create much-needed employment opportunities over time.
But for this to be possible, the State must make it easier to do business locally, especially since returning migrants may be unfamiliar with the massive bureaucracy and delays in the local system.
“Indeed, the cost of doing business has grown considerably, while it can take years to get basic permits and approvals from government agencies.
“This could discourage them from wanting to invest, and should, therefore, be addressed urgently.
“If some of these persons, or their relatives, also own local property which they can pledge as collateral, they can also end up competing for loans from local banks which could displace other locals from accessing the same loans,” Arjoon noted.
Venezuelan migrants continue to come into the country, whether the Government is willing to admit it or not, Arjoon said, adding that the recent COVID-19 restrictions will result in many losing their jobs and seeking other means of survival.
Some, he said, would have taken up domestic work, house maintenance, small construction jobs among others which they would have sourced from an informal network created in the last few years.
“However, many are surviving on bare rations and cannot pay rent. Local agencies such as Living Waters Community have been providing some financial relief to many of these migrants.
“However, with more entering and living in poor conditions, it increases their vulnerability to the virus, which may go undetected by the local authorities,” Arjoon said.
In 2021, when the permission to stay for registered Venezuelans has expired, many may be hesitant to leave given the social and economic crisis in Venezuela compounded by poor access to health care, Arjoon added.
The Government’s purse will be under further pressure as returning migrants may also be forced to tap into State grants, said economist Dr Vanus James.
He said while he does not expect the figure of returning migrants to be large the competition for jobs nevertheless, will be fierce.
And this can result in social ills like a further exacerbation of the crime situation.
James said the latest projections show that T&T’s unemployment rate is expected to be around eight per cent given the growing number of people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
However, he described eight per cent as a modest figure.
“From the point of view of a positive effect of returning migrant labour stimulating the economy I don’t see any positive effect because they would simply have to join the ongoing struggle of the eight per cent.
“But once they are citizens and they come home they are entitled to apply for government programmes,” James explained.
He said Government cannot do anything but to respond “when the pressure hits.”
“It will only add to what is already a large burden of the dependence of unemployed persons on the State that COVID has created in a context of the crash on oil prices,” James added.
On the other hand, he noted, returning migrants could definitely boost the voting population given that this is an election year.
Labour specialist Lesmore Frederick advised that the Government implement a labour task force to address the challenges T&T citizens may face upon returning home after losing their jobs.
Countries like Australia implemented similar task forces last year to ensure protection in the workplace and to bolster enforcement action against employers who exploit vulnerable workers.
Frederick said a task force like that in T&T would enable the Government to be in a better position to implement public policy.
“I see the Government having to take the lead on this initiative and determine what is to be done to address nationals returning because they are our people and we have to assist them,” Frederick added.