Social fears arising

It is not surprising that for the umpteenth time in Barbados the country has reached a critical stage in its national development. Hard questions are being put to the political directorate and the opposition political party by civil society and an electorate growing impatient for positive things to happen. Groups of people all across the country understand the foreboding nature of the imminent general elections.

Ready or not, the people are sensing that their votes will be pivotal turning points for securing their children’s future.

A definitive statement will be made by the electorate regarding whether the people see themselves likely to be better off in the future, given that for large numbers of unemployed and/or impoverished Barbadians, their socio-economic situations have been made worse since 2008.

There can hardly be a truer statement as 2013 draws nigh than the Leader of the Opposition’s remark that “the task of building a nation … requires the bringing together in a harmonious and coherent way, forces in the economic, social, cultural, political and psychological realms, to forge a society that can progressively meet the needs and expectations of the broad mass of the people”.

It is precisely on this basis that policy alternatives and strategic choices have to be made now with Barbadians as the priority in the course for national development.

What has been happening is that uncertainty and actively promulgated social fears have made tough situations, some perhaps fuelled by the downturn in the national economy as a partial result of the recession, more bothersome for the employed, underemployed, and unemployed in Barbados.

The prospects for public sector restructuring, labour market reforms, the downsizing of welfare state provisions, and the return of mass unemployment are likely to create pressures on the traditional models of trade unionism, social dialogue and collective bargaining amidst the tripartite arrangements in Barbados. Uncomfortable as they are, these things become necessary for cutting public expenditures, wastage, and enhancing the overall prospects for national development. Barbadian workers, many parents, wage-earners, and beneficiaries of government largess must still cope with a harsh economic environment.

According to the World of Work Report (2012), “the labour market situation requires a change in the policy approach — away from ill-conceived labour market reforms and fiscal austerity”. I advocate that the trade unions and the political parties, in conjunction with other members of civil society, lead a fight in Barbados for the social protection of workers — those who will be directly and indirectly affected by any substantive restructuring, divestment, and/or privatisation.

Advocates of national development policies and programmes, and especially those arising from within the government must carry out “a drive to realise key human rights, reflecting principles of social justice and providing an institutional framework for embedding fair development” in Barbados’ expectations for returned economic growth and prosperity.

It is against this backdrop that one ought to consider the self-survival of the individual, the political party, trade union, and all of the other entities to be affected by any substantial re-organisation or transfer of ownership and/or controlling interests in the national economy.

For purposes of self-survival it is not unusual to hear political parties clamour against the opposing side nor is it totally heretic for politicians to appeal to the emotionalism being worn on the sleeves of the general public.

Barbadians are indeed faced with serious economic challenges that have encroached upon their capacities to save, consume, and invest in the domestic economy. Put differently, the economic situation in Barbados, whether aided or abetted by a combination of DLP-administrative forlorn and the impact of recessionary times, has shifted from one of stability to one of stagnation.

The Governor of the Central Bank characterises Barbados’ plight wherein “real economic activity is estimated to have been stagnant for the first nine months of the year”. There is little escaping the view that the average Barbadian perceives the current administration as being defensive and woefully resistant to change its policy directions.

Is there justifiable cause for concern, and is the utterance of social fear reasonable given all that Barbadians have endured for the better part of five years?

Indeed, there are several independent commentators suggesting that the popularity with which the DLP came into power in 2008 is dwindling at an alarming rate. This feature is perhaps rivalled only by the rate at which the cost of living continues to increase. Workers from the private sector are unfortunately being sent packing to join their many unemployed friends and relatives already living in dire straits whilst, at the same time, the government is borrowing to pay public servants on a monthly but unsustainable basis.

Loads of negative suggestions and squeamish language, thrown to the public as caution, are being used to transmit social and societal fear within Barbados.

The Opposition BLP seems confident and has been projecting alternatives to Barbados’ approach to national development. Yet, there are underlying fears that have occasioned the utterances being made by Owen Arthur and the BLP hierarchy. In fairness to the BLP’s positions on the types of structural and infrastructural transformations needed to make Barbados a more productive and competitive economy, the party spokespersons have cushioned their language, to some extent, by the plausibility of worker enfranchisement and social empowerment. These are central planks for positioning and making divestments in the public sector and overall national economy as espoused by Owen Arthur and his economic team.

Conversely, the DLP’s earlier silence, perhaps induced by the death of Prime Minister David Thompson, has given way to the waking of those sleeping on the job. It must be remembered that in the 2009 budgetary proposals, Prime Minister Thompson said that his Cabinet and the DLP “have to remove subsidies to operations which are commercial or supposed to break even. Government itself will have to be leaner and more efficient. We will also have to maintain capital spending in the economy in order to lay the infrastructural foundations for the country to produce more in the future”.

These are positions that have subsequently been repeated by Minister Chris Sinckler despite there being a louder tenor emerging from within the DLP that gives the appearance of disagreement to this macroeconomic tool of restructuring the economy.

As recently as the 2011 Budget presentation, Sinckler contended that: “Continuous high debt and deficit levels are simply not going to be affordable going forward and we have to accelerate our efforts to tackle these problems systematically. At the same time we are going to have to continue to strengthen our economic reform programme, while attending to a serious restructuring of all aspects of national economy including both private and public sectors.”

* To be continued tomorrow

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