COVID-19 Grants: Good Ideas, Weak Implementation

In the wake of the nationwide lockdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the government has deemed it necessary to make available to the public a number of grants for persons without a source of income. These grants include relief for salaries, rent assistance and food aid. While these grants are a welcome break for people who depend on their jobs for sustainence, as is often the case, the implementation of these policies have left much to be desired.

As you peruse the comments under the news articles and other posts about the grants on social media, you would find a number of people at any given time complaining about the quality of service and the puzzling requirements and conditions for accessing the grants. To begin with, in order to be eligible a person must be paying NIS while also not having another source of income. Employer must be registered with NIB.

Another major issue is the sheer amount of beaureaucracy involved. The registration process requires the applicant to download a form for the previous or current employers to fill out. These forms will then be sent in to the Ministry of Finance with the relevant documents where the applicant will then wait to have her/his information verified by the National Insurance Board. One can imagine this to be a very cumbersome process. Aside from the fact that the NIB is one of the slowest government agencies in existence, having to vet each individual application form will no doubt put a strain on the limited manpower available at this time.

Instead, the MSJ recommends that the responsibility should be on the employer to provide a complete payroll of all employees and their salaries in order to cut down on the amount of time and resources spent verifying the authenticity of each application. Secondly, a designated department within a government ministry (ideally the Ministry of Labour) should take on this task of dealing with applicants and their employers. Once the payrolls are verified then payments will be sent directly to the employee’s bank account instead of the employer’s. In the event that the employee does not have a bank account then cheques can be made available at the Ministry of Finance. A similar process has been executed in countries such as Denmark and Canada to the satisfaction of the workers in those countries.

It should also be mentioned that with the current system we have in place, at no time has the government given any timeline as to when applicants can expect payment. Are we going to see payments made within the week, or longer? It is disturbing to think that people will be left uncertain for weeks, if not months as is usually the case with our government beaureaucracies.

There is also a grant available for self-employed persons. The problem is that many workers who fall within that bracket (taxi drivers, market vendors, etc.) have difficulties keeping records of their income and expendature. We expect that these persons in particular will have great difficulty accessing compensatoin, especially those persons who lack bank accounts and cannot get bank statements.

Where the welfare of our workers are concerned, the government must seriously rethink its implementation process. The Heritage and Stabilisation Fund is limited and must be used as wisely as possible.

As with all social programmes made possible by our state, the threat of political victimisation is ever present. For the most egregious display of politicisation during this crisis look no further than the School Feeding Programme Grant. The family must first be registered under the School Feeding Programme. All registered persons will then be contacted by their MP, and they will collect their assistance only when called.

Why is it up to the MP to determine who is eligible to be fed? As with foods cards, housing and other state benefits, it is a macabre thing to use food as a political tool. We can only presume that this means punishment for people not supporting the party being represented by the MP’s whether they be government or opposition MP’s. Instead, we are recommending that a unit within the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Social Development be established to handle the responsibiliy of making sure our schoolchildren are fed.

Our final segment covering this topic will focus on the workers of our country who have been deemed to be “essential”. Before COVID-19 reached our shores these workers (in particular those who work for the minimum wage including grocery workers, sanitaion workers and cleaners, etc.) have been met with much derision and disrespect by the country at large. The fact that it took a global crisis for us to understand their worth as workers and as human beings speaks volumes about our attitude towards so-called “blue collar” jobs. While this crisis is an urgent call for all hands to be on deck, we hope that the persons who work in these jobs remember how important their contributions were so that they can bargain for better wages once this situation is under control.

In closing we wish to urge the government to review the conditions of these grants and fast track this service for those most in need.

Food for Thought- Food Sovereignity in Times of Crisis

Yesterday the Prime Minister announced that all restaurants and food vendors will be ordered to cease the sale of food until the COVID-19 virus is under control in T&T. Rowley’s announcement seemed to have inspired a civil war as many have been led to believe that this decision was the result of pressure from disgruntled doubles vendors. However while the country is locked in a senseless argument about whether KFC is “essential” or not, a larger, more pressing issue that has haunted our country for our entire history looms larger than ever. That is, the question of food sovereignity.

As a small island nation with a dormant manufacturing sector, almost every item that is consumed- from clothes, to electronics and especially food- is imported from abroad. But as the COVID infection continues to rip throughout the world without abating, entire industries are being forced to shut down due to concerns about the safety of workers and the wider population. If this virus isn’t brought under control, there is the very real possibility of our nation having to forgo imported goods for as long as the world needs for this virus to relent.

This is a frightening possibility, especially given the fact that our agriculture industry isn’t even a major industry anymore. What would the future hold for the 1.3 million people who live here with our source of sustainance gone? “Too late, too late!” shall be the cry as we would finally understand how important it would have been for our nation to feed itself.

What can the government do (perhaps more poignantly- what would an MSJ government do) in order to revive agriculture in a way that can save us from impending disaster?

It begins with incentivising agriculture. At this point, this is where defenders of past and present agri-policy would interject and list the various incentives that exist for farmers locally. However, none of these incentives address a fundamental problem affecting farmers- the purchasing of agricultural produce.

By importing cheap food that has been mass produced on industrial farms in other countries, we have flooded our own nation with cheap produce which has made it difficult for local farmers to compete. The higher cost of local goods have discouraged both retailers and consumers from buying local. As a result, farmers continue to struggle despite the numerous incentives that are available. However these incentives mean nothing if farmers can’t even get their produce sold.

Therefore it is important that the purchase of local goods are guaranteed by law. Under the MSJ, all supermarkets and other retailers must first purchase products from local farmers before turning to outside sources to fill their shelves. In doing so not only would we provide a stable and steady source of income for local farmers but we would also cut down on the loss of foreign exchange- the shortage of which has triggered yet another crisis in T&T. In addition to mandating the purchase of local food products, the cost of these items will be offset through government subsidies. Why has this not been done before? This oversight can be easily attributed to apathy and nonchalance, but we see something more sinister. The retailers and traders locally have amassed great fortunes through the buying and re-selling of imported goods. From supermarkets to fast food restaurants, the business elite have been able to influence government policy for their benefit and theirs alone. Funds generated from this un-innovative business model have been used to fund political parties and keep politicians in their pockets- hence the lack of interest by both major parties to develop agriculture.

There are other reasons to avoid foreign food products. Last year, the world was horrified as we witnessed the destruction of the Amazon rainforest at the hands of the Brazilian government. The Amazon is being destroyed because the president of Brazil has practically sold large swaths of the forest to agribusinessmen, who are turning the Lungs of the Earth into mega-farms. Many meat, vegetable and beverage products are imported from Brazil into T&T every year. By turning to Brazil for food we are indirectly contributing to the ongoing destruction of the Amazon and the genocide of indigenous people living there. It should also be mentioned here that this will no doubt contribute to climate change, something that can seriously affect our lives as Caribbean people.

Another hindrance to local agriculture has been the habit of both government and opposition parties alike to use fertile farmland for conscruction sites. This is because housing continues to be used as a political tool and not the human right that it is. A separate article about the state of housing will be written in due time; but to address the the topic of agriculture, rest assured that not a single inch of farmland would ever be used for construction projects under an MSJ government. Arable land is a limited resource, especially on an island as small as ours. Every effort must be taken to ensure that such land is protected and utilised in the manner that it ought to be used in.

The establishment of community-based cooperatives will also be encouraged. Beginning at a local government level, each Borough Corporation will establish a number of community farms in order to meet the demands of the population. It should be highlighted that some local government districts (especially those in the built-up, urbanised areas) may not have access to land. This is where indoor and vertical farming can be introduced to ensure that every district can feed its people despite the lack of available land space.

We hope with all our hearts that this COVID-19 crisis passes by without any major fallout for T&T. However even when that happens, we are still far from being out of the woods. For there will be many long battles to fight in the very near future. Because with climate change comes the possibility of droughts, hurricanes and flash floods- things that will no doubt put a strain on our national resources and especially our food supply. One of the ways China was able to contain the COVID-19 virus was due in part to their stockpiling of food supplies for the population. During the course of its long history, the Chinese have had to endure many calamities- natural disasters, disease, war, etc. So it is no wonder that they have figured out that the best way to ensure survival for everyone is to begin by simply making it possible for each person to have a plate of food. We ought to take a page out of China’s book in this regard and turn to our farmers for our survival as a nation.

Welcome to the Justice Newsletter

“Everyone wants peace, but no one is crying out for justice” – Peter Tosh

There is a lot happening in our country and all around the world. Injustice is everywhere and although we are willing to confront it, the working people of T&T have found it difficult to unite against racial division; in addition to the other types of discrimination that have held us back as a nation.

This newsletter aims to inspire and educate a new generation of conscious activists seeking an end to the status quo. We would like all of our readers to understand the historical and social context that have produced our struggles today, as we seek to break down the barriers that divide us.

Look out for new articles every month, and be sure to follow us on social media.

A luta continua!

Will There Ever be Justice for Workers?

by Faviola Whittier

1515 – Spanish priest Bartolme de las Casas argues that enslaving the First Peoples in encomiendas is wrong because the indigenous people of the Caribbean were equal to the European colonisers. He convinces the Spanish King Charles I to end the encomienda system.

1518 – Spanish King Charles I grants permission to transport the first 4,000 African slaves to the West Indies.

1833 – The United Kingdom makes slavery illegal in its colonies, including the island of Trinidad and Tobago.

1834 – The Governor of Trinidad announces apprenticeship – enslaved people have to continue working on plantations without pay for 6 more years. Full emancipation was not achieved until 1838, after years of protests.

1845 – The Fath Al Razack brings the first East Indian indentured labourers to Trinidad to work on the sugar plantations.

1884 – Labour tensions rise in sugar plantations, leading to a ban on all processions of East Indians entering towns. British soldiers open fire East Indians celebrating Hosay in San Fernando.

From the beginning of our colonial history to the present post-Independent era in Trinidad and Tobago, labour has been exploited. No one worked for their own benefit – those who owned land or factories refused to get their hands dirty (a fact noted in letters of the time by Spanish officials reporting on the lack of development in the colonies). Those who worked could only choose between labour to benefit someone else (i.e. the factory/landowners) or harsh punishments. Violent rebellions were inevitable, as were more creative forms of resistance that allowed workers to escape both work and punishment.

This is our history – not the world we live in today. What changed?

We did.

We educated ourselves about workers’ rights and trade unionism. We organised ourselves. We raised up our own leaders who understood the unfairness of being expected to give your all in a job with bad pay and bad conditions.

The story of June 19, 1937 has been told in many places, including the death of Charlie King when he attempted to arrest Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Bulter in Fyzabad. As important as June 19 is, we should also pay attention to what happened after – the establishment of trade unions. Adrian Cola Rienzi was the first President General of five trade unions including the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union and the All Trinidad Sugar Estates and Factory Workers Union.

All the rights and benefits that workers enjoy today were won by workers who came together in trade unions. They were not given by any politician or business owner or manager. Vacations, pensions, maternity leave, workman’s compensation, sick leave, bonuses… all were victories won by the people of this country.

The losers of those battles, who still live more comfortably than workers, have not given up. They are still refusing to get their hands dirty and are taking advantage of others who work for them. Caroni closed, and the workers still have not gotten their promised compensation. ArcelorMittal closed, and workers were denied their severance benefits. Petrotrin was closed and the workers were denied justice.

Knowing our history, can we wait for someone to save us? Or, knowing our history and how much our own people achieved, will we stand up and fight for ourselves?

The Grenada Revolution- 41 Years On

2 weeks ago we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Black Power Uprising on Ash Wednestday. On Friday the 13th of this month, there was also another anniversary- the 41st year since the Grenada Revolution of 1979.

As we have seen in our own history, the 70’s was known for its revolutionary activity around the world. The tiny island nation of Grenada produced its own revolutinary figure in Maurice Bishop, who shook the world when he overthrew the post-colonial government of Eric Gairy. Grenada, like Trinidad, experienced very little change in its post-independent history. Gairy had instituted his own “Flying Squad”- the “Mongood Gang” in order to enforce his authority over the people.

However Bishop was able to end Gairy’s rule and established a government that promised to fulfill its social obligations to the people. Radical reforms in education and health saw a drastic decrease in illiteracy and infant mortality. Meanwhile, women finally had access to maternity leave and equal pay for the first time.

However such an act of defiance against the status quo did not go unpunished. The United Kingdom and the United States both imposed economic sanctions on the new government, making it difficult for Grenada to access international loans and investment. As the economic situation worsened, an internal coup led to Bishop’s untimely assassination and an American invasion 6 days later which ultimately ended the Grenadian Revolution.

Like the Uprising of 1970, it too is an incomplete project. The interruption of this particular project has set us back decades in the fight for social justice. Who knows what Maurica Bishop would have been able to accomplish, and how the Revolution of Grenada would have changed the political landscape across the Caribbean?

We may never know, and that is why we continue the fight.

Youth Action Necessary to Fight Climate Change

The Youth Eco Movement (Y.E.M.) was formed in response to the lack of action by the government in the fight against climate change, and by the ongoing plundering of the Earth’s resources at the hands of oil companies.

Y.E.M., based in North-West Trinidad, first took action when they staged a march around the Queen’s Park Savannah in December of 2019, to raise awareness of the urgent need to address climate change. The group has voiced their concerns about the growing threat of hurricanes, and the risk of losing our own coral reefs. 

They are calling on the state and the private sector to make the shift towards green energy and to abandon the destructive extractive industries.

Remembering 1970

The following piece was transcribed from a speech delivered by YSJ chairman, Angelo Hart. The speech was made at a rally after a march that was held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Black Power Uprising of 1970.

The rally was a joint effort between the Youths for Social Justice and the Emancipation Support Committee. It was held on Ash Wednesday of this year and featured other speakers such as Kafra Kambon and Clive Nunez as well as poems by Pearl Entou Springer and Mtima Solwazi of ROOTS Foundation, with a reading of Kamau Brathwate by Muhammad Muwakil.

“In order for the deaf to hear, there has to be an explosion.” These were the words of Indian revolutionary Bhagat Singh, a man who spent his life resisting colonial oppression. 

On February 26th 1970, an explosion took place right here in Port of Spain, at the very site we began our march. This explosion was arguably a minor one. It was not the result of weapons of conventional warfare, neither was it a physical explosion of any kind. 

This explosion, perhaps in the greater scheme of things, was a spark. A spark that was the result of colonial machinery falling apart in a modern world, and a spark that ignited greater explosions in the period that followed. But we will discuss those explosions at another time.

This spark in particular is important because for the first time perhaps since Independence,  it inspired the people of Trinidad and Tobago to question and challenge the state of inequality that had existed in T&T. The glitz and the glamour of 1962 had faded. The reality of class inequality and the presence of laws and customs that resembled Apartheid-era South Africa had set in. 

What good was being an Independent country if foreign multinational companies owned more and more of our GDP? What does a flag and an anthem mean when people of African and Indian descent couldn’t work in the banks, had limited access to education and couldn’t even go to some of our own beaches, in our own country? Furthermore, independence from a colonial power meant nothing and still means nothing if our people are still treated with contempt and scorn in these so-called “developed” countries. 

The protest of February 26th 1970 was born out of frustration. The rate of unemployment was the highest it had ever been in our history. Foreign corporations owned as much as 22% of our national wealth, while people who look like you and me were forbidden from working in our banks. Worse yet, access to areas in our Independent country were off limits. 

I would not cover each detail of that 1970 protest, because this is not why I am here to address you. This is more than just preserving history for the sake of it. 

We are here because the project that was started in 1970 is not only incomplete, it is near-forgotten. The battles that were fought and the people who died in the aftermath have been wiped from the pages of our textbooks by those who control our education. Indeed, if we were to take a look at the state of our education system, you would realise that we have not instilled in our young people a desire and an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to our communities. 

Instead we have forced a culture of vanity, materialism and excessive consumption on our children. Education is no longer a tool to liberate the oppressed, but now a tool to create obedient workers. 

This is why we have “career politicians”. Even our public offices are seen as a means to elevate one’s status and financial gain. 

I wonder what our country would look like if schoolchildren were taught about how the streets of Port of Spain were flooded with thousands of people for the funeral of Bazil Davis? I wonder what it would look like if they knew who Bazil Davis even was in the first place, and how he came to lose his life right here in this square? 

And what of the names of Beverly Jones and Guy Harewood? How they challenged the government of Eric Williams and how they were murdered at the hands of a commissioner who went on to become the father of the drug trade in this country? 

But as the old saying goes, those who do not know their history are bound to repeat it. Our unemployment rate is increasing. It has been reported that in the last 5 years over 20,000 people have lost their jobs. Meanwhile foreign companies have proliferated throughout our islands even as our foreign exchange crisis continues. Caribbean people are still used as cheap labour both at home and abroad. How many of us have relatives that were forced under the circumstances to give up their lives and their families in search of opportunities elsewhere? How many of our university graduates have had to leave our own country out of frustration with not being able to advance their lives in any meaningful way while contributing to the development and growth of our country and our region? 

Comrades, this is not the result of chance or incompetence. For the ones who control our education are the same ones who control labour and employment in this country. They used to ask for 3 CXC subjects to work at KFC. But with a KFC on every corner, they ran out of people with three subjects and now they asking for 5, and a bachelor’s degree may as well be just as worthless. 

If history was taught in a fundamental way, do you think the so-called “fully dunce” and “fully ignorant” youths of marginalised communities would be turning their guns on each other in frustration at the circumstances that they are living in? 

How far would our society come if African and Indian students learned about the great March to Caroni and what it meant for the people of that era who were willing to put their differences aside to overcome racial hatred and racial division? 

In closing, I wish to commend the warriors of the old days for the freedoms that young people like myself are able to enjoy today. I wish to let them know that the struggles they faced in 1970 will never be forgotten. We the Youths of Social Justice are determined to finish the project that was started by the warriors of old. Thank you for listening to us today, and thank you for attending our commemoration. 

Power to the people!