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EDITORIAL: Out of work, or unemployed?


EDITORIAL: Out of work, or unemployed?

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WHAT HAS CHANGED? That must be the question on the minds of countless Barbadians who woke up Wednesday morning to the news from the Barbados Statistical Service that unemployment at the end of the first quarter of 2016 stood at 9.3 per cent – the lowest for several years.

We would have to join all those who are more than a little curious about these latest statistics in asking for a detailed explanation on how they are compiled.

We accept that there is science in statistics, but for ordinary citizens who live in the real world, the anecdotal evidence all around does not square with these numbers.

Traditionally, unemployment falls in the first quarter of the year due in large measure to the tourist season and the sugar crop – and up until the start of the recession in the late 2000s, construction was also a major driver.

The 2016 tourist season by all accounts performed well, but sugar was at an all-time low and there can be no arguing that the construction sector remains flat. And so many other aspects of the local economy, while showing some promise, are still struggling to return to their pre-recession positions.

So what would account for these low unemployment statistics – males at 8.7 per cent and females at 10 per cent? Would it be right to conclude that 9.3 per cent unemployment means that only 9.3 per cent of people of employable age are not working?

We know that those whose responsibility it is to arrive at the final figures rely on several indicators, including how many people are drawing unemployment benefits from the National Insurance Scheme as well as what is gathered from the Continuous Household Sample Survey, which among other things, seeks to find out how many people in a household are working or actively looking for work.

Unemployment benefits are not paid ad infinitum to the person who loses his or her job and individuals who unsuccessfully seek work for an extended period will often give up – even if only for a time.

So are these people who have given up in frustration or who no longer qualify for unemployment benefits, but who have not found work, captured in the process of compiling unemployment figures? This is a contentious issue that has been the source of robust discussion going back many years.

Indeed, if we recall accurately, it goes back to changes made in the methodology during the 1976 to 1985 regime of then Prime Minister Tom Adams when people who were no longer actively seeking jobs were no longer counted, resulting in an instant “drop” in the unemployment numbers.

We also recall that this issue caused so much political warfare that late Prime Minister David Thompson promised that the system would be reviewed and reformed. Unfortunately, death intervened and he never got to keep his promise.

But we may be making much ado about nothing. Perhaps all that is necessary is for those who are responsible to tell the population that “unemployed” and “not working” are not necessarily synonymous.

It may also be necessary to explain whether the long laid off private or public sector worker who has resorted to baking and selling sweet bread two days a week, or selling pudding and souse at home on Saturdays is being counted among the employed.

Under these circumstances therefore, we can’t help but echo the words of Chairman of the Barbados Private Sector Association, Alex McDonald: “We would want to understand the way that the number was compiled. We have not been told of a private sector company that has embarked on [major] hiring. In fact, we have heard of companies that have consolidated and are not hiring.

“We are hearing of companies that are considering restructuring at that level. We don’t know where the employment  would have come from and it would be very interesting to find out.”