By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” Mar 5, 2021)
No section of the Vincentian population works harder than those in the lower classes. Sadly, these very workers are grossly exploited and end up spending their entire lives preparing to live. And in the main, they do so without breaking the country’s laws and dutifully serving those in whose charge they are committed.
We only have to look on the streets of Kingstown or the roadside across SVG to witness the entrepreneurial spirit, dedication, and commitment to the people’s hard work. We see it every day as they journey to the business houses or the homes of middle and upper-class people, to earn an income that is barely sufficient to allow them to keep body and soul together.
In December, during the festive holiday season, they leave their homes on Sundays to work in the businesses in Kingstown. The law requires that those engaged in Sunday work is entitled to “double time”. How many business owners obey the law of the land and honour their responsibility to pay the workers justly for their inconvenience and labour?
We waited in vain for a trade union leader, the prime minister, or the minister responsible for Labour to raise the issue and remind employers of the law.
Last week we read the sad tale of health workers going for three weeks without a salary. PM Gonsalves claimed that a worker called him to decry the inattention and mistreatment, and of course, he deflected the responsibility and blamed the bureaucrats.
But this disregard is nothing new. For years, the least paid government workers are made to wait indefinitely for the government’s pittance. It is not unusual to go to the treasury and find a notice at the entrance which informs these workers that their payslip is not ready.
The plain truth is that the government rarely budgets for these workers, many of whom engage in part-time work, for example, two weeks on, two weeks off. Once government meets its monthly obligation to public servants and can continue its boast that these workers never failed to get their salary, to hell with meeting its financial obligation to those employees who “bank” on payday to meet the demands of friends, neighbours and shopkeepers, from whom they credited basics to feed, clothe or send their children to school or an elderly parent to the doctor.
Small business people also feel the squeeze as the tax department presses them to pay their fair share. Some small businesses report being taxed hundreds of thousands of dollars and have their money seized from bank accounts without notice, negotiations or mercy. Inside sources tell us certain accounts are never touched, queried, investigated or audited because of their connection to the governing party.
We all know we can’t properly run the country in this manner, but too many of us mindlessly go along to get along.
This reality is compounded by the fact that the population, especially the poor, is burdened with a mountain of health problems, especially diabetes and hypertension. Yet, there is little effort to promote preventative health and healthy living by developing good eating habits and exercise.
Added to this messy and depressing situation are the scourges of high unemployment, estimated to be over 40 % among young people, and persistent poverty which is also close to 40 %. These are troubling numbers because it means at least four in every 10 Vincentians are unemployed and live below the poverty line.
And if you think we are negatively massaging the numbers, Finance Minister Camillo Gonsalves offers support for our contention that large sections of the population face serious financial problems. During his Budget Address under the banner Reducing Poverty, Protecting the Vulnerable and Combatting Inequality, the minister said “over 7,400 primary school children depend on the school feeding programme, 57% of the student body. In rural districts, over 90% of students use the programme. Indeed, in 8 of 13 school districts, more than two-thirds of the student relies on the school feeding programme. At seven primary schools nationwide, 100 % of students eat heavily subsidised nutritious meals. Those seven schools have 915 students.”
With school closure because of the novel coronavirus, he cautioned that SVG was not immune from a situation where some children could succumb to “acute malnutrition”.
One hundred and seventy-six years ago, Fredrich Engels, analysing the conditions of the British working class, made this apt observation:
“When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another such that death results, we call the deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call his deed murder. But when society places hundreds of workers in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live — forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence — knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as the act of the single individual; disguised, a malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim appears a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains.”
What Engels labelled social murder in 1845 rings true now more than ever. But we have to think a little deeper because workers and the poor are made to believe that their lot in life is their fault. They are poor because they are lazy, don’t want to work or lack the necessary drive to succeed. Nothing could be further from the truth.
On multiply levels, we nah dey good. It is time for us to address our many problems seriously.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].