Letters & Opinion

Unemployment – A Historical Perspective

Image of John Peters
By John Peters

JOHN N. Turner a Canadian lawyer and a former Attorney General of Canada said the following in a speech to the Canadian Bar Association in December 1969:

‘Substantive and procedural law benefits and protects landlords over tenants, creditors over debtors, lenders over borrowers, and the poor are seldom the favoured parties?

Until we can deal effectively with the high levels of unemployment among our young adults, we will soon have a social disaster on our hands. No country can continue with 50% unemployment among young adults, and it is thus imperative that there is a focused and honest conversation within the society to develop strategies to deal with this crisis. The answers are not traditional.

One firmly believes that there is much to gain from looking at our history, and thus I sought to do the research on unemployment from a historical perspective. Some months ago, I was searching to purchase a copy of the book ‘A History of St Lucia” written by JolienHarmsen, Guy Ellis and Robert Devaux. Eventually, I was able to obtain a copy from Mr. Guy Ellis.

This book, ‘A History of St Lucia’, should be compulsory reading in every secondary school in Saint Lucia. I am of the opinion that CXC should be remodelled to ensure that every student leaving secondary school has been exposed to the history of their country. It is a most superb record of the historical events of Saint Lucia.

I have used this book as reference material to look at the economy of Saint Lucia from 1884 to now, and to see how it has responded to unemployment. I choose 1884 as it was a pivotal year for sugar cane, but more so that it represents the emergence of a new generation in the post emancipation period.

Saint Lucia was then a plantation economy, with sugar being the export product. As so eloquently put by the authors, the question was ‘How can the people best benefit the plantation economy, and not which economic activity best suits the needs of the population.’ Over 100 years later the approach by policy makers bears striking similarity.

In 1884, the working masses earned one shilling per day and life before and after emancipation was no different. In that same year the price of sugar dropped drastically on the world market. Ironically it was the British Blockade of European Ports that forced the French to begin looking at beet as a source of sugar production. The plantation economy collapsed sending thousands into unemployment, malnutrition, starvation; sickness and death followed. Of interest in looking at the similarities with our second venture into plantation economics with bananas and tourism, was the comment of the Royal Commission:

“ The failure therefore of a sugar estate not only leaves a destitute larger number of labourers than can be supported upon the land in other ways, but leaves them also without either the knowledge, skill, or habits requisite for making a good use of the land”

You can replace the words ‘sugar estate’ with ‘banana estate’ or ‘hotel estate’ and the sentence still remains filled with accuracy.

The response of Saint Lucians in that period was to begin looking outside for a better life. There was emigration to Panama, where at one point up to 40% of all adult Saint Lucian men lived in Panama. Then there was the gold rush in Cayenne, Demerara and Venezuela that attracted many Saint Lucians. Of significance is that remittances became a central aspect of the local economy. Can the Diaspora in 2015 be looked at as a participant in economic activity in Saint Lucia once more?

The large numbers of the male population emigrating eventually affected the sugar industry even further and the local business class looked at alternatives. The coaling industry in Castries emerged as the steamship became the primary sea vessel. Women thus also became the target for cheap labour and the local companies – Royal Mail Steam Packet Co., Peter Coaling Co., Barnard, Peter & Co. and Chastanet Coaling Co. exploited these women. Women were required to carry up coal in bags of up to 110 lbs on their heads on a narrow and steep plank to these ships and paid half a penny a day. The pictures of these women walking with the bags of coal on their heads into these boats took a totally different perspective for me and there were emotions thinking of their pain and suffering. One wonders if the Goddard Group of Companies is aware of this history when they make mention of their company’s involvement in the coaling industry on their website.

A new type of opportunity came with World War 1 and again it was seen as a way out of Saint Lucia, many Saint Lucians joined the war and some stayed in the UK but most returned home in no different economic standing from when they left. World War 2 was different, with the free spending American soldiers fuelling the local economy and the infrastructure built at Vieux Fort and Reduit improved the local conditions.

The banana industry got going in the 1950’s and took off, and by 1964 had become the main export. Emigration to Curacao, UK, and the USA was also considered as an alternative to life in Saint Lucia. We have all lived through the ‘Green Gold ‘era and witnessed its collapse in the late 1990’s.

What can we learn from the last 100 years? I would place the following as possible lessons learned:

1.An agriculture based economy is subject to the vagaries of the international market
2.The diaspora has always been a significant aspect of the local economy
3.The plantation economy model has remained the core structure of Saint Lucia’s economy
4.Foreign Direct Investment ( World War 2 investments) has helped the local economy

How can we learn from our history? I would say that we need to get an agriculture sector focused on reducing the food import bill and less focused on exports. I will continue in calling for a restructuring of our tourism sector for it to become more ‘all inclusive’ and less ‘all exclusive’, with incentives being tied to such actions of the developer. I will say that we have not looked at the economic power of our Diaspora, now scattered over several nations. They can be involved in PPP projects, and other investment opportunities. The best days in Vieux Fort were during World War 2, when there was significant foreign direct investment and long stay tourists (soldiers).

The focus can be to make Vieux Fort the centre of off shore medical training, and these long stay tourists will fuel the local economy. A deliberate effort should be made to move the existing medical schools in the north down to Vieux Fort and make the new St. Jude’s Hospital part of the complex.

We can learn from our history in charting a way forward.

1 Comment

  1. The cheaper it is to borrow money, the easier it is to do business…. Banking reform can play a major role in reducing the unemployment rate.

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