“Many of our citizens have already lost their jobs, and it is likely that more will in the coming days and weeks, which will affect their ability to look after themselves and their families. A caring government has a civic and moral responsibility to help these people now. It is not enough to only extend our concern; these displaced workers have human needs just like us.” — Opposition Leader Philip J Pierre
Opposition Leader Philip J Pierre Sunday evening outlined some proposals he said government could consider in its preparation of an economic stimulus package for employees and employers severely hit by the novel corona virus.
Pierre at the same time questioned government’s sincerity in obeying the same measures it is asking the population to adhere to in the fight to prevent the spread of the virus.
“We are also concerned that the Government appears to be ignoring some of the very guidelines that it has called upon the public to observe in relation to COVID-19. The Government has asked our people to observe social distancing in line with the advice of the health authorities and so it has closed down all non-essential services in the country. So why is the government undertaking new projects in some communities like the construction of new roads and buildings and working on some playing fields? Are these activities absolutely essential at this time?” asked Pierre.
Noting the onslaught to the economy by the virus, with the shutting down of the tourism industry, which has resulted in thousands of Saint Lucians out of work and the self-employed and small businesses adrift, Pierre said government must therefore deal with the implications of this economic shock whilst simultaneously counter-attacking the virus on the health front.
“The economic survival and support programmes that we propose for implementation for the next three months are: Direct income support; fuel, agricultural and food support; domestic utilities and rental support; short term employment; small and medium enterprise support and travel and tourism support,” Pierre said, adding that those broad programmes are further broken down into sub-programmes, to cover those critical areas.
Pierre called for government’s intervention to provide direct income support to all sectors which have been impacted by layoffs and inactivity. He suggested that a monthly cash stipend maximum $1000 should be paid to all qualified persons whose regular income had been cut-off or substantially reduced.
“Pay-roll, formal hotel and restaurant employees, self-employed vendors, taxi drivers, tour guides, active NIC contributors and others falling in that pool will qualify for assistance. Working through the NIC, taxi and vendors associations, Village Councils, and hotels, eligible citizens can be identified for this assistance,” Pierre said.
He also advocated for an increase in public and social assistance and for additional assistance to be provided to needy persons and those who are presently receiving government assistance as well as persons with disabilities.
“Food vouchers through the SSDF should be distributed to deserving families based on the population of the 17 constituencies. Starting from April, a monthly bonus should be paid to the frontline health workers, including nurses, doctors, and first responders for their extra-ordinary efforts in the fight to contain this coronavirus and protect the population,” Pierre said, adding that fuel support would provide a direct subsidy on fuel purchase for high consumers of fuel namely, fisher folks and public transport operators.
“Fishing boat operators, especially registered fisher folks would need fuel subsidy in order to remain in business to supply much needed protein to our people without the need to increase fish prices,” he added. “A fuel voucher should be introduced as a direct subsidy to that industry. The voucher can be the equivalent of the excise tax amount of $4.00 per gallon of gasoline. The value would be based on the monthly consumption rate of the fishers. This measure could be easily implemented through the various fisher folk co-operatives island wide and would greatly assist in our food security,” noted Pierre.
He called for minibus operators to be provided with direct fuel subsidy through a similar fuel voucher mechanism to enable that sector to remain viable, providing an essential service to the country under very difficult circumstances.
Regarding agricultural and food support Pierre proposed income support for farmers who have not been paid by NFA for produce sold to Winfresh and income support for the farmers who sell directly to the hotels and restaurants who will no longer be receiving any income.
“To enhance our food security, we recommend that inputs of seeds, fertilizers and other planting material together with irrigation support be provided to our farmers and that LUCELEC be asked to cover for the next three months, the first 180kWh for households which require relief. This would result in a savings of $135 on the electric bill of approximately 30,000 households and for there to be no disconnection during that period,” Pierre said.
Pierre also spoke about relief for households for the next three months regarding water consumption from WASCO and noted there should be no disconnection during that period. He stated also that landlords needed to be encouraged not to evict tenants and “consider reduced, part or a suspension of payments taking into account that there may be a moratorium on mortgage payments.”
He called for critical sectors of the society to provide necessary services while observing the protocols of social distancing.
“A Farm/Fisheries Labour Support Programme can create jobs and assist in boosting our primary production. An expansion of the Home Help Programme can assist over 300 seniors and persons with disabilities. A national landscape & beautification programme can enhance our roadways, parks, trails, historic sites and attractions,” Pierre added, delving into other areas which needed support.
Saying that small and micro enterprises are already suffering from loss of income and will require assistance to survive this period, Pierre proposed a small business grant facility to aid up to over 1000 small and micro enterprises. A grant of $5000 monthly is proposed.
“The arts, entertainment and media sector which we have often termed as the Creative Industries will require special attention. Artists, performers, DJs, musicians, graphic designers, cosmetologists, entertainers, media and producers are most particularly affected. They can be persuaded to produce useful programmes to raise national spirit,” Pierre said.
He said a short-term grant to small hotels and guest houses, A & B operators and other operators who are not captured in the income support programme should be considered.
“Salaries for civil and public servants in the initial three-month period should be financed by the issuance of new public debt. We expect that international financial institutions will support this venture. Banks will be expected to support this undertaking with roll overs and fully subscribing to the new issued debt. It must never be forgotten that we are living in extraordinary times and extraordinary measures are needed to protect the lives of our people since there can be no economy without people,” Pierre said.
He proposed other measures such as government proposing to companies who retain and continue to compensate staff a tax credit of 150% of the total paid to the employees, a waiver of income tax installments due for the year 2020, payment of tax refunds of less than $2000 due to tax payers, and for the moratorium of loan and mortgage payments to not attract increased interest or late payment fees.
“We have been visited by an invisible enemy that threatens our livelihoods and sadly the lives of many,” Pierre concluded. “Our priorities must therefore be revisited in response to the threat of Covid-19. We must act decisively and adopt policy responses that are efficient and effective. Many of our citizens have already lost their jobs, and it is likely that more will in the coming days and weeks, which will affect their ability to look after themselves and their families. A caring government has a civic and moral responsibility to help these people now. It is not enough to only extend our concern; these displaced workers have human needs just like us, and so we must help them, from whatever resources we may have as a country. The government’s priorities pre-Convid-19 cannot be the same as post-Covid-19.”