It’s a crime that we cannot offer people jobs

Jamaica is on the verge of another ‘fight against crime’. This time it’s not alone in the region. Trinidad, terrified by the prospects of what lies ahead after 19 murders in the first seven days of 2014, is ready to crack down hard. I’m not going to say anything very profound.

While unemployment and poor economic conditions are not necessarily the root of all crime, it’s very hard to reduce crime if you cannot offer people good alternatives for making a living.

While criminals may not be the brightest light on the Christmas tree, they are generally rational in that they have found ways to make money, often more money, through illegal activities than through legal means. I’ve not seen research for Jamaica, but recent data for the UK suggest that crime is good for allowing people to get what they want. (Yes, there;s a social question there about what ‘wants’ are reasonable, and that our societies have fostered illusions about what ‘success’ means.) I’m not going to get on a podium and argue about how criminals see themselves when they commit crimes. I’ve come across first-hand what seems like the warped view of doing wrong but not seeing it as doing wrong (not everyone is Robin Hood, and even he was not loved by all the poor for whom he robbed the rich). Criminals may also be like many drug addicts, thinking that they can ‘cure’ themselves and just stop their habits. That, too, is another topic.

As I ponder what will happen in Jamaica over the next 36 months–that’s about the time of the current IMF arrangement–I don’t see on the horizon many jobs being created. That’s one reason for all the frothy excitement about ‘big projects’ such as the logistics hub. That’s not surprising because the world is in recession and does not look likely to get out of that onto some very high trajectory in the near term. So, I get very nervous when I read stories such as the recent one that National Commercial Bank will end its activity in the remittance business from later this month. Ironically, or sadly, they are doing this because of the impact of crimes, such as money laundering, financing of terrorism and lottery scam activities. But, in the first place, it means fewer jobs, and with that more pressure on those who want to work to find work that doesn’t exist.

Official data paint a clear and grim picture of lots of people without jobs–unemployment is 16 percent overall, and about 40 percent for youths. Underemplyment is not well-measured, but our eyes tell us it’s also very high.

Countries like Jamaica are really in a conudrum. Many things need to be done–places repaired, cleaned, maintained; people to be helped or cared for. The cry is “money is not there”. Government coffers are squeezed, yet public officials do not walk around in rags and do not travel around on donkeys and dray carts, but in plush-looking cars. That’s the image of the public official (and that of the private business person that is ‘doing well’). Priorities are such that money is spent on trappings that many people see and argue could be used to put pay into someone’s pocket. But, imagine the government ministers going around in a small car instead of the de-Lexus or de-Benz style. Would the country then spiral into chaos? I think not.

In that sense, Jamaica does not offer many formal opportunities to work, compared to places like the USA or UK. Many people are active but also many are underemployed, even if they are ‘in jobs’. It’s not uncommon to see people ‘sleeping on the job’–that often happens where people do not have much to do on a continuous basis–security guards at gated communities or public facilities, come to mind. That’s also the case when people have jobs that allow them to ‘pace themselvels’, e.g. ‘gardeners’ in public spaces: I lose track of the number of times I see these ‘workers’ having a good nap in a park or under a tree; it’s tiring work in the sun, and if they have a job to do and it’s done, what’s the harm? You often see people ‘waiting for work’–taxi and bus drivers want to maximize fares while not ‘wasting’ fuel, so prefer to have a full load before setting off. That’s very different from the norm in many countries, where public transport is offered on schedule or on demand. Roadside vendors are often waiting for business and it pays for them to stay put and let customers arrive as they will–they often choose positions where the flow of people on foot or in vehicles will be very good and offer many opportunities to sell. So, vendors are visible at key ‘crossing points’, whereas in other countries people would be accustomed to seeing goods on sales in fixed structures, irrespective of the flow of people. For example, you have to visit a ‘shopping centre’ to do your buying, despite the convenience or not of the location. In that sense, Jamaica is a bit more efficient for buyers and sellers where much ‘shopping’ can be done ‘on the move’. You have the common sight of ‘workers suiting themselves’ when it comes to dealing with customers: Jamaica is famous for the private phone calls not stopping when customers come into an office or store, as if dealing with people is a real intrusion.

But, Jamaicans are very ingenious and ‘create’ jobs that do not exist in other places, or if they do, are less visible or seem less commonplace. Here you get ‘windscreen washers’ around major traffic light places. But, some of this ingenuity is ‘misdirected’: look at the recent case of the retrofitted van that was made to look like a mobile gas station. Look at the robot (illegial, unlicensed) taxi operators. Look at how many things can ‘happen’ if you just pay someone a little money on the side.

People can multitask here very well. The person who cares for your garden in Jamaica is likely to offer to do other work too around the home: more work means more money. A man came to clean windows at the house we rent: he also offered to clean the gutters, make matting, plant vegetables, and more. Once in position, Jamaicans want to capture the whole. We could have been great imperialists if he had conquered anyone. We also have the apocryphal stories of people ‘running businesses’ from the offices of their employers.

Most people I know want to work, in the sense that they prefer to get money from their efforts. That explains a lot of criminal activity: you get money for what you do. Yes, some of what you do is really gruesome, but it pays in a direct sense. Sure, big organisations like the UN will show us that crime costs the country dearly in terms of lost investments, dissuaded tourists and more.

Jamaicans are not very unlike many people in developed countries in not liking what I call ‘grunt work’, low-paid jobs. In those countries, most such jobs are fobbed off on ‘immigrants’. In Jamaica, we don’t have that option–locals have to do that work. In fact, immigrants in our society tend to be at the other end of the job scale, having ‘plum jobs’: immigrants are brought in to ‘add skills’ not muscle. When’s the last time you saw a ‘European-looking’ person working picking up garbage or digging holes?

That does not excuse anyone turning to robbery with menaces to make a living. But, you can also stand in line every day waiting for ‘day work’ and getting none. Or you hang on till Christmas comes and get a little chance to do some bushing work or filling holes.

Yes, many people who resort to crime have failed to get a good education. But, if they were to have all done very well in school, would they be working in regular jobs? No. Data from the USA showed that half of university graduates are unemployed or underemployed. In jamaica, graduates get caught in the old vortex: you cannot get work because you’re not experienced, so you don’t get experience to be able to compete for jobs.

Recent discussions point to the fact that many of the brighter minds in Jamaica are turning to crime: it’s a job, right. The lottery scams seem to have been the latest area for that trend. Maybe, they are the masterminds only. We dont have ‘Wall Street’ to send our bright people to work and we cannot say go to America and work, because America does not have an open-door policy for Jamaicans–better to be an Indian than a West Indian, my friend.

So, if the economy produces very few jobs, where will the young people and the people wanting jobs go? Answer that question honestly and you may see what crime is up against.