Every few days, the grains of an idea recur in my head. As I drive or move around Jamaica, I see a rather sad story playing itself out all the time. The economy has too few jobs for the people who live here, and lots of people are living on the financial edge. That joblessness is obvious in many ways. Most simply, one can see people ‘idling’. That image is not a sure bet that someone hasn’t a job, but it suggests that what they have to do is less pressing than actually work. I could take the generous view, and assume that like me, they are retired and enjoy their freedom from hum-drum by hanging out on the corner.
The lack of income is often presented to you directly, by the tendency of people to ‘ask for change’: that’s a sure sign that whatever they are doing they do not have enough cents to rub together to get them through the days. In other words, they are not earning much, if any, income, so they try to find someone whom they think can bridge their income gap by getting a gift. It’s not begging in the normal sense, because the person does not spend all day doing it; it happens when circumstances allow. So, for instance, I met the man collecting the garbage, and after he made a quick reference to moving something he’d found lying on the ground, asked if “Yu nuh ha a likkle change fi spare me?” It’s a parasitic experience and our economy and society has allowed it to thrive because we’ve few support systems that are not based on personal goodwill.
The joblessness is often most apparent in terms of what people have to do to earn income. If Jamaica were characterised by a single image, I’d argue it’s that of a vendor.People have needs and our society has decided that the best way to satisfy those is to accept that people will sell the items demanded almost any- and every-where.
This morning, I caught a glimpse of a typical vendor on her way to work. She was dressed neatly and carried with her a large jar of candy. It was about 7:15, so I imagined she was on her way to her spot to catch some school children, and then be there to sell to adults later, who needed a little ‘sweetmouth’. I thought about years growing up in England: when I wanted sweets, I would go to a sweet shop, and there woul be jars filled with them from which I could choose.I never in my life there saw someone selling sweets on the street corner. So, it’s not about whether people want to buy the goods or not, but who can sell or needs to sell something like that, and if a wholsesaler can provide the items cheaply enough for a decent profit to come from selling with a little mark-up.
More often, though, we see the archetypal vendor, selling fruit or vegetables, placed on a rickety stand on the roadside. i often see them, too, on their ‘way to work’, very early in the morning, pushing a supermarket trolley filled with all kinds of wares. Up the scale a bit, and we have our ‘pan-chicken’ vendor, oil drum fuming with smoke, and air filled with the sweet smell of barbecued food. I use the pan chicken image as a shorthand for all kinds of street food. Jamaica is famed for it. Think back to Heroes Circle and the crabs and roast and boiled corn that President Obama never got to sample. We were distressed as much by his lost opportunity to sample the ‘real Jamaica’ as by the affront of moving the vendors to give the impression of some pristine space. (In my image of ‘brand Jamaica’, I’d push the Tourist Board to make parish festivals of street food a feature of what we offer to tourists as a conscious attraction, not an accident that we hope happens, if they venture out of the all-inclusive experience.)
But, we know, too, that clothes are also now the stock of many vendors. Take a walk through Half Way Tree, or downtown Kingston, or Mandeville town centre, and ‘briefs and panties’ and all kinds of under- and outerwear can now be had. Yes, our higglers are famous in airports in Panama, or Curacao, buying cheaper-made goods,often from China, to thrill our eyes and grace our bodies.
We have not built up many retailers like Macy’s or Marks and Spencer, where we can go and browse through aisles to get the view of the range of goods we may want to buy. We have ‘bend down and rummage’ on the sidewalk. The department store takes investment in bricks and mortar and other financial strength to form a company and have it become a feature throughout the country. Put simply, we have not managed to create a class of entrepeneneurs who make jobs. If you want a job, make your own work seems to be the norm in Jamaica.
To most people, this image is also that which comes to mind when they think about the ‘underground’, or ‘black’ or ‘grey’ economy. Everything done for cash. No receipts. No returns. We suspect no taxes. We suspect no licence. We suspect no operating fee. We suspect overheads of these kinds are minimized and that is how they survive.
When I lived in the UK and experienced its recession in the 1970s and 1980s, the image of the economy reviving was that of factories starting up again, or of big industrial operations starting to produce again, and of their need for people to come piling up to the gates and look to be newly employed, or working longer hours. Economic recovery had a kind of vacuum cleaner image, of people being sucked back into work. When I think about whether or not Jamaica is having any kind of economic recovery, the image is not so clear.
Much of our recent growth has not been of the visible production sort. Sure, we may see more bauxite being shipped, or larger truck loads of sugar cane rolling along the roads. But, if it’s service sector jobs, we see that growth less easily. Do the banks have more pople working? Maybe, but they may be in the back-office, not at the teller counter. If they are doing better, they may not be taking on more people, at all; machines or processes may be giving them the gains they enjoy. Are the hotels fuller? Are tourists staying longer and spending more? We may ‘see’ teh recovery in the negatives it creates. In a country that has a hard time dealing with garbage, dirtier surroundings could actually be a proxy for an economy doing bettter. Nasty, but nice?
Our economy is so oddly structured that growth could show up with there being more vendors on the street. I make this point for a simple reason. Much of our economic ‘strength’ comes from simple trickle down. If you look at any ‘uptown’ community (shorthand for upper-income), it is surrounded by lower income communities. It’s as if the uptown area represents a pile of money that has bills blowing down from its summit to those at the foot of the hill. Sit close enough to the hill and some of those bills will blow your way. It’s simple economic geography really. Literally and figuratively, the earnings will flow off the hill. Jamaica hasn’t managed to create many new upper income communities, but the existing ones have become much denser. Part of that increase in density is good for creating jobs, though. That we see from the many construction sites that have been sprouting up in ‘uptown’ Kingston. The nice new homes will bring in more payers. The new plazas going up may offer more vending opportunities outside as well as jobs at the stores inside. That’s good for those living at or near the foot of the hills.
If ever I thought that jamaica’s economy would be transformed and look more like that in say London, or Manchester, or Miami, or San Francisco, or Mexico City, I have to put that thought on hold. By that, I mean seeing opportunities for mass employment. (For the record, I do not think the logistics hub holds much hope in that regard.)
We’ve shown that we can’t hold onto manufacturing jobs, with the demise of our garment factories.We’re trying to prove that we can hold onto decent service sector jobs in the form of call center work. Do recent notices requesting interest to work in places such as Island Grill suggest that things are picking up? Even if they are, it’s not enough to draw in the massive numbers who are qualifeid to do more than sell ffast food, but would take that over days spent hoping for a job that better rewards the years of high school or college study. (Again, for the record, I see nothing wrong with selling fast food no matter what educational qualification you have. A foot in the door is a step in the right direction.)Trickle down economics has long been how we have given blood to an anemic economy, but it can’t take us very far, very fast. I see little being done to change that structure, which means that even if signs of more economic life start to appear, we can’t go very much further much quicker. I’ve not heard anyone say much about how the mass of people are going to be working productively for more pay.. Is it because that’s not the vision they have for Jamaica, or they have that vision but have no ideas of how to make it real?