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Bhoe Tewarie

GAIL ALEXANDER

Government must have a solid plan in its upcoming 2021 Budget to address continuing difficulties for businesses to operate and retain staff – especially small and medium-sized businesses – if big companies like bpTT are cutting staff simply to survive.

Former Opposition MP Bhoe Tewarie, a former UWI principal, put the point squarely to Government yesterday, “… because it’s always the workforce, families and consumers that feel most pain. So Government must at all costs have a plan in the Budget to cover people ahead.”

The 2021 Budget is to be read on October 5 it was announced yesterday.

Tewarie spoke yesterday after Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, addressing how COVID-19 had impacted the economy among other things in an exclusive T&T Guardian interview, said bpTT officials told him they may soon be cutting some of their workforce. The company said while cuts are expected, exact numbers being affected locally may be finalised by year’s end. Earlier this year, year BP’s CEO Bernard Looney spoke of 10,000 impending job losses globally – mostly senior levels and desk jobs.

The overall news has caused concern among sectors, including business owners worried about local job losses amid the continuing COVID crisis.

Yesterday, Tewarie, who was replaced as Caroni Central MP by the United National Congress, said Government must grasp the implications of bpTT’s moves on local businesses.

“The global energy sector has been reeling for some time and energy companies have had to rethink, retool, reconfigure and transform to become lean and competitive in an energy market that’s transforming to low carbon,” Tewarie said.

“BP in London announced their decision to cut back significantly some time ago worldwide. Locally-based BP employees have been working from home for some months now.

“All local companies, including our conglomerates, are also going to use the opportunity side of COVID for them to become leaner and more competitive. This will mean job losses or salary cuts or both. In T&T’s current labour market, companies have a larger pool of talent from which to draw and can offer potential employees lower salaries and benefits than before.”

He added, “Pre-COVID, about 26,000 businesses were operating. At this point, I don’t know how many have gone under but all have had to make dramatic adjustments to survive. Hardest hit are small and medium-sized business. There were about 17,000 of them before COVID. Several have closed.”

Tewarie said with job losses, the customer pool is also smaller and purchasing power and demand are less.

“People are sticking to bare essentials. The uncertainty is too much and confidence and security about tomorrow are absent. Whichever small business survives will do so only if they can live through COVID and that means drastic cuts, including jobs.”

He noted that “small businesses particularly have consumer demand problems, cash flow problem and liquidity problems” and must offer lower prices and work with smaller margins

Tewarie noted that employees outside the energy industry who are laid off would hardly go home with the kind of benefits bpTT will employees get.

“It’s important Government has a handle on these issues and take them realistically into account, for the Budget to make sense,” he said.

He queried how helpful banks have been with loan management, how well Government support of businesses via banks have worked and whether unemployment/rental relief programmes had all reached their targets.

Tewarie said Rowley’s interview indicated his (Rowley’s) desire to explain to the public how formidable T&T’s challenge is and how difficult the choices are – but without solutions.

Opposition meeting on issues today

The United National Congress’ Finance/Economic spokesman Dev Tancoo said the party was meeting yesterday on the national budget.

“We have a caucus (today) to discuss issues. But there was joblessness before COVID and after. The (Finance) Ministry stated 28,000 applied for the unemployment relief grant during the first lockdown, adding to unemployment figures and our figures further showed 65,000 people affected. We believe those who were out of work during the lockdown remain out of work,” Tancoo said.

“We know people have cut staff and working hours, even Government has, yet they’re asking the struggling private sector not to fire workers – but to provide laptops.”

Finance Minister Colm Imbert didn’t respond on queries about possible assurances in the Budget regarding facilities for businesses to remain afloat amid the continuing business downturn and if any facilities may be added to the Budget to assist minimum wage earners, especially those who may become jobless. Yesterday, several stakeholders, including oil/gas professionals, expressed concern about this.