Thursday, Jun 21, 2018
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When ends don’t meet

Struggling to survive in a modern Bahamas
From left are Michael Cornish, Drexel Major and Terrance Bethel, who spoke to National Review in Bain Town on Saturday about the need for jobs and other opportunities for Over-the-Hill residents . TONYA GLINTON

Just over two weeks ago, Shanaqua Laing, a 39-year-old mother from Grand Bahama, came to New Providence seeking better opportunities.

“There’s nothing there to do,” Laing told us after we stopped at a yard in Bain Town where several people were gathered on Saturday afternoon, and walked up uninvited.

“There’s only promises. [We were] told that Our Lucaya was about to be sold; it was never sold…People are still waiting. You have a lot of kids that came out of school very highly educated but have nothing to do; they end up in Burger King, Wendy’s or [at] the gas station.

“I feel that if you (political leaders) can’t do anything, tell them that you [are] trying. There are a lot of single mothers; a lot of places after the hurricane still damaged, people living without light, without water.

“There’s nothing to do and people [are] struggling so hard to [stay] above ground. Only through God, Grand Bahama is still surviving. I’m trying to start a new life in Nassau because I feel there is more opportunity over here.”

Laing senses a certain vibrancy in Nassau compared to Freeport.

“It has a big advantage because it has like five or six boats a day,” she said.

“We hardly have two boats and when they do come, the people who are there, they don’t come to shop; they come to explore. But I love when I go down Bay Street and there’s people. You got the boats.”

In its Article IV consultation staff report released this month, the International Monetary Fund said the Bahamian economy grew by 1.3 percent in 2017, noting that economic activity has been supported by the completion of Baha Mar, the new FDI-financed projects, a stronger U.S. economy, and post-hurricane reconstruction activity.

However, air tourist arrivals declined by four percent in 2017, reflecting the impact of Hurricane Matthew on hotel infrastructure in Grand Bahama.

Last December, when the government announced that Canadian real estate development company Wynn Group signed a letter of intent with Hutchison Whampoa for the sale of the Grand Lucayan hotel strip in Freeport, it expected the sale to be completed by February.

Five months later, the deal is not yet concluded, although government officials over the course of weeks have indicated that it will “soon” be finalized.

Hundreds of hotel workers lost jobs when the three-piece strip hotel shut down after Hurricane Matthew in October 2016.

Five hundred and ninety one jobs were lost at Memories alone.

The trickle down impact has been tremendous.

The struggling Grand Bahama economy resulted in thousands of frustrated voters, and in May 2017, there was a wholesale rejection of the Progressive Liberal Party on the northern island.

The FNM won all five seats there.

On a recent visit to Grand Bahama, we sensed the ongoing unease in the economy. Vendors at Port Lucaya, across from the hotels, have grown tired of waiting.

Last month, Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line’s MV Grand Classica made its inaugural visit to Grand Bahama, and on May 2, GIBC Digital, a global technology firm, announced that it is opening an office in Freeport with an initial $2.5 million investment, and 50 jobs.

While welcomed, those developments are far from enough to bring life back to the island’s economy.

Laing is hoping the Minnis administration delivers on its promise to make life better for Grand Bahamians, but she said she cannot stick around just waiting.

She said she spent the last two weeks in New Providence going around looking for work. She’s hopeful that she will land a job as early as this week.

She was a domestic worker in Grand Bahama and hopes to secure a job as a security officer.

“Whether it’s FNM, PLP, DNA, whoever is in charge of the country, they need to do something for Grand Bahama…It’s very frustrating. I’m not used to living like that,” Laing said.

But she does not want to be in the capital for too long.

“I’m hoping that Grand Bahama [booms again] then I can go back home,” the mother of three told National Review. “That’s my home. There’s no place like home, but you have to leave in order to survive.”

Falling short

Laing is among thousands of Bahamians nationally who find it difficult to make ends meet, notwithstanding the fact that the country’s economy grew last year.

Indeed, while the economy has “turned the corner” on the back of the opening of Baha Mar and other factors, many Bahamians are far from catching up to the creeping momentum.

Last week, the Central Bank of The Bahamas released the results of its Financial Literacy Survey 2018.

When respondents were asked to reflect on the last 12 months and indicate whether their income was generally sufficient to make ends meet each month, 47 percent stated that their earnings were usually insufficient to cover their living expenses.

An analysis by gender showed that this was the case for 41 percent of men and 52 percent of women.

Viewed from the perspective of age, about half of all people ages 16-54, and 39 percent of those 55 and over gave this response.

When average earnings were considered instead, those with a household income of less than $30,000 per year, felt that they fell short of what they needed to meet all their financial demands.

This percentage declined to 44 percent for medium income households ($30,000 to $60,000 per annum) and to 35 percent for those in the highest income bracket (over $60,000 per annum).

When income was insufficient to cover household expenses, 40 percent of respondents saw reducing spending as the solution to covering their expenditures, followed by working a second/third job (17 percent), and borrowing money from family and friends (10 percent).

Each of the other means of coping garnered less than 10 percent of response.

In terms of the amount of savings they had stored for a “rainy day”, the largest percentage of persons who responded (48 percent) stated that they would be able to cover costs for more than six months if they lost their main income.

A smaller group (16 percent) indicated that their savings would cover three to six months of expenses; for 15 percent, the coverage was one to three months, and 13 percent of individuals had less than a month’s coverage.

From day to day, some are not sure where the money to survive will come from.

In the same yard where we met Laing on Saturday, Marsha Major, a 40-year-old woman with five children, sat plaiting her nine-year-old daughter’s hair.

Major said her oldest three children live on their own, and one of the younger ones lives with her father.

Still, she said, it is difficult to make ends meet.

“I just need a nice, steady job,” the woman told us.

Several people live in her family’s small Bain Town home, she said. They tote water from a public pump for the household.

“Personally, it’s stressful to me,” Major said.

Given that she doesn’t have a job, she said there’s not a whole lot to do every day. Mainly, she just cleans the family’s house, Major told us.

Asked if she was comfortable there, she responded, “No, I ain’t comfortable.”

But without financial independence, her choices are incredibly limited.

Her brother, Drexel Major, 32, does have a job, but he said he still struggles. Major is a crane operator at a concrete company. He has no children.

“Everything is going up and the pay checks [aren’t moving]. It’s still difficult [whether] you have kids or not or have a job,” Major said.

He too lives at the house with his family.

We also had a chat with him about the government’s Over-the-Hill development plan.

He said it will be welcomed.

“This community, we need everybody to come together and clean up the whole area, and more jobs for the people around the place.”

Talking with the folks in the yard – who were welcoming despite the fact that we showed up uninvited – we broached a sensitive subject: With all the men in the yard, why was there so much trash about the place? Why could they themselves not clean up the trash?

Terrance Bethel, 42, insisted that on many days, that is exactly what they do, clean up the trash.

“We do it all the time,” he said.

We moved away from that subject of the environment in which they live, and talked with Bethel about the broader issue of economics and survival for Bain Town residents.

Bethel said many residents are persistently hoodwinked by politicians, election after election.

“I’ve been doing this campaigning thing with PLP, FNM, whatever it is,” he said. “They ain’t making no sense because they come out with their good slogans and thing and they come around throwing their parties.

“Look around; look what you seeing. You get people coming around during election time telling you, ‘oh, we [will] do this and we [will] do that.’ After they win the election, you don’t see anybody no more.”

Bethel has a 12-year-old son.

He does not have a steady job, but he said he works now and then tiling and welding.

“I ain’t begging the government for nothing; I only want opportunities for the youths. Next month, how [many] students coming out of school? What [are] they going to do for them?”

Nearby, we met Jarad McPhee renovating a small space he intends to use as a convenience store in front of the modest wooden home on Finlayson Street where his mother still lives.

Jarad McPhee repairs a small space for a convenience store on Finlayson Street.

McPhee said he’s spending money to make money.

He does not live in Bain Town anymore, but he said, “A lot of people in the area need jobs. Some are trying to help themselves by doing [things] here and there.

“I think the government is trying, but I think there is a little more they can do.

“A lot of times we look for a microwave fix, but if we give them a little more time we can see what is going to come out of what they plan to do, but I think they are on the right track.”

Jobs

We do not think the government is unmindful of the need to find jobs and other opportunities for those who will graduate in a few weeks.

There have been no unemployment numbers to reflect the state of the jobs market in 2018.

The IMF noted in May that Baha Mar created 4,000 jobs by March 2018 and helped reduce the unemployment rate to 10.1 percent in November 2017, from 11.6 percent one year earlier.

According to Labour Minister Dion Foulkes, there has been a “marked improvement” on the employment front.

“Just from empirical evidence, we see a large increase in the number of businesses that call our labor exchange seeking recommendations and referrals for potential job seekers,” he told National Review on Monday.

“From the ‘Labour on the Blocks’ initiative, I think that we are probably approaching close to 1,500 in terms of verifiable new employment, but on a regular basis, businesses call into the Department of Labour to access our data base to seek referrals for jobs.

“We see a marked increase in that traffic and I think a lot of it has to do with the tourism sector doing well. Baha Mar, Atlantis, Sandals, Breezes, all of the hotels in New Providence and on Paradise Island have reported a very robust season.”

Last week, Atlantis’ President Audrey Oswell reported that while the resort’s first quarter results have surpassed 2017 and have been “thrilling”, the extended forecast for the property, which extends into 2019, is even more encouraging.

The more economic momentum that builds, the more likely Bahamians on the ground will feel it.

Right now, many are certainly not feeling it, and as a result they are not “feeling” their government.

To be fair, the current challenges faced by the government with respect to job creation and economic empowerment for its people is not unique to The Bahamas – though that fact does not diminish the need for focused attention on reducing unemployment and broadening economic empowerment.

Interestingly, on the same day we reported the results of the Central Bank survey, CNN Money reported that the United States economy may be chugging along, but many Americans are still struggling to afford a basic quality of life.

Nearly 51 million households don’t earn enough to afford a monthly budget that includes housing, food, child care, health care, transportation and a cell phone, according to the study reported on by CNN Money.

The Bahamas is benefiting from U.S. economic growth. News that people are struggling in large numbers in the biggest economy in the world, will likely not mean anything to the many Bahamian households who find it difficult to survive in the modern economy.

The most pressing national need is the need for strong economic performance and the creation of jobs.

When the last Labour Force Survey was taken in November 2017, there were 22,950 people listed as unemployed – 12,130 women and 10,820 men.

This was up from 21,880 unemployed people in May 2017.

A closer look at the data shows that 16,825 people were listed as unemployed on New Providence.

Another 3,735 people were listed as unemployed on Grand Bahama, and 1,140 people in Abaco.

Unemployment rose from 9.9 percent in May 2017 to 10.1 percent in November 2017.

There was another worrying indicator.

For the first time since the Labour Force Survey was taken in April 2011, the number of discouraged workers actually increased between May and November 2017.

This means there was an increase in the number of people who gave up looking for work because they believed there were no jobs available, when compared to those in this category in April 2017.

However, Foulkes believes there is reason for job seekers to be hopeful.

“I think there are a lot of reasons and I think you would find a lot of discouraged workers are now seeking jobs because of the growth and vibrancy in the economy and this was evidenced by the turnout at our Labour on the Blocks events,” he said.

For those who are unemployed, the unemployment rate is 100 percent.

A 36-year-old man, who lives on Pitt Road, and spoke to us in that Bain Town yard on Saturday, asked that we not use his name. The man said he is doing what he can to survive.

He told us that he was in prison for 15 months. While there, he learnt barbering.

“I’ve been doing it to survive, but it’s not something I’m comfortable doing. Carpentry, dry wall, I get really passionate about them because they give me room for elevation,” he said, adding that he has been out of consistent work for the last three months.

In between, he said, he has been cutting hair.

“I go out almost every day looking for work,” the man added.

“Sometimes I’m out at Albany or out Cable Beach using the $20 or $40 I made cutting hair because, you know, walking around all day, you’re gonna get hungry and then you got to pay for bus. I take the 10A.

“I’m not making any excuses or being dependent; just looking for an opportunity.”

Laing, the lady who relocated from Grand Bahama, is hoping not just for an opportunity for herself, but for her two older children as well.

“My 19-year-old wants to be a doctor. My 18-year-old wants to be a pilot,” she said.

“If I can see them successful, I’d feel like I did something in life.”

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Dropping the ball

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