THE virtual roundtable series, convened by the International Labour Organization (ILO) Decent Work Team and Office for the Caribbean, aims to provide a dialogue platform in this time of COVID-19 for governments, employers’ and workers’ representatives as well as other stakeholders to discuss topics relevant to the world of work in times of COVID-19.

Lars Johansen, Deputy Director, ILO Decent Work Team and Office for the Caribbean, explained that the goal of everyone should be to build back better than what was there before and be more resilient. Johansen acknowledged that it would take a lot of time and effort but one must take advantage of the crisis. The deputy director highlighted that ILO would continue to support the members along with delivering on the mandate of the organisation.

“To provide a platform for petitioners across the region to share experiences and for the ILO to learn what the stakeholders across the region are seeing as the main issues and needs and thereby help to determine how the ILO could best and most efficiently provide its support,” said Johansen.

The third technical virtual roundtable, chaired by Virginia Rose Losada, Sustainable Enterprise Development and Job Creation Specialist, ILO Office for the Caribbean, explored the challenges that Caribbean micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) are facing, with a special focus on labour issues due to the containment measures for COVID-19.

Efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 have had enormous impacts on workers and employment, due to production disruption and drastic drops in demand for goods and services. In the Caribbean, the strong containment measures taken by countries across the region since mid-March to “flatten the curve” are showing signs of being successful in maintaining low numbers with just a little over 1 600 cases reported as of May 11 by the health agencies of the region.

However, Losada contended that the cost of halting economic activities, especially in sectors such as tourism, has been sharp and sudden. The fall in prices on commodities such as oil and gas have also added to the hardship. Losada also highlighted that the growth in the region could contract by an estimated 6.2 per cent in 2020, meaning the Caribbean would be headed towards a severe recession, possibly worse than that experienced during the financial crisis.

The ILO believes that in these uncertain times, no one entity may have all the answers, but through exchange, dialogue, openness and commitment, stakeholders to the ecosystem for MSMEs can make meaningful and positive contributions to foster opportunities and ensure the devastating effects of the crisis are not put to further waste.

According to the ILO, there must also be better understanding as to what overall guidance the region can look to with regards to policies and programmes to respond to the crisis and prepare as the world slowly begins to ease restrictions, and seek to stimulate economic activity that is coherent with a green and just transition and leaving no one behind.

Losada pointed out that governments were working on economic stimulus packages, but it was an uphill battle for the Caribbean.

“Governments worldwide are still putting in place economic stimulus packages, though in the Caribbean given the limited fiscal space, these policy options will need to be more restricted and expansionary policies will be less likely,” said the ILO specialist.

Losada lauded the efforts of the regional heads and pointed out that since the end of March 2020, relief packages were announced to support the MSMEs including St. Kitts and Nevis, Jamaica, Turks and Caicos, Trinidad and Tobago, The Bahamas and Barbados.

“For example they have been seeking ways of delaying payments or accelerating VAT payments from governments, providing waivers for taxes, providing access loans or grants to different sectors like agriculture, or different target groups,” outlined Losada.

The ILO specialist also encouraged forward thinking during the crisis with the focus on not just short-term solutions, but also long-term.

“As we move forward in the next phase of exit and recovery, several of our countries have now started unveiling five-phased strategies to get out. It is really time to start thinking and planning on programs and policies that go beyond the short-term relief. So what is it that MSMEs of different sizes in the new, or in transformed or old sectors will be needing in this new real, financial and non-financial support?” explained Losada. (AS)

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