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Productivity and public holidays

Thursday, June 7, 2018

This year there are 15 public holidays in T&T. Add in the two days of Carnival and that makes it 17 days out of 365 when most businesses, work places and schools are closed. Two holidays are coming up later this month—Eid-ul-Fitr on June 15, followed a few days later by Labour Day on June 19.

Naturally, this revives that on-and-off national conversation about productivity and public holidays, now back on the front burner because of a recent social media post by Gerald Aboud, CEO of Starlite Group Ltd, about last week’s back-to-back public holidays for Indian Arrival and Corpus Christi.

Unfortunately, the outrage sparked by Mr Aboud’s comment did not allow for sensible constructive debate of the issue. Instead, it quickly became social media fodder with memes and thousands of angry comments being posted in response. Although Mr Aboud quickly apologised and offered the rationale for his post, it continues to attract negative responses to this day.

However, Mr Aboud is not alone on his view that the number of public holidays is hampering the country’s productivity and economic competitiveness. Some in the business community claim it deters foreign investors who take their money to countries where there are fewer days off.

Whether this is true or not is hard to determine in the absence of hard data. The most up-to-date information I could find on T&T’s productivity levels was contained in the 2017 Review of the Economy which showed that it declined by eight per cent over the 2015/16 fiscal year.

According to data from the Central Statistical Office, during the second quarter of that year, productivity across all sectors fell by 7.6 per cent on a year-on-year basis.

To properly discuss the matter of productivity, many factors need to be considered and one should be careful not to take a very superficial view of the issue. It is about much more than holidays, days off and man hours. Workers and their ethics are not the only elements to be factored into any in-depth look at this very critical issue.

In fact, it is often overlooked that public holidays are peak productive times for some sectors, including in the leisure and hospitality sectors. Workers on their days off, or enjoying a long weekend, are more likely to contribute to domestic tourism, a significant sector, particularly in Tobago where it makes up for shortfalls in international arrivals.

Also, many retail outlets operate on holidays, adjusting their operating schedules to attract customers, so this is an opportunity for them to add to their earnings. So public holidays are not a total loss and are definitely not times of no productivity.

It would also be an error to count Carnival Monday and Tuesday as lost or wasted time.

Indeed, considerable production is required to pull off the festival. Those days of revelry are peak operating times for many in the creative and hospitality sectors and Carnival—the biggest cultural event in this country—is an industry all on its own, making a significant contribution to GDP.

Indeed, what looks like wasted time may actually be times of revenue earning and productivity, just not in the traditional ways.

The bottom line is: what constitutes a productive work day varies from one sector to another. The presence of a work force on a job site for eight to 12 hours on a work day does not automatically translate into full production and efficiency, neither does a public holiday mean that every single productive sector grinds to a halt.

Specifically for T&T, there are many factors beyond workplace activities and worker attitudes that militate against productivity.

Consider the challenges of the average work day commute where getting from point A to B involves navigating an chronically inefficient and unreliable public transport system, complicated along most routes by gridlock traffic.

For the average worker in T&T, getting to work on time requires a head start of two or three hours which generally involves leaving home before sunrise which is, in itself, a risk given the crime situation in the country.

Of course, workers are not without blame. Poor work attitudes and practices are major hindrances. High absenteeism, poor punctuality, low output and substandard work are serious and widespread problems across the public and private sectors.

On the part of employers, both private and public, inefficiencies in operating systems and a less-than-enabling work environments are definite deterrents to productivity. Also, if efforts to save costs result in personnel being assigned tasks which they are not qualified or experienced enough to handle, or if proper equipment and systems are not available, there will be losses in terms of time, quality and output somewhere along the production chain.

Current levels of productivity across T&T are the result of how well—or how badly—people in various positions are functioning with the operating systems and infrastructure available to them. Responsibility lies with people in board rooms, executive suites, construction sites and factory floors. It is also contingent upon things beyond their control, such as policies, programmes and even laws.

T&T’s current level of productivity is the result of many factors, including the available supplies of labour, land, raw materials, capital facilities, and mechanical aids of various kinds. The education and skills of the work force, the level of technology and methods of organising production are also critical elements, as are the energy and enterprise of managers and workers.

Other less obvious factors are the range of social, psychological and cultural factors that influence economic attitudes and behaviour.

In short, every member of the workforce in this country is either contributing to productivity or responsible for its decline. T&T’s economy can only be as productive as the organisations within it and within those organisations, individual workers performing specific jobs form the basis for all productive endeavours.

The issue of low productivity isn’t unique to this country, however. Some of the world’s biggest economies have been experiencing falling productivity and part of the problem has been traced to industries where new digital and technological innovations were expected boost productivity—information, communication, finance and insurance sectors.

It turns out that the current global IT revolution has not had the big effect that previous innovations like electricity and plumbing had on productivity.

However, the fact remains that there are significant challenges to be overcome for countries like ours that are lagging behind on productivity. It is the main reason while T&T is not where it should be in the World Economic Forum’s Competitiveness Rankings and if not addressed is a threat to our very labour intensive manufacturing sector.

A words of warning, though, that the aim should be to achieve healthy levels of productivity, not go too far in the other direction which can also have dire consequences.

Limits have to be set on work and overtime to avoid a problem that is chronic in Japan—a killer work ethic. In that nation, there is a problem of increasing claims for death and disability from overwork as well as suicides attributed to “fatigue from work.”

At present, there is no real danger of such a situation arising in T&T where over many decades and governments efforts to boost productivity have been largely unsuccessful.

Current efforts to address the nation’s productivity challenges are in the hands of a 15-member National Productivity Council comprising representatives of the private sector, trade unions, civil society, academia and government.

The council’s mandate includes promoting and developing of greater productivity and quality awareness and consciousness; inculcating new values and attitudes about productivity, quality and competitiveness; and advising Government on formulation of national policies and strategies.

However, much more needs to be done and labour, as well as the private sector, need to come up with productivity-boosting initiatives. It is time for unions to put more focus on the issue, perhaps include it in collective agreements, with the recognition that the resulting improvements could lead to improved compensation and conditions of work for the people they represent.

Everyone has a role to play in making T&T a more productive nation.

Mr Aboud’s comment and subsequent reactions to it are a reminder that we have barely scratched the surface and need to launch a serious search for solutions to this country’s productivity problem. Reducing the number of public holidays is the low hanging fruit, an enticing quick fix that will not bring about the long-term boost in production and efficiency that this country needs.


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