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We’re all in this together, so gov’t needs more compassion for small businesses

Over the weekend of 15 March 2020, the Minister of Labour pronounced on the need to implement Pandemic Leave in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

To date, approximately one month later, we are yet to see what is the policy for Pandemic Leave, which has become more relevant now than when it was first pronounced upon, and how this would impact on small and micro entrepreneurs.

Photo: A billboard is installed on an apartment building in Cape Town, South Africa on 25 March 2020 before the country of 57 million people goes on a nationwide lockdown for 21 days to fight the spread of the new coronavirus.
(Copyright AP Photo/Nardus Engelbrecht)

So, whilst there is an unexplained delay and tardiness in addressing the implementation of Pandemic Leave, workers are left in a quandary and in some cases are being exploited as it relates to use of their legitimate leave entitlements during this pandemic.

Since then, what we have seen is the government upgrading some social services and introducing some others, which are greatly appreciated in the prevailing environment. Implementation, administration and access to these services however leaves much to be desired.

Additionally, we have seen the banking and financial sector implement measures to address some of the concerns of their clients.

All these measures are most welcomed. But it is being said repeatedly that we are all in this together; and employers are being asked to treat their employees in a compassionate manner as it relates to compensation for leave and security of tenure, which would ensure business continuity whilst securing the national interest.

The government recently passed the Miscellaneous Provisions (Heritage and Stabilisation Fund, Government Savings Bonds and Value Added Tax) Bill to facilitate an early withdrawal from the fund to a maximum of TT$1.5 billion if a disaster area or a dangerous infectious disease is declared, or if there is likely to be a precipitous decline in budgeted revenue based on the budgeted price of crude oil or natural gas.

Photo: Finance Minister Colm Imbert.

In piloting this Bill, the Minister of Finance stated that thankfully the Country has savings and the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund (HSF), is designed specifically for this situation. He added that no HSF withdrawal means ‘all of us would die’.

He also added that the HSF was not the only source of funding to address the Covid-19 crisis, and from the international, multilateral financial institutions Trinidad and Tobago had a basket of funds available in excess of US$300 million (over TT $2 billion) and there was also funding available on the local market.

However when asked at a subsequent press conference if government would consider the deferral of tax payments at this time to help citizens he replied: “Well, the problem with that is that that is cutting off your nose to spite your face because we have to give people help—so where is the money supposed to come from?”

He added that citizens are advised to make sure and pay their taxes as the country needs all the money it can get to be able to deal with the financial difficulties currently faced as a result of the Covid-19 fallout. This response appears to contradict the statements he made whilst piloting the Bill as it relates to the sources of funding available to the government to address the health crisis.

So, whilst the comments of the Minister of Finance are noted and whilst I am not advocating the agenda of the business sector, there are a lot of small and micro entrepreneurs, some of whom are struggling to survive in these challenging economic times and we are all in this together.

Photo: Covid-19 and the global economy.

In that regard, I am of the view that once managed properly the following should be considered:

The government asked the bank and landlords to defer payments. So, why can’t the government defer the payment of taxes for at risk small and micro businesses in light of this situation?

This initiative would create a window of opportunity for these small and micro entrepreneurs to keep as much staff as possible from being on the breadline without a source of income and having to access the Salary Relief Grant as implemented by the government. This would surely ensure business continuity.

Alternatively, in all fairness, no one should be penalised for not being able to make such payments timely during this period of crisis.

Additionally, why don’t the government make good on its stated commitment to pay all outstanding payments to its contractors? (Some of whom continue to perform services and are going beyond the call of duty in this crisis and are dependent on these monies especially in this environment, to guarantee business continuity.)

Registered taxi drivers who are self-employed are also being asked to be compassionate against the background of restrictions to the plying of their trade. Why isn’t some type of grant or concession given to them—maybe at gas stations—for this period in the first instance to compensate for their operations and loss in revenue under the current passenger restraints?

Photo: A commuter waits for a maxi taxi on the Bus Route in D’Abadie.
(Courtesy Sean Morrison/Wired868)

Remember they are also in this together with everyone else.

The foregoing suggestions are all worth meaningful consideration as we are all in this together!

About Bryan St Louis

Bryan St Louis is a former education officer for the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU).

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