More than 500 workers from Tobago’s Unemployment Relief Programme (URP) are facing the possibility of losing their jobs over the upcoming weeks because of financial difficulties facing the programme.
Tobago House of Assembly (THA) Assistant Secretary of the Division of Infrastructure, Quarries and the Environment, Sheldon Cunningham, said yesterday that a press conference will be held on Tuesday to disclose exactly what is the way forward for the programme.
In Tobago, the URP falls under the purview of the DIQE.
Some $20 million was allocated to the THA to run the URP programme for this fiscal year. However, more than twice that amount has already been spent, with the main expenditure being wages.
When THA Secretary of Finance and Enterprise Development Joel Jack read his budget statement in June last year, he estimated that just over $77 million would be needed to run the programme. In the end, the URP was allocated less than half that amount by Finance Minister Colm Imbert.
The URP programme currently has more than 1,700 workers.
The THA is the main employer in Tobago.
Yesterday, Cunningham told the Sunday Guardian a meeting with senior URP staff, as well as DIQE Secretary Kwesi Des Vignes will be held at 1 pm tomorrow to discuss the way forward for the progamme.
“We are still faced with the amount of money we presently have and how do we go through the fiscal year for URP. These are challenges that we are faced with and we have to come up with some decisions,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham said following tomorrow’s high level meeting decisions will be made and they will be unveiled during a press conference on Tuesday.
Among the decisions that are expected to be made to address the URP’s financial problem is the cutting of more than 500 workers from the programme.
Cunningham yesterday admitted that workers in the programme who have been hearing these claims have been calling him concerned.
“They (the workers) have been calling me non-stop and I have been saying I don’t want to comment until the final decision because there have already been too many promises,” Cunningham said.
“I am not sure what is going to be the outcome, I prefer to wait and let us go through this thing properly and that the 1700-plus workers be given notification of exactly what will be taking place. It is something I said clearly, we are to sit with the people and communicate with the people effectively,”
He added, “I don’t want them to say they heard this or that they heard that. I want them to know exactly the situation.”
Hurdles faced by all
Cunningham said he empathises with all the workers and said he hopes the financial difficulties can be overcome.
He, however, said something needs to be done.
“We are faced with some really challenging times and I am just urging the people to just let us work together because there are hurdles that all of us are going through,” Cunningham said.
“I am facing it as a representative in my community. When people come to me they have no money, they are single parents, so I understand the situation and I am really empathising, I am there with the people and I will hold their hand if I have to, because I understand this is a situation where we all need to bond together and see how best we can ride over these hurdles.”
According to the THA’s website, the URP “provides short-term employment through training and is geared towards the enhancement of entrepreneurial skills and assists in small scale projects in communities.”
“URP is strategically organised to assist with emergency and disaster response as it relates to clean up efforts and rehabilitation of beaches and damage throughout communities,” the website sates.
The URP job cuts come at a time when the economy in Tobago is reeling from problems to its tourism industry caused by issues with both the sea bridge and air bridge, as well as several private sector companies having to close down.