Thursday 3rd August, 2006

 

Workers running short

 
 
 
 
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Pizza Boys employees serve the first set of meals at the food group’s new food mall in Pointe-a-Pierre.

GUARDIAN FILE PHOTO

BY SANDRA CHOUTHI

National Canners Ltd could increase its production by as much as 50 per cent if it were not for a shortage of labour in T&T, said its joint managing director Jeremy Matouk.

“I can’t meet demand, locally or abroad. I could expand production in my company by a cool 50 per cent and sell everything,” Matouk said. “I could take on 50-60 people tomorrow morning.

“In my particular company’s circumstances, exports to Canada and the US are booming. There’s a much increased demand for our products and we are having a hell of a struggle to meet that demand.”

National Canners is a food processing company, specialising in sauces, condiments, beans and vegetables.

Matouk said he knows of some manufacturers who were once able to operate at peak efficiency with three shifts on their production lines, but now they have difficulty manning one shift.

“Those with two shifts are now barely able to get one, and those with three shifts are lucky if they get two,” Matouk said.

He outlined the scenario with workers: they work four days a week, but don’t show up for the fifth. The effect is that a production line has to be shut down. Workers from another line have to be rerouted to run the plant, which reduces daily output.

According to the 2005 Review of the Economy, the community social and personal services sectors attracted the most labour.

That category accounted for 31 per cent of the employed labour force. It was followed by wholesale/retail trade, restaurants and hotels with 18 per cent and construction with 17 per cent.

Manufacturing not connected to the petrochemical sector accounted for just nine per cent.

Asked to describe the extent of the problem, Matouk said: “It’s bad, very bad. We can’t raise our output.”

“That’s a very common problem,” Matouk said.

He said some business people have had to increase wages by as much as 20 per cent to retain their employees, adding it’s difficult to attract new workers by paying them minimum wage.

“People with good skills will get hunted. You have to come up with inventive ways to keep people,” Matouk said.

Matouk, who said his company, which has been in operation since 1967, has only advertised for specialised positions, but now finds itself resorting to repeating ads in newspapers.

He said aside from not getting sufficient workers to run his manufacturing plant, those that do show an interest in being employed “don’t have suitable work attitudes,” a situation he described as a “malaise in the country.”

Matouk, who described the difficulty in sourcing reliable, skilled labour as artificial, said the problem won’t be that bad were it not for government’s “make-work programmes.”

He said some employees have left full-time work in favour of the makework programmes.

“They don’t have to work all day. Many of them do that to get some income and then they will look for part-time work. The problem is that it is causing wages to increase without productivity increasing,” Matouk said.

Matouk said including people employed in make-work programmes in employment statistics is “intellectually dishonest.”

He said while make-work programmes were laudable for those people who lacked skills, he understood that government-initiated training programmes were “largely under subscribed.”

He said while some workers were receiving a “free lunch,” businesses were suffering.

Paul Quesnel, a director at Kiss Baking Company Ltd and also president of the T&T Manufacturers’ Association, described the labour shortage as “severe.”

Quesnel said Kiss presently needs a minimum of 30 workers across the board.

“We are looking for people. We advertise. We have people walk off the streets,” Quesnel said. “We headhunt wherever necessary. We have lost people to other organisations.”

Quesnel said an employee who fails to report for work means that another worker has to be shifted around to operate a shift, which may mean the company having to pay double and triple time.

“At the same time, you are now working an employee who has already done a day’s work and he’s tired and you’re not getting the best out of him,” Quesnel said.

“You’re paying him more and working a tired person longer hours, which is not good. People have their business to do at home and their families to see about.”

Quesnel said business people across the board have in the last year been forced to “sweeten the pot in various ways” to attract and retain workers.

“People are offering attendance bonuses. If you come to work every day, you get an extra something,” Quesnel said.

“That is causing the cost of doing business to escalate. The cost of producing what you produce goes up and when you have to sell it, you become less competitive,” Quesnel said.

Fast food business under pressure

Joe Esau

Joe Esau, chairman of Prestige Holdings, which includes the KFC fast food chain, said even though the group is facing a 25 per cent increase in wage costs, attracting workers in the restaurant industry is increasingly difficult.

“The biggest challenge today is not only hiring new people, but keeping the ones we have,” Esau said.

Esau shares Matouk’s view that government’s public work programmes were hiring people away from the service industry.

“We’ve pushed wages up 25 per cent over the last year. We also have the challenge of overtime. When you’re working with a short staff, you also have the reality of overtime, which pushes the wage bill,” Esau said.

Esau said newly-hired employees are paid $10 an hour, $1 above the minimum wage, and this figure goes up with incentives.

He said Prestige Holdings has had to lower the entry level for employees from five O’Levels to three.

“We’re now making significant compromises because we can’t get the amount and the quality we want. All our restaurants are short-staffed,” Esau said.

He said the need for employees at its KFC restaurants is worst along the East/West corridor, but the situation in the north is not much better.

“At the time when the private sector should be humming with activity, government is competing with the private sector for labour,” Esau said.

“All the high labour employers are suffering significant challenges with respect to hiring and retention.”

Prestige Holdings cited its labour challenge in its published unaudited results for the first six months of 2006.

In that report, Esau described the shortage as a “challenge to our business.”

“We continue to use creative approaches to reduce this imbalance and mitigate its effect on our performance,” Esau stated in the report.

Construction workers hard at work. Construction is one of the sectors that has attracted a great deal of labour as a result primarily of Government expenditure.

 

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