By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Cabinet minister yesterday hailed the ten-year low in the national unemployment rate as "more meaningful" jobs growth than that achieved by the former administration's "failed policies".
Dionisio D'Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, told Tribune Business that the 1.2 percentage point reduction over the past six months had been "private sector driven" as opposed to the Christie government's policy of expanding the public sector.
Arguing that the latter had contributed to the government's ballooning fiscal deficits and credit rating downgrades, Mr D'Aguilar said the 24 percent year-over-year growth in hotel and restaurant sector employment in the six months to May 2019 showed that the tourism industry's "double digit" arrivals and revenue growth was now filtering down to "the man on the ground".
Speaking after the May Labour Force Survey revealed that the national unemployment rate had fallen from 10.7 percent in November 2018 to 9.5 percent, Mr D'Aguilar said some 14,735 jobs had been created since the FNM government came to office in May 2017.
Describing this as "phenomenal", with employment up by 6,635 or 3.2 percent year-over-year, Mr D'Aguilar acknowledged that November's jobless numbers were likely to increase once again as a result of 3,000-5,000 school leavers joining the workforce this summer, but added that jobs are still being created.
"For many months we've been touting the wonderful arrivals and stopover visitor numbers, and we really didn't know how that was affecting the man on the ground," the minister told this newspaper. "Now we are in a position to validate that.
"The increased arrivals have delivered in the creation of increased employment, adding to everything else the Government has been doing and leading to the creation of 14,735 new jobs in the last two years and leading to unemployment dropping to a 10-year low at 9.5 percent.
"The tourism sector experienced the greatest job increase since May 2018, up 24 percent, which is absolutely phenomenal. Just to be absolutely clear, tourism makes up 20 percent of the Labour Force, so that sector has expanded by 24 percent. It's the best employment numbers seen in the last 10 years."
Fred Mitchell, the Progressive Liberal Party's (PLP) chairman, argued that the Minnis administration "should not be popping the champagne corks just yet" on the unemployment figures given that most persons were focused on whether Bahamas Power & Light (BPL) will be able to supply them with energy.
Arguing that the Minnis administration was indebted to the former government, because without Baha Mar there would be "no positive news" on the employment front at all, Mr Mitchell said youth unemployment was still to high at around 20 percent - meaning one in five Bahamians aged between 15 and 19, and who are looking for work, are unable to find it.
"While those who are working are no doubt grateful to be working, the Government has to explain why the misery index is so high throughout our country," Mr Mitchell said. "There are signs of disgruntlement in the workplace. Clearly there is something amiss."
Mr D'Aguilar, though, told Tribune Business that the reduced unemployment rate showed that the Minnis administration had been right to break with the policies of its predecessor.
"This is such a different approach from the previous government," he argued. "This is private sector-driven growth in employment numbers. This is not by the Government increasing the public sector, which was a failed policy that led to constant deficits and consistent downgrades. This is more meaningful growth in the employment numbers."
Mr D'Aguilar urged Bahamians "sitting on the sidelines" to invest in new and existing businesses tied to the tourism sector, including Airbnb-style vacation rentals, tours, and "experiential experiences" that are being increasingly sought by travellers.
He added: "This is a sign for Bahamians with money in the bank, earning less than 1 percent, to go out and invest in the tourism business. We need more people that have brain drained away to come back and take advantage of the economy. We're only headed in the right direction."
Mr D'Aguilar said Baha Mar will need another 500 employees for the water park it is creating at the site of the old Wyndham hotel and Crystal Palace casino, while jobs will also be created at projects such as GoldWynn, The Pointe and Hurricane Hole.
However, Arinthia Komolafe, the Democratic National Alliance (DNA) leader, said the drop-off in the pace of private sector job creation - from 3.8 percent in the six months to November compared to the 1.8 percent expansion in the lead-up to May 2019 - "suggests that the private sector is not creating enough jobs at the necessary pace to absorb new entrants into the labour force despite the record tourism numbers".
"The May 2019 Labour Force Survey results would have been encouraging if the struggles of the average Bahamian do not paint a totally different picture from the numbers being touted by the Government. The reality is that the 60 percent increase in the regressive Value Added Tax (VAT) rate continues to take a toll on Bahamian families and businesses," Mrs Komolafe said.
"Bahamians have seen a significant reduction in their purchasing power while their wages remained stagnant. This perilous situation is worsened by the high cost of energy and unreliable power supply under a BPL Board and minister that have been colossal failures.
"Parents and guardians of students that are financially challenged to prepare for the upcoming school year are not impressed by these numbers. The struggle for them is real and not appreciated by a government whose proverbial head is buried in the sand."