By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
More Bahamians are jobless now than when the Minnis administration took office just over two years ago despite the national unemployment rate's reduction to 9.5 percent.
A closer examination of the May 2019 Labour Force Survey data reveals that some 22,635 Bahamians were looking for work this summer but unable to find it - a figure that was some 755 persons higher than the 21,880 classified as unemployed at the time of the May 2017 survey.
While the national unemployment rate has declined due to the total labour force's continued expansion, the size of the jobless workforce backs assertions by several Cabinet ministers that the government has much more work to do in creating a business climate to facilitate faster job creation.
Bernard Evans, the National Congress of Trade Unions (NCTU) president, told Tribune Business that this newspaper's findings showed that "the devil is in the detail" when it comes to analysing data such as the unemployment figures.
While praising the government for a jobless rate that is "trending in the right direction" and "heading downwards", Mr Evans argued that the "quality of work" enjoyed by Bahamians - and especially their ability to secure a "liveable wage" - were key labour market factors not assessed by the unemployment survey.
He said the trade union movement was targeting $450-$460 per week as a "liveable wage", arguing that anything below this level was "insufficient to survive in this country" - especially for a household with children.
Still, on the positive side for the Government, the unemployment rate and figures represent a marked improvement when compared to previous years. The total number of 22,635 unemployed persons remains well below the May 2014 and 2016 peaks of 27,000-plus, and is also less than the 23,190 classified as jobless in May 2018.
Mr Evans, though, suggested that the unemployment rate would likely increase once again come the November Labour Force Survey due to the influx of anywhere between 3,000 to 6,000 high school and college graduates entering the workforce for the first time.
Department of Statistics data shows this pattern has been consistently repeated since 2014, with unemployment levels and rates peaking in November only to fall back down in May as more graduates find work. This occurred in 2018, when the unemployment rate rose from 10.1 percent in May to 10.7 percent in November, with the raw jobless numbers rising from 23,190 to 25,135.
Branville McCartney, the former Democratic National Alliance (DNA) leader, yesterday echoed Mr Evans by arguing that November's jobless numbers will provide "a more realistic" read on how well The Bahamas is making inroads into addressing its decade-long "double digit" unemployment numbers.
Warning that Bahamas Power & Light's (BPL) inability to provide reliable energy supply could impair further job creation, Mr McCartney praised the latest drop in the unemployment rate but agreed that "a lot more work needs to be done in that regard".
"What I would have liked to have seen or heard from the Government is what is the plan for a continued reduction of unemployment," he told Tribune Business. "The bottom line is that people are still suffering, are finding it difficult to put bread on the table and make ends meet."
With almost one in 10 Bahamians looking for work still unable to find it, Mr McCartney said the November 2019 unemployment figures - which will capture the impact of school and college leavers entering the workforce - will provide a more complete picture on whether The Bahamas is meeting the challenge.
Mr Evans, meanwhile, said: "Once the dust has settled we can look at the overall numbers," Mr Evans said. "I have a lot of people asking me for jobs that can't find work. It's the same amount of persons. What you are saying is right on the money. Even though the rate has gone down, there's more people that are out of work and looking for work than two years ago.
"More and more people are entering the world of work looking for quality jobs and quality pay. I have to keep harping on this liveable wage. It's a stretch, many of the kinds of jobs that are available. We don't have high-paying jobs that are available in mass numbers.
"This is a numbers game but the devil is in the details. It is the quality of jobs we're talking about here. We have to look at upward mobility, the 'decent work' programme of the International Labour Organisation, and to have a liveable income. That is what the focus for me ought to be."
Emphasising that he was "not demeaning" any profession or form of work, as having a job was better than being unemployed, Mr Evans added: "The unions are pushing for a liveable wage around $450-$460 per week. That should be the target as anything else is not sufficient to survive in this country.
"The Government needs to hold fast to ensure Bahamians fill [higher-paying] positions and salaries. You can't just say the unemployment rate is going down, going down. I have people who are working now and saying: 'Find me another job'. It's not so much the sweat of their brow; it's the take-home pay; people want to advance.
"People are employed but are looking for another job. I'm not knocking their current job. It's better to have a bird in the hand than two in the bush. It's better to have $250 a week than nothing at all. It's a help, but you're trying to keep your head above water and raise a family, and it's very difficult to do without a liveable wage."
Mr Evans reiterated his concerns over what he described as the shrinking Bahamian middle class that is being continually squeezed, describing this as "detrimental to the economy". He added that lower income workers were earning an ever-reduced share of the economic spoils, while those at the upper end were seeing their share increase.