Venezuelan nationals

FLASHBACK: Police officer adjusts a barricade outside the Queen’s Park Oval as Venezuelan nationals line up for the registration process in May 2019.

—Photo: JERMAINE CRUICKSHANK

A Venezuelan worker was paid $50 a day to work in a farm in South Trinidad from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

One family was forced to leave their seven-year-old child to look after his siblings aged six and four, so that the parents could go out to work.

One woman, with her three children, was almost evicted from her apartment at 10 p.m. by her landlord, who called police to have her removed, because she did not give in to his sexual advances.

One employer threatened a Venezuelan migrant worker with a gun.

These are the stories of some of the Venezuelan migrants as told by Angie Ramnarine, co-founder/co-ordinator of the La Romaine Migrant Support.

Ramnarine was a guest speaker on Friday night at a panel hosted by The University of the West Indies (The UWI) Trade and Economic Development Unit on the impact of the Venezuelan migrants on the local labour market.

In an expanded interview on Sunday, Ramnarine stated that Venezuelan migrant workers are being exploited by locals. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation.

And a big part of their challenge is the language barrier.

“What we have now is a looming humanitarian crisis. I have been dealing on a daily basis with people who have been evicted from homes because they cannot afford the extortionist rents. These migrants present a readily exploitable source of labour. The levels of exploitation have increased.

“Employers promise work and after one week, Venezuelan workers are not paid. Employers keep migrants working from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. in the night with nothing to eat,” she said.

Registration

In May 2019, the Government embarked on a registration process to record the number of Venezuelan migrants. Some 16,523 migrants were registered.

The registered migrants were allowed to work legally in T&T for one year, and this was extended as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A former Spanish teacher, Ramnarine said she was moved to help the migrants because of their language difficulties.

“I live three houses away from the immigration office in San Fernando, so I was confronted with the lines daily,” she said.

She helped the Venezuelans fill out forms, assisted them in registering and even offered her couch for them to sleep during the process.

After they were registered she was able to assist many in finding employment in areas where they were skilled.

Now, many find their way to her looking for work and assistance.

On Sunday, she had just returned from a trip to Westmoorings after taking two young women to do interviews for domestic work.

She said the sum being offered was small and with the cost of transport, the workers weren’t making much.

Many skilled Venezuelans, she said, were being forced to work in unskilled jobs.

In the past five years, when it comes to jobs, it has been a tumultuous time for the local economy with the closure of Petrotrin and ArcelorMittal which displaced an estimated 10,000. Further, the Covid-19 pandemic means that many locals have been out of work. While the Government has offered financial support in the form of salary relief grants for citizens, the migrant population has no such support.

Ramnarine said 98 per cent of the parents of migrant children have lost their jobs.

“This makes the situation worse for those children as how can they eat, much less learn? They don’t have devices,” she said

She spends her day driving around distributing hampers and food and having food drives to help families.

A Venezuelan workforce

The Government’s decision to register Venezuelan migrants allowed more Venezuelans to work legally in T&T.

At the time, the president of the Trinidad and Tobago Manufacturers’ Association (TTMA), Franka Costelloe had already indicated her organisation’s willingness to employ people who want to work. This could lead to a country with many more bilingual workers, she argued.

Economist Dr Roger Hosein and chief executive of the Arthur Lok Jack Global School of Business and former minister in the Ministry of Finance Mariano Browne, both lamented the lack of planning for the migrant labour.

Hosein is of the view that the number of Venezuelans here is inaccurate and more have penetrated the country’s borders since the registration and even more have not registered.

Browne said the lack of policy on migrants hampers their ability to get proper work.

“They are here. What are we going to do? The reality is that we know we have more than 16,000 migrants. That shows that from a policy perspective we are not prepared to face the on-the-ground practical difficulties of dealing with it. There are Venezuelan doctors, teachers, lawyers, dentists, carpenters, the entire range of the artisan class.”

Instead, Hosein said they are relegated to work in the service sector which does not contribute to the country earning foreign exchange.

Browne is of the view that the workers need to be offered roots, to train and integrate properly in T&T.

Ramnarine explained that some communities have already established a network of support for the migrants, but many are unregistered which poses a problem.

“Many are working in small businesses throughout the country, including supermarkets, and are proving to be highly productive with tremendous work ethic,” she said.

“A lot of work has to be done to allow businesses to hire them. And sadly, there is nothing anyone can do to protect them from exploitation,” she said.

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