“Bun-wuk” or “Fiyah-d-wuk” are two names for a troubling phenomenon that has recently emerged in certain countries of the 15-nation Caribbean Community (CARICOM). Unless it is nipped in the bud by practical measures to address the growing difficulties associated with youth, it is bound to spread like wildfire with troubling consequences throughout the region, given the predilection for copycat behaviour, particularly among young people.
The term “bun-wuk” was explained to me recently by Dr Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines. His country was about to get its first taste of it. Apparently originating in Trinidad and Tobago, “bun-wuk” translates into “burn work” and it is an event, created by young people, to stop work at 1 pm on Fridays and to revel thereafter throughout the week-end. Subsequently, I learned that the happening had already reached the shores of Barbados under the rubric “Fiyah-d-wuk” — literally “fire work”.
As if the timing of 1 pm on Fridays, when the period for productive work is not yet over, is not bad enough, the promoters of “bun-wuk” on St Vincent were scheduling their event for 1 pm on Wednesday. Should that occur, it would clearly result in many of the employed participants being unfit for work on the following Thursday after an afternoon and evening of partying. Dr Gonsalves was rightly troubled at the cost to his country’s already besieged economy. His concern should be shared by all leaders of CARICOM countries to which this infection will undoubtedly spread and whose economies can ill-afford the wastage that will ensue.
The question with which every Caribbean society has to be anxious is: what motivates this phenomenon, particularly when it occurs among youth who are not only unemployed but also those that are employed? I do not pretend to know the answer. In that regard, the call on July 1 by the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, for CARICOM to establish a commission on youth unemployment is both welcome and timely, particularly if such a commission can provide answers and solutions.
In making the call in his inaugural statement as prime minister and as chair of the Heads of Government Conference, Browne said: “We have a population – mostly young people below the age of 30 – that want to see change; to widen the scope of opportunity and to broaden the space for their aspirations. In many of our countries, unemployment is high – and highest among our young people; bright able-bodied men and women. Just as the young people of my country are eager to end the old ways; to tear down the barriers to their growth; and to march forward, so I suspect are the youth of most of our countries. If nothing else, their restlessness should make us realize that the sensible option for creating such space and widening such scope resides in our interdependence on each other. The alternative is their frustration.
That frustration will result in their rebellion within our borders or their exodus to shores outside our region taking their talents that we urgently need.”
At the time of writing, the conference is not yet over, but it is to be hoped that all heads of government responded positively to Prime Minister Browne’s proposal and agreed to the establishment of the commission on youth. Funding the work of such a commission will add to the burden of already cash-strapped governments — a problem to which the prime minister alluded. Nonetheless, he has identified a major dilemma for all Caribbean countries – one that is amplified by the “bun-wuk” phenomenon in which even employed youth opt not to work.
Delaying action on it might prove to be very costly to the fabric of all Caribbean societies. In this connection, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank should be encouraged to provide grants and technical assistance to facilitate the commission’s work, which, once done should be made public with action taken by governments and others, including trade unions and the private sector.
A recent book entitled The Political Economy of Caribbean Development by a scholar of Caribbean affairs, Matthew Bishop, details the issue of unemployed youth. While the book, published by Palgrave Macmillan, is centrally concerned with shedding light on the political economy of the four territories in the Eastern Caribbean, Bishop, in its section on youth, points out that “the predicament in which the Eastern Caribbean youth currently finds itself is deeply troubling, and is reflected in a lack of educational attainment, exclusion from the employment market, and, to differing extents, fears surrounding drug use and assimilation of North American and consumerist cultural mores”.
Bishop studied four Caribbean islands for purposes of comparison — the French territories of Guadeloupe and Martinique and the independent countries, St Lucia and St Vincent and the Grenadines — and he concluded that the burden of unemployment “falls disproportionately on the young”. With regard to youth unemployment, he observes that “when (very high unemployment) befalls significant numbers of young people, the exclusion that it provokes can be debilitating in a lasting way which differentiates their plight from that of older generations”.
Against this background, the Antigua and Barbuda prime minister’s call for a CARICOM Commission on Youth is opportune. He located his call “to widen the scope of opportunity and to broaden the space” for the aspirations of youth squarely in deeper integration of CARICOM countries by saying: “if we are to go forward, we must move together offering our people a shared space in all our countries, and the scope to grow while contributing to national and regional development”.
As the outgoing chair of CARICOM, Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves, declared: “National solutions are at best partial; and a concerted regional approach is required to improve our economies, create wealth and jobs, and manage much better our fiscal and debt condition, and strengthen the social safety net for those who are disadvantaged”.
The phenomenon of “bun wuk” with all the indiscipline and disregard it entails should also form part of the commission’s work on how the region addresses the problems associated with youth. No CARICOM country can bear the decline in productivity that the phenomenon presents any more than it can allow unemployment of its young people to persist. “Bun wuk” must be arrested but the space and scope for youth employment must also be created in the region as a whole.
(Sir Ronald Sanders is a Consultant and Senior Research Fellow at London University)