Associated Press

KINGSTON — Jamaica’s month-old government has launched the first phase of an emergency jobs program that was the centerpiece of its winning election campaign.

The government formed by the People’s National Party said some 700 jobless people will be hired to clear vegetation and trash in the short and medium term along a northern coastal highway in the first phase of the Jamaica Emergency Employment Program.

Governing party officials have not announced how many other jobs will be created in following phases of the initiative. But the party has said its job-creating plan will be developed around agro-processing, manufacturing, communications, small business development and cultural and community development projects.

Human rights group Jamaicans for Justice said it is concerned that the governing party will disproportionately employ its partisans since members of parliament will choose the islanders who work under the initiative.

Historically, most poor Jamaicans have affiliated themselves with a party, relying on political patronage for jobs, houses and land.

“This approach of MPs deciding who gets work on the basis of party affiliation has contributed to the wastage of taxpayers’ money over many decades and divided us along tribal political lines. It is completely unacceptable and must be stopped,” the rights group said in a statement.

Civic groups are also calling on the debt-burdened government to explain how much money will be needed for the jobs initiative, citing the opposition’s disclosure that the initial phase will be funded by a loan the previous government arranged with the Inter-American Development Bank last year.

Opposition officials contend the emergency employment plan will not meaningfully decrease the official 12.8 percent unemployment rate.

During her inaugural speech earlier in January, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller said her administration will use “state resources” to stimulate employment.

The 66-year-old Simpson Miller’s PNP won 42 seats in the 63-seat Parliament in the Dec. 29 national election.

Her party said it would try to renegotiate roughly 25 percent of a troubled $400 million road program financed by China in order to transfer some of the money to the jobs program as a way to kickstart the economy.

But Transport, Works and Housing Minister Omar Davies said in Parliament that $188.5 million has already been committed by the previous government. He said his ministry will “ascertain where it would be possible to make alterations to the scope or to stop them.”

Simpson Miller has called on the private sector to hire at least one qualified, jobless islander under another job-creating initative she dubbed Jamaica Employ. She estimated some 40,000 people could resume working if businesses comply.

Photo: Portia Simpson Miller