Orville Taylor | Labour’s daze in the pandemic
Both sides of the House of Representatives and Senate are from labour parties. Never mind what it might look like from time to time, the two parties are built on the back of the labour movement, and each has a union with voting rights. In fact, the Opposition is doubly lucky because it has leaders from two unions backing it.
Flash back 100 years, and we were still reeling from a global pandemic called the Spanish Flu. At the end of 1919, the International Labour Organization (ILO) was formally established. Just days apart, Jamaica passed its Trade Union Act, finally removing these workers’ organisations from being illegal. Yup! While the virus was walking through the world, Jamaica had a Masters and Servants’ Law that made prospective worker combinations unlawful and the leaders subject to prosecution for conspiracy.
A century later, we have another virus from the same family, spreading faster than a rumour or a dancehall artiste’s tweet. During the century, we passed a National Insurance Act, and scores of others which guarantee vacation and sick leave, compulsory recognition to trade unions, right to be reinstated if unjustifiably dismissed, redundancy payment if the job leaves you, and maternity leave for women. Indeed, some think that paternity leave should not be on the ‘agender’ because only woman experience conception, but, of course, the idea that only women need parental leave is a misconception.
Sadly, we, after a century of labour laws and around 80 years of collective bargaining between unions and employers, with the Ministry of Labour acting as a watchdog and traffic cop, were still very unprepared for the new reality that COVID-19 has presented to us. In fact, the current slate of labour legislation has more holes than the favourite underwear I wore in high school. I hold no brief for the trade union movement, but there are a number of legislative developments which it should long have pressed the Government to enact. None of the current senior leadership can play Pontius Pilate because many of them recall the face- to-face conversations, conference presentations, ILO studies, and more recently, commentaries in this column.
Right now, many of us are faced with pay cuts, layoffs, redundancies, and reassignment. For those of us who are fortunate enough to still have a job, including the privilege that I am still writing a column while the company is trying to bail water to prevent us from being deep in a sinking ship, we count our blessings because times are as hard as an athlete’s calf.
Yet we know that companies face economic storms. No matter how astute the management and how robust the market and motivated the workforce, the primary responsibility of an employer is to maximise profit for the organisation, not to enhance the well-being of workers. Don’t get me wrong. A well-motivated workforce that is engaged and operating under conditions the ILO describes as ‘decent work’ is the best prescription for high levels of productivity, and, thus, profitability for any corporation or institution. However, it is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
Trade unions, on the other hand, were formed to protect workers, advocate, and negotiate with employers and Government for the improvement of terms and conditions of employment.
Most critically, as Marcus Garvey said in the 1920s, they should push Government to pass laws and put in place policies that enhance their welfare.
Employers who have in place pension schemes, for example, do so not because of laws, but because of their sensible business practices, whether or not the stimulus came from the trade unions. Truth is, to date, there is no statutory pension scheme which employers must have. Rather, in the absence of the NIS benefits, many workers have nothing. Oftentimes, it is not that the employers do not wish to pay retirement and other terminal benefits. After all, how do you tell a company that is bankrupt that it must pay its debts to workers when its accounts are as empty as a movie cinema during this pandemic?
For years, I have been begging the trade unions and other organisations that represent workers, to focus more on the terminal benefits for their workers than the five and 10 per cent increases, which dissipate like wind under the wave of devaluation or lesser economic crises than the present. Front-loading benefits for an ageing population is an airy bank account with little real sustained impact. Given that the average life expectancy for Jamaicans was in the 50s in 1966 when the NIS was first established, it takes little brainpower to understand that the beneficiaries will literally outgrow the fund unless there are major changes. The young and healthy must pay into a well-managed national health scheme, from which they will benefit later.
Some countries, via their labour leadership, visionary Government, and astute employers, have in place contributory severance payment and unemployment funds. In one CARICOM country, it is a win-win situation. If employers are incapable or simply don’t pay the redundancy debt to workers, the fund pays them. And if the employers do comply, the fund gives them back a portion of the payment. If our senior unionists, some of whom sat in my classes at the then Trade Union Education Institute years ago, had taken the bait and pushed the Government to implement these funds, the COVID-19 impact would have been far less.
With COVID-19, we now see the importance of passing the Occupational Safety and Health Bill, amending the redundancy laws allowing for more diseases to be listed as those that can be caught on the job. With a different recognition for the role of certain types as now ‘essential services’, will we see an expansion of the category to include security guards and even household workers?
Much work is to be done as we labour at home. Thankfully, most of us are COVID-19 free on Labour Day.
n Dr Orville Taylor is head of the Department of Sociology at The UWI, a radio talk-show host, and author of ‘Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets’. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.